Recently, I needed to get from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley. Separating me from my destination was over 400 miles of mostly arid, bare desert bifurcated by nothing but the 5. With my normal road-trip cruiser in the shop, I needed to get a rental. I booked a cheap-ass sedan — I am a Midwesterner, and therefore allergic to spending money — but when I arrived at Enterprise, I was offered a free upgrade: How’s a brand new Challenger R/T sound?
A chance to recreate Vanishing Point with an insured rental? I didn’t need to contemplate that for long, and soon I was peeling out with my rumbling Hemi reverberating through the rental garage. I am not necessarily the target market of the Challenger — I tend to own nimble, slow Japanese sports coupes — but I am American and there is something about hearing a V8 idle that awakens our sense of patriotism in a way Francis Scott Key only wished he could. And for a damn rental, this thing was loud. Dodge knows what stirs the soul.
This is a 2021 Challenger R/T, not that the year matters, for it’s been basically the same since its inception. It’s rooted in a 21-year-old mishmash of Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler platforms, with a 5.7 HEMI V8 that makes 375 horsepower and north of 400 ft-lbs of torque plopped in.
Behind the 345 cubic inch V8, there’s an eight-speed TorqueFlite ZF automatic transmission to transmit all that torque to the 245s sitting out back. This all adds up to a massive curb weight of 4,182 pounds, in true muscle car form. The only thing that would specifically date this car for me is the fact that it has Apple CarPlay; every other part of it could be from 1971 or 2021. Even the cluster pays homage to the first-generation Challenger with its ‘70s-style type treatment. And besides, there is a timeless quality to something as straightforward as the Challenger. It has a V8 and it looks mean. What else are you really shopping for here?
Clearly, Dodge’s marketing works. Over the current Challenger’s 13-year lifespan, Dodge has released almost 650,000 of them onto American roadways, in various guises from the base V6 all the way up to the 700-odd HP Hellcat and 800-odd HP Demon trims. Immediately, I got the appeal. Here I was rolling through Hollywood looking like a movie villainess and every single time I’d pull away from a stoplight I had to use every ounce of self control within me to refrain from lighting the tires up. Cars are not imbued with an inherent sense of morality, but Dodge has tried to make the Challenger the car of questionable ethics. There’s the tiny-glass, massive-fender styling, the raucous exhaust noise straight from the factory, and of course the paid and unpaid product-placements in television shows and movies with the most famous antihero characters imaginable all behind the wheel of a Hemi. They all work together to create a cultural impression of the Challenger of sinful self-idolatry, igniting rubber in ritual sacrifice to the driver’s pleasure.
Self indulgence isn’t always a bad thing, though, and an enormous, burbling V8 with an eight-speed transmission and a curb weight that could make a Freightliner feel slender would make for a fantastic cruiser on my Napa run, I assumed. But the Challenger’s fun ran thin about half an hour into the six hour drive. The seats appeared to have been chiseled from solid blocks of granite and by the time I’d finished my 12 hour round trip I was covered in sore spots. The eight-speed transmission, incredibly eager to prove that this is an R/T, downshifted three or four gears every time I wanted to gently accelerate to a new speed limit. Eventually I gave up, and let the car win by just stomping the gas to pass; the accelerator clearly only wanted to be an on/off switch. Anyway, I was driving a blacked out Challenger. It’s not like I had any social expectations to live up to. It was easier to give into the car’s whiplash sensibilities than try and exercise it gently.
Aside from boldly empowering me to be an asshole to all the minivans I was passing, there wasn’t much else it felt competent at. The steering gave the sensation of driving through about four inches of maple syrup. It was simultaneously too full of resistance and too slick, like the power steering was on its way out and the front tires were coated in Crisco. Body roll was admittedly kept minimal by the absolutely rock-hard shocks that were clearly trying their very hardest to make the Challenger feel like it didn’t weigh 200 pounds more than a ‘95 Silverado short cab, at the expense of any comfort that the rock-like seats hadn’t already eliminated. The lack of roll, if anything, made the limits harder to find; the steering wouldn’t communicate and neither would the chassis, so I would find the limit of traction before I’d even realized it, and then simply pray I could catch the lurching behemoth before the rear quarter found the nearest telephone pole.
