It’s nearly always the same. With every pony car launch in history, the spotlight always focuses on the top end models, leaving the entry-level offering with little in the way of mention. But the last laugh is on vehicles like this, which often bring in the sales numbers to sustain the high-zoot offerings.
|1. The V6-powered SE Challenge starts at just $22,945.
2. Power is decent at 250 horsepower and 250 ft-lbs of torque, but a 4-speed automatic limits performance.
3. A SE Rallye edition adds retro touches like racing stripes, a classic style fuel filler, a rear deck spoiler and special 18-inch wheels.
Let us take the case of the 2009 Dodge Challenger SE. Last year, for the first time since 1974, one could walk into their local neighborhood Dodge dealer, and drive off in a new Challenger. Granted it was the grand standing 425hp SRT-8, but a Challenger nonetheless. Approximately 12 months later, you can now have your choice of not only the SRT-8, but the 5.7-liter V8 engined R/T and the subject of our little review here; the V6 powered SE.
YOU’VE GOT THE LOOK
On the outside, the SE looks every inch a bona-fide pony car. Despite modern advances in aerodynamics and packaging, it’s still got the long hood and short rear deck that came to define the breed. At 197.7-inches long and 75.7-inches wide, it’s quite a bit larger than the original and although it lacks the extreme coke bottle flanks of its ancestor, it still manages to capture much of the same persona.
It’s got a front chin spoiler and the trademark hood with twin scoops. It’s got a pair of side mirrors that were directly inspired by the original. The grille and sunken lights also tell you that this car couldn’t be anything but a Challenger. However, along with the gas cap on the left instead of the right side and the absence of chrome bumpers the paint quality, as well as fit and finish, tell you that this car was conceived from a different source.
When you get inside you find a dark, somber cabin that fuses old school Americana with modern Teutonic efficiency. The curvature of the dash and shape of the seats scream muscle car era, but the instrument cluster, switchgear and massive steering wheel are straight from the current LX Charger/Chrysler 300. Pentastar products have long been criticized for chintzy interiors and although the SE’s cabin is somewhat on the plain side, with plenty of dark plastic, we’ve sat in far worse. Ergonomically it isn’t that bad, though some might quip over the center armrest, which covers the rear most cup holder when in the forward position. Although pony cars aren’t really meant to carry back seat riders for any length of time, the SE’s rear chairs are more comfortable than they look, plus there’s an armrest back there too.
When it comes to pony cars, probably the most important element of all concerns the driveline. And while we might all dream of a tire smoking V8, economic realities mean that often our new sporty car comes with a six. In the Challenger SE’s case, said six is a 3.5-liter of the bent variety. In modern day Chrysler circles it is as familiar as zero percent financing, being the same unit found in most Chargers and Chrysler 300s. It’s an aluminum block unit with cast iron liners and alloy heads. It’s also a dual overhead cam design and boasts a fairly high compression ratio (10:1). It may not seem like a high performance engine, but with 250 horsepower and 250 ft-lbs of torque, it’s rather zesty, considering that maximum twist comes in at 3800 rpm. It’s not over eager like the Hemi V8s, but has enough power in reserve to cope with most modern day driving situations.
If there is one slight drawback, it concerns the transmission bolted to it; the old corporate four-speed unit that harks back to the days of Dodge Intrepids and Chrysler Concords. The shift calibrations are fairly lazy, particularly second and third, which don’t give the engine the chance to really show its true colors, though at highway speeds in fourth, the motor and trans gel quite nicely.
An Autostick manual shift feature helps to improve shift response; though is quite confusing to use compared with some others on the market. Challenger SEs come with a 3.64 rear axle ratio; which results in overall fuel economy of around 19 miles per gallon in town, but a surprisingly decent 26-27 on the highway. At cruising velocity the Challenger SE impresses with a rock solid stability and minimal noise intrusion – a characteristic of many German sedans. Ride quality is also rather Teutonic, but may be a bit on the firm side for some.
A lot of people have criticized the Challenger for it’s handling, but in the grand scheme of things we don’t think this is necessarily fair. With less weight over the front wheels than its more powerful R/T sibling, but essentially the same suspension setup, the SE is quite agile considering its size and weight. Body roll is noticeable but coughing up for the optional 18×7.5-inch alloy wheels (in place of the standard 17x7s) along with their larger 235/55 series tires (in place of 215/65s) definitely improves matters. It’s only when you add in the standard automatic transmission and fairly slow steering that the car feels a bit ungainly, especially through tighter corners. Give it a few wide, sweeping curves and it’s a lot more at home.
With less weight up front, SE models also have brakes that are an inch in diameter smaller at the top end than R/T cars (12.6 versus 13.6), but still, when you squeeze the pedal, even during an honest 60 mph panic stop, the car bleeds off speed decently enough; only a minor sensation of front-end dive is present. It takes multiple times for a hint of brake fade to set in, which means for most everyday driving, the anchors are more than adequate. To further help drivers, Chrysler offers four-wheel anti-lock, traction control electronic stability control all come standard when you order the Popular Equipment package, something most buyers likely will.
In a nutshell, the Challenger SE is one of the few modern, affordably priced cars that are likely to stir emotions. It does what is asked of it and does it well. And while it may lack the ultimate power and charisma of its hotter siblings, the SE still has that personality and panache that has come to define the pony car, that most enduring spirit of American automobiles. With an entry price of $22,945, before options and taxes (but includes such features as a standard eight-way power driver’s seat, AM/FM CD/MP3 stereo system and cruise control), the Challenger SE is competitively positioned in the market place, especially against Ford’s updated Mustang. Factor in the Challenger’s heritage and likely future collectible status (yes, even the SE) and it becomes very hard to think of a reason not to consider one.
Cool styling Attractively priced Decent performance
Size Weight Lazy transmission gearing
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