Perhaps the biggest fan of the new 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 came from an unlikely demographic: a shaggy, bearded man with dulled blue eyes under a dirty wool cap, scars and scabs all up and down his gaunt cheeks, pushing a woman wrapped in faded blankets and sitting cross-legged on a wheelchair, holding a cigarette from a hand that was missing a ring finger. Upon seeing the Challenger in front of the hotel, his face broke out into a grin. “Is that the new one?” He pointed with a scraggly hand. “That’s the one with the six-point-one HEMI? Damn! I want the one in the front, you wanna give me that?”
Chrysler was gracious enough to invite me and a group of automotive bloggers down to San Francisco, in order to demonstrate that their 2011 Dodge lineup is improved enough to make us forget about the 2010 Dodge lineup. Among these were the new Charger, the Journey, the Durango, and perhaps most interesting, an Inaugural Edition of the Challenger SRT8, with a new 6.4-liter 392 HEMI under its blue-striped hood—good for 470 horsepower, a 45-horse increase over last year’s engine.
San Francisco is a beautiful, vibrant, perpetually sunny city, where you can walk down Fisherman’s Wharf and suddenly witness a marching band break out into a cover of “The Final Countdown” while a Christmas tree mascot skanks wildly in front of the impromptu audience. San Francisco also has a large population of homeless people, some of whom are keen gearheads. We set out from the Clift Hotel at dawn, six cars in total cutting across 3 lanes of traffic. Our convoy led up Russian Hill and towards the 101, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a beautiful, cloudless morning, as if the weather had been carefully groomed by a PR team itself. Each car had a notebook detailing the journey with mile markers, stops and perfectly timed scenic overlooks. And by the end of the day, we would be so hopelessly lost in Sonoma and the rugged hills northwest of Frisco we may as well have thrown it out the window.
We didn’t, however, because littering in California comes with a $500 fine.
I rode shotgun while Jen Dunnaway from CarDomain drove. The Challenger was a teensy bit more powerful than her daily driver, a lovingly-restored 1982 Ford Escort GT coupe, but probably not as loud as her brown 1984 Escort diesel wagon. The convoy wound its way up the hills of Highway 1, dense forests giving way to low-cropped wild grasses, past swaying grape vines and walls of trees. The Charger and Challenger plodded around vomit-inducing hairpins with the occasional burst of wheelspin, but little drama. Even the docile Journey and zaftig Durango behaved themselves.
On the dizzying journey to the bottom of the coast, we pulled over. We could see the road winding alongside underneath the cliffs. The town of Stintson Beach stretched out before us. Clearly the California Department of Transportation had carefully engineered this spot to rake in maximum tourist dollar potential. We agreed to meet up at noon at Manzanita, a town chosen solely on account of how fun its name is to say—plenty of time to form driving impressions and high-tail it through the Muir Woods. Through the shuffle of musical chairs, I ended up riding shotgun with Jen in the Challenger.
She clearly wasted no time in establishing what sort of ride this would be, pulling into traffic the same way anybody would in a 400+ horsepower RWD coupe—foot planted to the floor, tires squealing sideways for mercy. The Durango was ahead of us, and inside were Patrick, a fellow blogger with a long goatee, and Ken, a rep from Chrysler—a kindly, barrel-chested man who spoke like he was chewing a bag of rocks. The Durango wasted little time in pulling ahead of the group, its 5.7-liter HEMI V8 rumbling as it attempted to get away from us and the rest of the group.
The roads here were less obscured by trees and corners, and there was plenty of room to stretch the cars’ legs. We could see a long straightaway in a clearing, the sun beaming down on 3 or 4 stragglers in front of us and a single pair of headlights off in the oncoming lane. “You gonna do it? You gonna go for it?” I asked, perhaps rhetorically. She responded by slamming the throttle down.
Past 4500RPM or so, the car takes on a completely different character: what was once a low, content burble takes on a banshee wail, shrieking and screaming as your brain struggles to process everything coming through the window. Like an animal ready to pounce, the Challenger squats on its rear legs, snarling. Point it in the right direction, and watch it devour everything in its path—straights, hills, corner exits, and dawdling tourists in Kia minivans, of which we blew past three.
We had lost the chase car. In fact, we were in the lead, the Durango a few cars behind us, stuck behind the dawdlers, and there was nothing but open road ahead of us. The Journey and Charger had fallen out of sight.
“Do you see them?” Jen asked.
“Eh,” I said, “they’re probably behind us somewhere.”
Behind us in the rearview mirror, we saw the Durango roar up for a pass, slotting itself in the ever-widening gap between us and the traffic. A hill loomed in front of us, and the road cut diagonally across its apex. Squeezing the throttle, Jen showed no sign of letting up; we nearly launched into the opposite lane, the V8 letting go for just one second. Then, without any warning, she started slowing down. “Fire drill, fire drill!” she yelled, deftly unbuckling her seat belt with one hand, easing the car into the shoulder with the other. She had the door open and a foot out the door before I realized what she was up to: it was my turn to drive, and she was handing me the reins.
