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Cruisin’ USA – Pacific Coast Highway in a 2014 Dodge Challenger R/T

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As relayed in the two podcasts recently, I spent nearly two weeks in California. The flights had been booked late enough to not make my spring months unbearable with excitement, and with my passport freshly renewed I contacted the head-Hoon, Jeff about whether there was in any way an alternative to the rental Aveo route. Jeff replied that he would see what he could do, and later emailed me to tell there were two press vehicles booked for the length of my trip, with a switchover in the middle.

After enduring a 12-hour layover in Copenhagen and a delayed 10-hour flight in a makeshift B777 200ER, we landed at LAX, absolutely tired to the extreme. With what strength we had left, we made it through the security checks and waiting lines, and were glad to see my friend, Nik, waiting for us at the arrival hall. I climbed into his 2004 Mazda Miata, and he drove us to the garage where the first car waited. For the entirety of the travel ordeal, the only redeeming thing in my mind had been this very car.

Walking to the counter, I caught a glimpse of it. In the corner sat the 2014 Dodge Challenger R/T Blacktop in Granite Crystal. Suddenly all my tiredness was gone.

The valet smiled and told me to have fun with it, as I tip-toed the 6-spd Challenger out of the garage, into the dark Westchester night. I picked up my girlfriend from the airport, fit all the luggage in the Dodge’s trunk and followed my friend in his Miata to Culver City. Apparently the Challenger looks super-aggressive viewed from the rear view mirror of a small Mazda roadster.

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This is not really a review of the most common kind, where I would comment on the Challenger as compared to its rivals, or something I would be used to driving. Instead, the Challenger acted as a tool for me, to review the United States of America, at least as seen by a first-time California visitor.

After puttering around town in the Dodge for a few days, visiting beaches, getting to see the Nakatomi building on The Avenue of the Stars, we packed a lighter version of our belongings in the Challenger and headed north on the CA-1, Pacific Coast Highway, early on Wednesday morning. Traffic wasn’t too bad, as we dodged the worst of morning crawling and only some lane repairs near Santa Monica acted as a bottleneck. The coastal route was soon ahead of us.

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Fuel for vehicle and driver. For a prison town, I enjoyed Lompoc surprisingly much.

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San Simeon was an early-ish stop for us, with some otter postcards bought from a roadside shop.

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What to say about PCH that everyone with a steering wheel or a helmet hasn’t already said? Perhaps that there’s so much of it, like an American-sized breakfast compared to a small European cup of coffee. I hadn’t visioned there would be a fantastic section after another, I hadn’t thought Big Sur would lay so far ahead with such fantastic roads on the way there, not to mention after it. I hadn’t thought of sea elephants, either, but there they lay at Piedras Blancas. But the beast under my command was certainly more well-behaved, with the pistol grip shifter giving me control of the cogs. Still, there was newfangled tech, like the keyless go system that was a first for me.

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With the satellite radio playing ’80s hits (’80s on 8!), I sometimes turned it off just to enjoy the rumble and roar of the 5.7-litre, 375-horsepower VVT HEMI engine. The Challenger was large, the view from the bucket seats akin to a pillbox due to the low seating position and thick pillars, but that just added to the experience. The road turned inlands for some bits, as we selected 101 for some sections to speed the journey, even if the drive all in all took fourteen hours with stops. Like the fueling in Lompoc, which gave us a chance to visit a local diner, an experience I was eager to get during my drive, or the scenic cup of coffee at Gorda. We even set foot inside a Chili’s in Monterey’s Seaside, as it was the most convenient thing to do.

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The Canadian-built American car with a Mexican-made engine and German platform genetics turned out to be solidly built, with no creaks or rattles that would’ve appeared out of place on such a fresh car. The only thing to cause any concern was a driveline thunk when releasing the clutch on smaller gears, but I don’t know if that’s par for the course. The two thousand miles accumulated on the clock could’ve been hard journo miles, too. In any case, I positively babied the car, managing a very reasonable 23,5 MPG on my thousand-mile jaunt to SF and back. But then again, there wasn’t much to contest that, as the drive from Big Sur on, past Monterey was gentle.

