Piloting the 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 Special Edition in heavy traffic on a damp road, I began to list all the other cars I would rather be driving at that moment. The Challenger looks good and justifies its retro-muscle-car status with a massive engine, but wouldn't be my first choice for making a quick trip out to the grocery store.
The 392 badges on the fenders make a historical reference to an earlier version of Dodge's Hemi engine and recall a time when we used cubic inches instead of metric liters to measure engine displacement. However, those badges are accurate for the Challenger, as its 6.4-liter V-8 equals 392 cubic inches in the cylinders.
The Challenger is also a bit retro in its cabin electronics, but not in a good way. Equipped with navigation, a hands-free phone system, and digital audio sources, the head unit's quirks don't have the nostalgic connotations of the Challenger's 1970s profile.
Among the retro muscle cars, I've always preferred the design of the Challenger over the Camaro and the Mustang. The Camaro design looks like a parody of itself, and Mustangs are as common as Camrys. In SRT8 392 form, the Challenger gets the aforementioned badges on the front fenders and wide racing stripes down the middle. Standard 20-inch wheels with red Brembo brakes peeking through the spokes complete the look.
The high rear haunches and beltline destroy rear visibility, and instead of a rearview camera, the Challenger comes with only sonar parking sensors. Parking-lot maneuvers involve a lot of guesswork.
Make some noise
The star of the 392 edition of the Challenger is the engine, a large-displacement V-8 with pushrods for valve control. Given its lack of efficiency technologies, such as variable valve timing or cylinder deactivation, I would not have been surprised to see a carburetor perched between the cylinder banks.
For the enjoyment of passengers, this engine palpably rumbles at idle and roars under acceleration, turning the rear wheels with 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. Although that's big output for the Challenger, owners will have to contend with Ford-loving friends boasting of the Shelby's 662 horsepower, and Chevy aficionados citing the Camaro ZL1's 580 horsepower, the only defense being, "Well, yeah, cheating with forced induction."
Controlling all that power with the standard six-speed manual transmission took a bit of care. Every stop sign and traffic light required careful modulation of the gas pedal, lest too much throttle put the Challenger into a spin or too little result in an embarrassing stall. The pistol grip shifter, with its stiff gate, also gave my right arm a workout. In traffic, this was not fun.
The throttle tuning made me very aware of the Challenger's power output, as the slightest touch of the gas pedal caused an immediate reaction. It was an interesting contrast to the 420-horsepower Audi S7 I drove the previous week, which was much less touchy.
With no tech put toward efficiency, the Challenger SRT8 392 gets saddled with a gas-guzzler tax, its EPA ratings at a dismal 14 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. I managed to pull 17.3 mpg out of it, with a bias toward freeway miles.
On an open road, driving becomes easier. During freeway driving, the wide power band made it easy to cover many miles with little shifting. In sixth gear, the tachometer needle settled in around 1,500rpm at 65 mph.
Driving down a twisty mountain track, I got a sense of the Challenger's handling. Despite the low-tech engine, Dodge fits the car with an adaptive suspension, which can be put in Sport or Race modes at the touch of a button. I did not feel a huge difference between Sport and the normal suspension setting, except for being bounced around a bit more when the road got a little rough.
Unfortunately, the adaptive suspension did not save the car from understeer. Through turn after turn, the Challenger showed a tendency to want to go straight as I turned the wheel. The hydraulic power-steering system also felt a little vague heading into the turns.
A standard limited-slip differential saved the Challenger's handling but required careful power management. When I let it run through a turn on momentum, the understeer was prominent, but maintaining power at the rear wheels let the differential help the back end come around nicely.
The Challenger rewarded good driving technique but had little forgiveness for mistakes.