SEARS POINT, CA –
Flying into the uphill, left-hand first turn at Infineon Raceway here in the 470-horsepower, limited edition, 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8, I get a visceral sense of the heart and soul of the Dodge brand. With the potent HEMI trying to spin the rear wheels at close to 150 km/h as I climb toward the blind right hand turn two, I ease off the throttle, downshift to third gear and hope I’ve got it aimed right as I crest the hill. With this much power the resultant speed is such that a mistake is going to be costly – and painful!
A combination of common sense and self-preservation means I'm nowhere near this vehicle’s amazing limits. On the way back to the pits after several hot laps, I slow it down considerably to allow the brakes to cool off. During this cool-down lap, I recalled the enthusiasm of the President and Chief Executive officer of Dodge as he showed off this car and its Charger sibling. But just as this SRT8 is more than a normal Challenger, Ralph Gilles is more than a normal corporate big-wig.
In addition to his role as head of the Dodge brand he is a highly successful designer and Senior Vice-President of Design for the entire Chrysler Group PLC. Gilles is the man responsible for the design of the Chrysler 300 which went on to become a massive success. But that creative talent is balanced by a competitive side that not only makes him a good executive to put in charge of a comeback – it makes him a serious racer.
Gilles not only runs the division and heads up the design of the cars – he races them. He has competed in a number of events throughout North America including the Targa Newfoundland in a highly prepared and fast Charger.
Gilles reflects the brand. He is friendly, approachable and completely lacking any airs or attitude. He loves cars and loves to talk about them. There have obviously been attractive offers to take his considerable and varied talents elsewhere, but he has a job to do here.
"There were 2,000-to-3,000 engineers working for three years to get these new vehicles to market," he said, referring to the lineup of eight new Dodge and Chrysler vehicles being introduced for 2011. But he has a special spot in his heart for the Charger."
This is the oldest name in the Dodge stable – 44 years old." he said. "We introduced the current version (which he designed) in1996, but the inspiration for the 2011 Charger comes from the 1968-70 vintage. Look at the scalloped hood and body sides, the flying buttress shape of those C-Pillars. It’s a little retro and a little futuristic," he added, with obvious pride in what his team had done.
Gilles then went on to point out the new cross-hair grill, lack of a mascot on the front-end, coke-bottle styling, a windshield that has been raked back 15% more steeply and taller side windows for 15% more visibility."
That was a major complaint with the old one," he said. The rear features a dramatic side-to-side taillight comprised of 164 LEDs. Every trim level gets alloy wheels and where the all-wheel-drive version of the outgoing model sat very high, this one is hunkered down like the others in the lineup.
Value is the big story with the new Charger. The standard engine is Chrysler’s new 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 with 63% more power (292 hp) and 36% more torque. It is mated with a five-speed automatic.
There are four trim levels. The base SE has $4,800 in additional content, but the $29,995 price is unchanged. Standard equipment at this level includes 17-inch alloy wheels, ABS, electronic stability control, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless go, power windows, locks and driver’s seat.
The interior is all-new and decidedly upscale from past efforts with premium soft touch surfaces and a one-piece instrument panel.
In contrast, the Challenger is relatively unchanged – visually. The suspension has been seriously reworked with new cradles front and rear, new springs, dampers and bushings. The anti-roll bars are larger and the jounce bumpers and links are new. The geometry has been changed at both ends.
The 2011 Challenger has $2,200 in additional content and the price has been dropped $700. It comes in three trim levels starting at $26,995. Here once again the new Pentastar V-6, producing 305 horsepower in this application is big news – that’s 55 more horsepower than the engine it replaces.
While we’re on the topic of power – the SRT8 393 Challenger comes with a special HEMI. That moniker harkens back to the fifties when the 392 HEMI was the scourge of race tracks.
This modern version displaces 6.4-litres and belts out a stout 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. That results in 0-100 in the four second range and quarter mile times in the 12s.
It has a six-speed Tremac manual gearbox, Track Pak suspension and seriously upgraded brakes. It gets a number of trim pieces to set it apart but most importantly it is to be available in very limited numbers. Only 1392 will be built, 392 of those exclusive to Canada. All will have a numbered plaque on the dash.
At $47,500, that supply should last for a minute or two!