Some of you may remember Pontiac.
Years from now, some of us may remember Dodge. What happened to the former is on the verge of happening to the latter, some 45 years later.
And for the same reason.
In 1979, Pontiac announced the last call – for a big-engined Trans-Am. No more 400s – the 6.6 liter V8s that set apart the late-’70s TA as something unlike anything else you could buy at the time, including the Corvette – which had nothing bigger to offer than a 5.7 liter 350 cubic incher.
The word got out quickly. Deposits were made. The cars were sold before they were built. It shall not pass this way again, noted a wistful review of a 1979 Trans-Am with the 400 and the mandatory Hurst-shifted manual transmission.
And here we are, again.
It is the last call for the Dodge Challenger with the 6.2 liter supercharged V8. With any V8. Anno domini 2023 will be it. And then they will be gone.
Better hurry – because it may already be too late.
What It Is
The Challenger is Dodge’s hugely popular reincarnation of its 1970s-era muscle car. It comes only as a hardtop coupe – unlike its main rivals, the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro, which are available as hardtop coupes and convertibles. It also differs from them both in being a physically larger and much heavier car. It also has a huge (vs. tiny) trunk – and back seats that people can realistically sit in.
But the thing that sets it apart most of all is the availability of huge and almost surreally powerful V8 engines, exceeding 1,000 horsepower in the Demon (which comes with a factory-installed parachute system).
You can still get one with a V6, if you prefer. The $31,300 SXT and the $34,400 GT come standard with a 3.6 liter engine that makes considerably more power than the 6.6 liter V8 that powered the last big-engined Trans-Am. But the attention-getter is the $39,940 R/T, which gets upgraded to 5.7 liters and much more power than the ’79 TA’s 400.
If that’s not enough power, you can upgrade to a 6.4 liter V8 that’s almost as big as the old TA’s 400 and more than twice as powerful. The 6.4 Hemi comes in the R/T Scat Pack ($46,400) and this one can be complemented by a Wide Body exterior package that includes hunky fender flares that make this already menacing car look downright sinister.
If you’re hungry for more, Dodge has more to offer. The $70,590 Hellcat adds a supercharger that (literally) boosts the output of a specially modified, 6.2 liter version of the Hemi V8 to 717 horsepower.
But there’s even more than that.
The $78,640 Redeye ups the supercharged V8’s output to 797 horsepower – and we’re still not done. Super Stock and Jailbreak Challengers up the ante to 807 horsepower.
And for the last call, there’s the Demon – with 1,025 horsepower on race gas.
What’s New for 2023
The Challenger goes out with a bang. The car, itself, is largely the same as it has been for the past 15 years – chiefly because there has been no reason to fix what isn’t broken. Demand for Challengers has actually increased over the years because there is nothing else like it – and may never be, again.
Dodge is offering some last-of-the-line packages, including the Black Ghost – which comes standard with the 807 horsepower supercharged V8, special black paint (with “gator skin” graphics on the roof) the Wide Body exterior, a low-profile dual snorkel hood scoop and no exterior markings to indicate it is powered by the 807 horsepower V8. This one is limited to 300 examples, each identified by a serialized “last call” plaque under the hood.
There are also Shakedown and Swinger packages – both limited to 1,000 copies each.
Even with the standard V6, it has more power than most classic muscle cars with V8s.
Glorious plethora of available V8s.
The only one of the latter-day muscle cars that is a practical car – even with the 807 horsepower V8.
What’s Not So Good
Last call. If you haven’t already bought one, you might not be able to.
Under The Hood
The base SXT and GT Challengers come standard with a 3.6 liter V6 that makes 303 horsepower – which is an impressive number. It is power comparable to the output of probably two-thirds of the much larger V8s that came in mass-market muscle cars back in the late ’60s and early 70s – and much more power than the last-call muscle cars of the mid-late ’70s, including the 1979 Trans-Am with the last of the 400 (6.6 liter) V8s.
