Last month's review of the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 may have seemed to some a blinding orgy of Detroit love. Having just moved from Detroit to New York City, I was homesick and was seemingly in need of a shot of Motor City muscle. Still, I offer no apology, because despite the rose-colored glasses, I managed to outline the three glaring issues with the low-volume '08 model year Challenger SRT8 — the outdated interior, the weight and most importantly, the automatic transmission. After spending a day this past week driving the new 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T, SRT8 and SE on the roads of New York City and on the Raceway Park track at Englishtown, NJ, Dodge has fixed at least one-third of the Challenger's problems. That's a good thing for Dodge, because I left the rose-colored glasses back in Detroit.
The 2009 model year takes the Challenger from a low-volume quasi-halo muscle car to a full lineup of three separate trim levels, each with their own engine flavor. The base model SE starts at $21,995, getting a 3.5-liter High Ouput V6 producing 250 HP and an equal number of lb-ft of torque. The top model's still the SRT8, at a starting price of $39,995 and powered by the reliable and huge 6.1-liter Hemi V8 with 425 HP and 420 lb-ft of torque. The middle-of-the-pack R/T hits the showroom floor at a starting price of $29,995 and comes with the 5.7-liter Hemi engine under the hood, producing either 370 HP and 398 lb-ft of torque (when running on premium fuel) or 375 HP and 404 lb-ft of torque, depending on which transmission it's mated to. Wait, what? Multiple transmissions? Yes muscle car fans, it's what two of these models' engines are mated to that'll give Jalopnik readers cause for celebration. Both the R/T and the SRT8 get an optional Tremec T6060 six-speed manual transmission ported from the Dodge Viper. The option's only available on the Hemi-fied R/T and SRT8 versions, so if you want the V6-powered SE, you'll only end up getting a four-speed automatic. Pity. The R/T gets another couple of nice features as part of the $995 "Track Pack" manual package — a Hill-start Assist (which was a very nice feature on some of the hills around our drive through New Jersey), a limited-slip differential (the SRT8 gets the LSD standard) and a tuned exhaust system (SRT8 manual gets this as well) that sounds great in the lower gears. On the road, both the manual Challenger R/T and the Challenger SRT8 felt much more satisfying to drive. Thanks to the auto-only multi-displacement technology, the R/T in both auto-stick and manual transmission models get 16 MPG in the city and 25 MPG on the highway. The 2009 SRT8 gets the same piss-poor 13 MPG city, 19 MPG highway as the 2008 model, but the manual transmission at least gives you an extra mile in the city and an extra three on the highway thanks to that very helpful sixth gear. Setting aside the benefits of the manual on the road, it's the track where it really becomes useful. Although the 2008 SRT8's automatic transmission had a +/- gate auto-stick mode, I really felt it to be too gimmicky for anything other than making a businessman feel like he was the big man at a stoplight. It's certainly not a transmission you'll feel comfortable using anywhere other than a drag strip — at least not if you want to keep your dignity and control safely intact. Which is why we were excited to hit the Englishtown track. Thanks to coning designed to keep drivers like me from becoming a smear on a wall, I didn't even get the car out of second or third gear on the track. Unfortunate for me, yes, but quite fortunately for the Challenger's clutch plates. Still, despite the aggressive coning, the smooth clutch gave me greater confidence, and the pistol-grip shifter available with the "Track Pack" felt more comfortable in my hand than the original 70's it's kinda-sorta modeled after. But, a manual shifter alone doesn't make a track car. The Challenger's still a fatty, as we found when we scrubbed the front tires on the first too-tight turn at speed around the Englishtown course in the R/T and later on in the course with an SRT8. Thanks to the RWD platform, with the nanny system turned all the way off, you're still able to steer with your right foot, just like the 2008 Challenger SRT8 and every other LX-platformed SRT8 and R/T. So which of the three, if any, is the right choice for you? Sorry Spinelli, but it's certainly not the SE. The automatic transmission and low horsepower mated to a heavy RWD car ensure this will compete not for our attention, but with Midwestern hairdressers as the car of choice to replace their V6 Mustang. If you're a muscle car madman needing a 0-to-60 time of five seconds, you'll probably want the SRT8, as Dodge estimates the R/T's time to be somewhere just under six seconds. Sure, you could beat the pants off the SRT8 in a straight-line with a Shelby GT500, but it'll cost you significantly more and I'm not sure it'll take to the track any better. Still, despite the SRT8's bigger engine, we're not sure the 30% higher sticker price justifies the 10% higher horsepower. In our mind, if you want a modern muscle car, the R/T may be right in the sweet spot. In terms of looks, you'll get the same (maybe more with the double-black hood stripes and functional hood scoop of the "Classic" package) double-takes as its stronger brother, the same horrifyingly plastic interior, and you'll do it for a much cheaper sticker price and an almost 20% higher fuel economy rating. Either way, whether you choose an R/T or an SRT8, you'll still get a Challenger with a manual transmission. Like we said, 2009's better than 2008 by at least one-third.