Soon, the sun set and the drive to Half Moon Bay was done in moonlight. We got to SF late at night, having booked a motel near the sketchier parts of Geary St. The next day the Challenger rested in the motel garage, as we did a walking tour of the city, trying to see as much during one day as possible. My arms were soon pinkish from the sun, my neck sore from gawking at the skyscrapers near the Transamerica Pyramid. It’s wonderful city, and definitely merits a return sometime in the future, as we were only able to skim the surface. I recommend visiting the Ferry Market, the place where I had my first oysters. Mm-m.

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We headed back to LA on Friday, the last day of the Challenger tenure, and drove via the fog-covered Golden Gate on our way around the Bay Area. I-5 soon beckoned, and despite what everyone had told me, I didn’t find it boring at all: for me, it was Flavor Country. All the trucker movies I had watched had me ogling at the rigs passing each other on the highway, and blasting past left-lane hoggers and slowmobiles was a treat in the menacing Dodge. I paid attention to my surroundings, however, and kept my speeds sensible enough to avoid a visit from the law enforcement. Not everyone was as lucky, as a black BMW’s driver testified. He had passed me some time earlier and vanished in the distance, only to be held back by a police cruiser snatching him from the comfort of a truck stop ramp.

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I personally ran out of luck after the Grapevine. As we made it near LA, the traffic slowed down, as it was afternoon by now. And with precious little LA experience, I had made the choice to rely on the navigation system, which then pulled the rug from underneath me. Constantly changing its mind with the traffic information it received (New shit has come to light!), it instructed us to leave the freeway, then chose Laurel Canyon, then wanted us to crawl through Hollywood, Central City, Alameda, which took two hours until we had Long Beach in our sights. By the time we swapped vehicles and made it into the nearest In’N’Out, the root beer was well deserved.

Consulting more well-travelled drivers afterwards, forcing myself through 405 would’ve gotten me to the destination far easier, even if it would’ve been easily just as miserable. Then again, driving the 405 extremely slowly wouldn’t have been as bumpy as doing the recommended speed. The entire freeway is ridiculously bouncy.

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There was a sadness in the air as I handed the Challenger over. I’ve bonded with loaners and rentals over the times I’ve had them at my disposal, but getting a dark grey, black-striped muscle car to feel my own for a little while was the kind of over-the-top experience I had hoped for deep within. And the Challenger had felt like the ideal specimen: with the Blacktop package, it looked especially good, and I grew to prefer the 2014 frown to the 2015 smile. Inside, the dashboard was a far simpler affair than what the 2015 car gets, with no swoops to speak of and decor kept to a bare minimum. It was certainly closer to a 300C than I had been for years.

But viewed in its native country, against the backdrop of mountain roads, the Challenger is at its best. Specced to the style it came, the sticker ran to 36k and change: less than 27 000 euros. That will get you a smallish hot hatch in Europe, and importing the Challenger here would burden it with a price tag near six figures in euro money. While I would love to have one here, having it between Finnish plates would make it unbearably expensive. Besides, it’s easier to get me to California than bring California here.

[Disclaimer: Dodge so wanted me to drive the Challenger for a few days, that they gave me one and a tank of gas. In the cupholders were two bottles of Sparkletts water, too. In return, I ran the Challenger’s tank bone dry. Sorry.]

  • America! F*** Yeah!

    Glad the trip was a success.

  • Are there awesome coastal roads in the Scandanavian countries? I would think with the amount of coast up there and the awesome fjords, there would be some cool roads. Northern driving valhalla?

    • There probably are. However, coastal Finland is quite flat indeed.

    • dean bigglesworth

      Coastal Norway, certainly. Finland not so much. Beautiful scenery sure, but not much you could call enjoyable roads. Flat on the west coast, and slightly less flat near the Russian border but still not anything you could exciting.