Unfortunately, you can’t get a manual transmission with the 3.6 V6 (a manual was standard with the last Pontiac 400 in the ’79 Trans-Am). An eight speed automatic is the only transmission with this engine. Even so, it is just as quick to 60 – which it can do in 6.3 seconds – as the ’79 Trans-Am with the 400 and four speed. It also returns 19 MPG in city driving and – wait for it – 30 on the highway. This accounts for the V6 Challenger having a Prius-like highway range of 555 miles (351 in the city).
You were lucky if you got 19 – on the highway – in the ’79 T/A. Or made it even 250 miles – anywhere – on a full tank of gas. Something this writer can personally vouch for, having driven one extensively.
It’s the V8s that are the stars of this show, however – starting with the 375 horsepower 5.7 liter V8 that is the standard powerplant in the R/T. This one is available with a six speed manual transmission or an eight speed automatic. An R/T Challenger can get to 60 in just over five seconds. It isn’t as quick as its V8-powered primary rivals – the Ford Mustang GT and the Camaro SS – chiefly because it’s a larger and much heavier car, with an empty curb weight of 4,157 lbs. vs. 3,730 for the Mustang (which also comes standard with a 460 horsepower 5.0 liter V8) and 3,685 lbs. for the Camaro (which comes standard with a 6.2 liter, 455 horsepower V8).
But there’s an app for that. Or rather, an upgrade.
Dodge offers a 6.4 liter, 485 horsepower version of its Hemi V8 as the centerpiece of the Scat Pack package, which also includes a Line Lock system so you don’t have to power brake the thing to get the tires sticky, heavy-duty cooling, Brembo brakes and more aggressive suspension tuning. The bigger engine – which is the biggest engine you can get in any of the three last call muscle cars – brings the 0-60 time down to just over 4 seconds, achieving performance parity with the Mustang GT and Camaro SS.
It’s available with either the six speed manual or a heavy-duty eight speed automatic.
More is also available – in Hellcat and Redeye iterations of the Challenger. These come with the latter day-equivalent of a dual-quad 426 Street Hemi – for those who remember the original muscle car era’s high tide before first last call – in the form of a supercharged 6.2 liter Hemi that starts at 717 horsepower and ascends from there (in Redeye Hellcats) to 797 horsepower and from there to 807 in the Jail Break, Black Ghost and Super Stock elaborations of the Hellcat.
To capstone the era – which shall not pass this way again – Dodge is also building 3,300 Demons – which get an 880 horsepower version of the supercharged Hemi that puts out 1,025 horsepower on race gas.
These are street legal race cars – and so are the just slightly less ferocious versions of the Hellcat just delineated.
On The Road
The tested Black Ghost – with the 807 horsepower supercharged Hemi – is a car you have to learn before you can drive it.
Oh, it is easy enough to drive. Deceptively so. Anyone – including your just-licensed teenage kid (and your probably shouldn’t-be-licensed mother-in-law) can sit down, push the start button, put the mandatory eight-speed automatic in Drive and . . . drive.
But if they push the pedal down more than about a fourth of the way down – at anything less than 30 miles-per-hour . . . well, they’d better know how to drive. Even with rear contact patches wider than you got with all four tires together back in 1970, there is only so much that can be done to restrain 807 horsepower and more than 700 ft.-lbs. of torque.
You learn to drive with your right foot.
It takes awhile to get a grip on what you’re dealing with here. Do not floor it the first time you drive it. Do not floor it the first time you try passing someone. Not unless you are truly ready.
Even then, it is almost never necessary.
What you’re driving here is a Nextel Cup stock car with AC and a very good stereo – one you’ll probably never listen to, because there are much better things to listen to. The keening wail of the blower, the pitch of which you can modulate with your right foot. The thunderous sound of the V8, itself – which will echo through eternity like the ancestral memory of what an angry Tyrannosaur must have sounded like when it threw back its head and let loose what must have caused everything else within hearing range to run.
