What better way is there to explore some of the most iconic locations in the United States than from behind the wheel of a big, V8 pony car? My friend Jason and I reserved a car from Enterprise’s American Muscle category, which meant we would get either a Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro. Our steed ending up being a Challenger R/T. But while the Challenger rivals the Mustang and Camaro, it’s so vastly different in character to those two that it might as well exist in an entirely different segment.
In theory, the three seem similar. Each of them have two doors, are manufactured in North America, have an optional V8 engine, and possess uniquely aggressive, American styling. The Dodge diverges, however. There’s an all-wheel-drive, V6-powered variant but no available turbocharged four-cylinder engine. And the Challenger is almost 10 inches longer and, in rear-wheel-drive spec, weighs at least 200 pounds more than a Mustang or Camaro, betraying its LX sedan platform origins.
Those origins also endow it with a relatively spacious 16.2 cubic foot trunk – which easily accommodated three suitcases – as well as a rear seat that is actually habitable by humans. A 5’11” person can sit behind a 5’11’’ driver comfortably with sufficient head and leg room. Unfortunately, there’s a giant blind spot at the C-pillar which hampers visibility. Blind spot monitoring is part of an option package, as are adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning with active braking. R/Ts come standard with automatic headlights, keyless ignition and entry, a six-way power adjustable driver seat, limited-slip differential and an active sport exhaust. Our tester also had the optional reversing camera and 8.4-inch touch screen.
The driver and front passenger also enjoy plenty of space although storage is scarce – there isn’t even a proper cell phone holder. Interior quality far surpasses that of the rival Mustang with pleasant soft-touch plastics on the top half of the dash and the requisite harder plastics for the lower half. Soft-touch stitched material actually continues along the center console, which is a nice touch. The cloth seats in our car weren’t aggressively bolstered and proved comfortable over long distances, while the chunky T-bar shifter fell nicely to hand.
uConnect is held up as one of the superior infotainment systems on the market in terms of navigability and UX design. Mind you, that doesn’t stop it from having some irksome qualities. It inexplicably forbade us from keeping two devices connected at the same time, meaning we had to delete and re-add devices numerous times. Less annoying but still a bugbear is the radio displaying song titles one word at a time like the world’s slowest chyron. At least there’s Android Auto functionality with the 8.4-inch screen, handy for when you don’t have navigation installed and you want to use Google Maps. Unfortunately, Google’s directions played at a whisper-quiet volume.
The 7-inch digital display in the gauge cluster will also show your turn-by-turn directions, handy for when you’re navigating to new places, which we mostly were. Our five-day road trip took us from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, up to Yosemite National Park, then finally back down to Los Angeles via Sequoia National Park. The Challenger proved well-suited to this long-distance travel, loping along highways and doing a commendable job of smoothing out bumps and ruts while blowing strong gusts of cold air into the cabin. If there was any buyer demand, it’s not hard to imagine a plusher trimmed Chrysler variant of the Challenger resurrecting the American personal luxury coupe.
At first we were chagrined by the Challenger’s prodigious thirst, especially considering it has a cylinder deactivation system and an eight-speed automatic. Producing 372 hp and 400 ft-lbs and displacing 5.7 liters, one can’t expect this big Dodge to be a hypermiler’s dream. With an 18.5 gallon fuel tank and the trip computer reading a mediocre 20 mpg after hours of highway driving, we found ourselves concerned with just how much we were going to be spending to keep the Challenger fuelled up. But this was early in the trip when we were really putting it through the paces.
On the way to Vegas, we took a detour to the Salton Sea. For those of you unfamiliar with this fascinating locale, it’s an example of a endorheic rift lake, formed when a swollen Colorado River broke its banks and water went gushing into the Salton Sink, a dry basin that hadn’t held water since the Ice Age. A once thriving holiday destination, being a salt lake in the middle of the desert, the Salton Sea’s salad days eventually came to an end when the lake – lacking any natural drainage – became heavily polluted by agricultural runoff and fish started dying en masse.