This all sounds bad, but unfortunately, it gets worse. The CarPlay radio unit was installed by the factory with all the consideration for fit and finish I had the first time I slammed a dual-din into my parents’ Civic. Because the cockpit was so wide and the dash so far forward, the unit was uncomfortable to actually use. When radio technology advances two or three times in the time your car is on the market, it’s eventually just not optimized for ergonomics any longer. Visibility is atrocious, thanks to the greenhouse that appeared to take inspiration from the periscope slits of a Leopard 1A6 tank. The retro-styled gauge cluster was so vague as to be nearly useless, leading me to navigate through the menus to find my actual speed, since “somewhere around 70 or 80 MPH” is not going to be good enough for the CHP. To finally get to the digital speedo readout, I had to get through an array of mostly cluttered HUD features, including a 0-60 timer.
And then the actual purpose of this car made a lot more sense. Dodge knows this car has one trick; it performs it in 5.4 seconds, and Dodge wants you to do it every time you sit behind the wheel. Muscle cars are for pulls. They are not for comfort. They are not for turning. They are for turning every single stoplight into a drag race, other motorists be damned. This car may not be inherently evil but it is certainly inherently selfish, and this feature confirms it. At every single pause in your drive, a little timer will prepare itself for you to set your own personal best, over and over and over again, beseeching you to use this car for what it is truly meant for: accelerating blindly forward.
Despite all of these inherent flaws and the downright antisocial behavior this car embodies, I still found myself flooring it, sucked into its game. I was desperately trying to evoke the joy I felt that a 5.7L V8 should bring out in me, trying to recapture my own Vanishing Point. I couldn’t. The skies were blanketed with soot and the desert was unforgivingly hot and gas was $4.70 a gallon; there was nowhere to escape to, no matter how much I wanted to try and pretend to be a moody delivery-woman outrunning CHP Valiants and beating British sports coupes on two-lane highways. This car is a time capsule from a different era of American motoring, but it’s not a time machine, and I cannot outrun the fires of the present.
The Challenger, too, just like its pilot, struggles to find its place in the current world. It isn’t competing with third-gen Camaros or SN95 Mustangs; those cars have similar mindsets, and it would be a fair fight. But Mustangs finally have independent rear suspension and even turbocharged four-cylinders now, and the Camaro can run a ‘Ring lap in 7:16. They have moved on to the modern era. The Challenger just gets bigger, louder, more aggressive, with ever-more-potent Hemi power plants; if it is just more like it used to be, it will prove its worth and its place.
Because of this fixation, though, the Challenger is the purest representation of America’s obsession with the muscle car era. It is unpleasant to drive and this is crucial to the experience; muscle cars were never fantastic driving machines. This car is preoccupied with its own past in a way that will prevent it from ever being a road tripper, or a tourer, or a sports car, because its entire design ethos is simply unvarnished nostalgia for the ‘70s, with its cheap gas and lack of safety standards. It realizes that bygone years were not better, but it still wholeheartedly embraces them because it yearns for the simpler time when this uncoordinated, dated platform was enough to satisfy. It is not an homage to the original ‘70s Challenger, it is the ‘70s Challenger with new bodywork.
It is also excellent distillation of America. We are ambling forward blindly without any plan. We have no drive or motivation or identity outside of that defined by our recollection of past accomplishments. Our dominant aesthetics and media are reflections of imagined, better, bygone eras that neither actually got better on their own, nor totally receded from our rear view mirror. The past still rules us.
Our single fixed reference point, the North Star of our civilization, is the codified philosophy of a group of long-since-dead exclusively white men who built a legal and economic system predicated on them buying and selling human beings, and we have steadfastly refused to reckon with this for our entire existence. The world requires dramatic, bold action, and we stand with our feet cemented in the middle of the road, unwilling and unable to change, as we stare into the headlights of our own impending destruction. The Challenger, with its unflinching desire to live in its own imagined glory days, is a perfect car for us.
I realized after I returned the R/T to the rental garage that it was this model that was used in the infamous Charlottesville terror attack. A neo-Nazi with a Challenger plowed into a group of anti-racist protesters, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. It makes sense to me, now, that it was a Challenger. It could have been anything - a pickup truck or a Prius are equally deadly in the hands of a murderer - but the Challenger is a perfect representative of the past fascists and racists want to “retvrn” to. They embrace a deeply flawed time where challenges to their social and cultural power were less visible, and they revel in it. The car is not specifically built for white supremacists, of course - despite its flaws, it was certainly an entertaining rental - but it’s representative of an antiquated mindset, stuck in a past that others have worked hard to move beyond, that mirrors our nostalgia-obsessed culture and our unvarnished past so well that it undoubtedly has appeal for the types who miss the days before the Civil Rights Act.
Dodge, for better or worse, has understood our country in a way no other manufacturer has, and they have built a car that reflects it.