  • It's a nice enough color, but calling a metallic grey "Granite Crystal" just makes my efforts as a geology instructor that much more difficult.

    • Vairship

      Just start singing "Like a rock…" to REALLY confuse people!

  • dean bigglesworth

    I'm going to do a similar trip someday, only it would involve going coast-to-coast and back again. A Challenger RT(or SS camaro or Mustang GT) was about 3000USD/month from Hertz last time I checked.

    • Alex (Viper007Bond)

      Ouch, that's expensive! Probably cheaper to buy and sell one and find a local to register and insure it for you or something.

      • dean bigglesworth

        100usd/day is expensive sure but not outrageous, over here in northern Europe that would get you the cheapest miserable econobox available. I doubt I could buy a decent muscle car for 3000$.. A small hatchback is something like a fifth of that price if you want to do it cheaply.

  • wunno sev

    i don't like the challenger as a car, and until i read this article i didn't even like the idea of it.

    but reading about driving america from a european perspective, the challenger seems like the perfect car for the trip. big, powerful, unabashedly american.

    i still don't like it, but now i'm glad it exists, so that you could have this experience. and i think if i was a millionaire living in europe, i'd want to own one.

    • Exactly. It just wouldn't have been the same in an European car.

  • JayP2112

    I've been virtually shopping for a Challenger for a about half a year now. I'll get serious in a few months when the Mustang and credit cards are paid off. The Mustang is getting loud and harsh. A white Challenger RT 6 speed would make a great road trip car.

    It isn't a sports car but doesn't pretend to be one. Big engine, big coupe. Makes the right noises.

    • As an enthusiast, the Challenger is unacceptable on paper compared to any other option for what you're trying to accomplish.

      But after spending time in even a base level one, I have to admit they're really likable. Forgive the comparison, but it's like the chunky girl on the dance floor who doesn't give a shit.

      • ptschett

        Depends what you want to accomplish, too. I grew up idolizing late-'60's intermediate musclecars (4-4-2, GTO, etc.), had a '73 Cougar in high school (last year that model was based on the "Clydesdale" late-1st-gen Mustang) and was supplanting an MN12 Thunderbird the last time I was car-shopping. With the Ford car background I was leaning Mustang, then I drove the Mustang & Challenger and decided the Challenger R/T was my next car.

        I'll grant that a 5.0 Mustang theoretically would trip the timing lights of a 1/4 mile dragstrip about 10 car lengths ahead of my Challenger, but without having drag-racing plans it doesn't matter much to me. And the Challenger's still quick enough that WOT down an interstate on-ramp results in speeds well in excess of any US speed limit at the merge point (given on-ramps typical for my part of the country.)

  • Preludacris

    I'd hate to own one, but I'd love to take one on a nice long road trip.

  • dukeisduke

    It looks good, but the stripes hanging down on the rear bumper look kinda goofy, like buck teeth.

  • dukeisduke

    And oh, I hope you enjoyed your time here, Antti.

    • I really did. I want to go back.

  • Jonathan

    Cool write up. Glad you you enjoyed the experience. The challenger is a cool ride. Real Americana …..

    How was your eperience driving other American vehicles. I look forward to further installments and let's see more photos of you and your. Girlfriend too,

    Great photos in this article as well.

    Thanks again and glad you enjoyed yourself ….

  • Rover1

    Isn't the Challenger based on a platform from the Daimler Benz days at Chrysler? Isn't it an E-Class underneath ( except the engine)?

    • To my understanding it is, and the recent rear suspension refresh should have brought it closer handling-wise, too.

  • American Guest

    I love reading reviews of American-centric muscle cars from our open minded, objective friends, cousins, brothers & sisters in Europe & all parts Oceania.

    It reminds me that I should never take Jeremy Clarkson – whom I enjoy, by the way – too literally, seriously or as representative of the European mindset, as I sometimes find myself doing.

    Thanks for the review! –

    from a Mazda RX-8 driving, completely moderate (politically & socially) American!