470 horsepower is nothing to sneer at. 470 horsepower is life-changing on a scale Deepak Chopra couldn’t possibly fathom. If North Korea had 470 horsepower, we’d have reduced Pyongyang to rubble by lunchtime. And 470 horsepower is exactly what the upgraded HEMI engine puts out for 2011—in a car most assume to be a squirrelly, torque-hungry, neck-shattering man-killer.
Whatever. I nestled into the cheesy blue and white leather driver’s seat, “392” emblazoned on the seatbacks like one of those mid-90s Starter jackets, then pulled back onto the road and squeezed the throttle…
What’s it like to drive 470 horses, the most powerful car I had driven yet? What’s it like for a C-130 Hercules pilot to drop a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast? How does it feel to grab a raging crocodile by the jaws? Yeah, kinda like that, I thought, as I watched the nose rise up with each stab of the throttle. It was something I couldn’t resist not doing, like a child who’s just found a new way to annoy his parents. Once again the banshee roar, emanating from in front of the plastic dashboard, out there. But this time I was controlling it, and you can bet it’s as big of a difference as watching a war movie versus being in one.
Despite the prodigious two-ton curb weight, the Challenger never felt imposing like the land yachts of yore that it so stylistically mimics. Sure, there was body roll despite the revised suspension, but somehow, the oft-criticized weight never felt imposing. All that power will make a man forget such trivialities. Sending it into corners felt less suicidal than supposedly believed in such a car—the Brembo brakes ensured our self-preservation from an encounter with timberwood, reining in my reckless demeanor across yet another set of intoxicating switchbacks…
“Weren’t we supposed to be back by noon?” I asked, always the responsible one (hardly). Jen flipped through the map book: none of the mile markers were showing up, presumably because this road didn’t have any. We were leading the Durango in the only car that didn’t have satellite navigation. It was the blind following the torque-bound.
Halfway passing through Port Reyes Station, I pulled the Challenger onto an empty main street, next to a dark green VW Beetle Wolfsburg Edition convertible that could almost fit in the trunk of our car. The Durango parked next to us.
“Hey,” we shouted, “You know where we’re going?”
“No idea!” Pat replied.
“I don’t know either,” Ken said. “The guys at Chrysler, the people who organized this, they didn’t tell me anything.”
They waved down a passing police officer. “Ho boy, you’re way north of here,” he said, with a look that signified bemusement and genuine pity. “Get back on the 1 and head south, that’ll take you near there. Anywhere else, you’ll have to ask again.”
And then, we got a text: meet us at the Golden Gate Bridge overlook. “They must have turned off,” Ken grumbled as he climbed back into the Durango. This time, they led us.
We followed the Durango through stop-and-go small-town traffic hell for what seemed like eternity (but was actually an hour). Finally getting back on the 1, we had our first moment of clarity, knowing exactly where we were going, on roads that were immediately familiar. And naturally, we missed the exit for the observation point.
“Can’t they come and meet us down here?” Jen asked when we parked in front of the Durango, on the side of the road in front of the Golden Gate bridge. “Hold on,” Pat said, then ran back to the Durango and threw it in reverse.
It was a great opportunity to experience the Challenger’s infamous pillbox visibility. We backed up for about 200 feet towards the exit we had passed, stopping only to avoid colliding with cars leaving the on-ramp. “This is stupid, this is stupid,” Jen muttered as the Durango sped backwards behind us. But it was either that or to keep going across the bridge, twice…Sufficient distance reached, we popped it forward, up the ramp, around a corner, and the city, bridge, and bay spread out behind the cliff.
We now had some time to catch our breaths, take some photos, enjoy the view, and forget how we had effectively thrown a wrench into the Chrysler people’s meticulously-crafted plans by hijacked the press drive for an extra two hours of blatant hoonage. So, then, onto the Challenger.
It is a cartoony, wide-eyed bruiser, the front with a heavy brow and the rest with a shape like the mouse of an Apple II. A Cub Scout with a hacksaw could have carved the shape, while a Cub Scout with a rusty Swiss Army Knife probably whittled the shape and layout of the interior—which would explain a lot. The new suspension was sharper, but Highway 1 hadn’t exactly cried uncle. A proper comparison test against the Mustang, the upcoming Camaro Z28, and maybe, say, John Force’s NHRA Castrol GTX High Mileage Funny Car, would really get down into the gratuitous details, as soon as the Hooniverse Brain Trust moves the heavens and the Earth.
But even that would have been too academic. We both agreed that, if we owned one of these cars, we could never tire of listening to that banshee wail, the thrill of headbutting the road surface with every dig of the pedal. “I don’t own anything that was made in the last 20 years,” Jen said, “but if I was to buy something from this decade, this would probably come close.” I doubt many—including the bedraggled man from this morning—will find fault with that.
Thanks to New Media Strategies and Chrysler for organizing the trip and putting up with our merry band of anarchists.