This car has the same effect on other cars, when it appears on their sixes. The driver ahead glances up, looks in the rearview and sees menace. All black, a pair of yellow driving lights glowing; the wide and hungry-looking mouth of a predatory fish closing on you, fast. The effect is greatly enhanced by the double-scooped hood and the race car-style hood pins on either side of the scoops.
And in a way, they just did.
The stock car analogy holds the deeper you get into it. Probably 50 percent of the Ghost’s available power is hypothetical until you’re doing at least 50 – and even then, full throttle will skitter the rear end. Once the tires catch up – and can put it all down – you are gone. The speedometer reads 220 – and this seems very believable. After all, it’s what they’re doing at Daytona – and this Dodge has nearly as much power as those cars do.
And they don’t come standard with AC.
As Beldar the Conehead used to say, you will enjoy it.
The Challenger is a very different kind of car than the other two cars it competes with, the Camaro and Mustang. Both of the latter are compacts – each only about 188 inches long, bumper to bumper. The Challenger – which is 197.5 inches long – borders on being full-sized. This is much more in tune with the original-era muscle car concept.
The original models – like the 1964 Pontiac GTO – were based on what were then considered “intermediates” – what we would consider today mid-sized cars. Camaro and Mustang were – originally – considered pony cars; they grew into muscle cars after the the intermediate-sized muscle cars had been run off the reservation.
This Challenger is much more like no-longer-available but once-very-common “personal coupes” – such as the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevy Monte Carlo – and it shares with them the practicality that is lacking as regards Camaro and Mustang. They have rear seats – and trunks – but they are vestigial appendages that are as functionally useful as the appendix.
There is almost literally no backseat legroom in either the Camaro or Mustang – and “headroom” is a bad joke. The Challenger’s back seats offer a serviceable 33.1 inches of legroom and you can sit back there without crouching forward to avoid hitting your head on the roof. The Dodge also has a full-sized car’s trunk – 16.2 cubic feet – vs. the Camaro’s absurd 9.1 cubic foot “trunk.”
But it’s probably the looks that sell this thing as much as the thumb-in-your-eye engine offerings. Of all the three, the Challenger is the truest resurrection of the original. It looks so much like a 1970 Challenger you might think it is one. Restored – or maybe a “time capsule” example someone kept under cover for decades.
It is, truly, a miracle of styling as well as engineering – given all the government obstacles that stood in the way when Dodge brought the Challenger back in ’08 after a 34-year-sleep (the original Challenger and it’s Plymouth sister car, the ‘Cuda – were last made back in 1974, the final year before catalytic converters).
The only evidence of the times is the weight. The Black Ghost weighs an astounding 4,500-plus pounds, which is about as heavy as a full-sized Cadillac sedan from circa 1970.
Also, the price. The Black Ghost is a six figure car, almost. And even the run-of-the-mill Hellcat is a $70k car. On the other hand, what does a pristine ’70 Hemi Challenger go for today? The answer is – a lot more than just shy of six figures – and you can’t just go down to your local Dodge store and order one, either.
If the Challenger is such a winner, why is it going away?
Because it is being pushed away – just the same way that, back in 1979, the last of the big-engined Trans-Ams was pushed away. The difference then vs. now is that – per the above – the Challenger is “clean” and so ought to be unobjectionable. It “emits” very little that causes or worsens pollution.
But politics are a problem.
Engines – no matter how “clean” – are accused of causing or contributing to “climate change,” a political hysteria on par with recent accusations about the dangers presented by “asymptomatic” spreaders. It’s a bogeyman – but no less dangerous (to us) for being unreal.
And so this is the last call – for the Challenger – as well as its four-door sibling, the Charger. They are to be replaced by something with a motor – that eructs the sounds of the engine that will no longer be there.
The Bottom Line
History, unfortunately, repeats.
It shall not pass this way again.
. . .
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