Tourist-oriented shops and marinas in towns like Desert Shores and Salton City were abandoned once the rot had literally set in. There are still a handful of these standing but I was pleasantly surprised to see rather pleasant communities around this anomalous lake. Also a delightful surprise was the lack of a stench emanating from the lake. I wouldn’t go bathing in it just yet but the state of California seems to be encouraging people to visit the area once again. It is a beautiful lake that seems to stretch over to the horizon and it’s surrounded on its northwestern shore by palm plantations that resemble lush oases.
Our gas mileage was particularly hampered by another beautiful area in this part of the state: Box Canyon. It hadn’t been on our itinerary but Google Maps directed us through there on the way to Las Vegas. We were awestruck by the rock formations and the smooth, sweeping roads and the lack of traffic which were conducive to traveling at autobahn speeds. That’s not an admission of anything…
With a 4200 pound curb weight and a body longer than that of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, you might think canyon carving isn’t in the Challenger’s repertoire. That’s not entirely true. If you push the Challenger into some tight corners, it will hold on admirably and with relatively little body roll. However, you feel all 4200 pounds and 197.7 inches of this coupe. A Mustang or Camaro feels lithe, nimble and much more like a sports car. The Challenger feels more like a full-size sedan, right down to the steering which is lighter than that of a Mustang.
Activating sport mode tweaks the traction control, transmission and the electrically-assisted power steering. It also switches the active exhaust’s sound from a rumble to a roar. The Challenger’s Hemi V8 is certainly sonorous but sport mode is almost uncomfortably loud. But while sport mode makes the Challenger more bellicose, the R/T still doesn’t push you back in your seat. The best 0-60 time we managed was 5.8 seconds, rather disappointing when a Mustang GT or Camaro SS can hit 60 mph in 4 seconds.
Mind you, the pony car horsepower wars are raging and the Challenger R/T is down almost 90 horsepower from those rivals; the Camaro also shades it in torque by 55 pound-feet and the Mustang GT by 20. R/T models with the manual manage an extra 3 hp and 10 ft-lbs over the auto. If you want to match the GT and SS in performance, you’ll have to skip past the $33,995 R/T and opt for the R/T Scat Pack, the cheapest Challenger with the 485-hp 392 cubic-inch (6.4) Hemi. Doing so means you’ll pay $2k more than you would for a Camaro SS and $4k more than a Mustang GT.
Having both visited the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before, Jason and I skipped those destinations and instead drove to Valley of Fire State Park, just outside of Las Vegas. With its beautiful red rocks and golden sands, it’s a captivating attraction.
As we left Las Vegas and travelled further north, the Challenger started getting better gas mileage and was averaging as high as 26 mpg. By the end of our five days with the Challenger, we had averaged 24.5 mpg.
For the record, we were still often driving at high altitudes and we certainly weren’t driving sedately – something a highway patrolman outside of Goldfield, Nevada can attest to. Unlike Paul’s recent experience in Goldfield, we avoided a ticket but then we weren’t too far over the speed limit (at least not at that point). The officer was actually very genial and helpful, even giving us travel advice and assuring us the Challenger could make it up the long dirt road to the Bodie ghost town. For the record it did, albeit slowly.
Unlike many other ghost towns in the American West, Bodie is largely intact. It’s been kept in a state of arrested decay and you can walk into many of the buildings or at least peer into rooms full of period furniture. The 500-acre town is entirely free for you to explore and you can walk as far as the town limits if you desire, although there’s less to see in those structures than in the ones on the main streets of town. It’s an astonishing experience and one you must put on your list.
Perhaps to keep things authentic, the road leading to the town has never been properly paved. It’s heavily rutted but so long as you’re not driving something lowered or bagged, you should be fine. We managed.
In contrast to the road to Bodie, the road leading to the Rhyolite ghost town was dispatched with ease.
Much smaller than Bodie, little remains of Rhyolite beyond the old casino, formerly the train depot.
But there are some hauntingly beautiful ruins…
…as well as the Goldwell Open Air Museum, home to the unsettling Albert Szukalski sculpture The Last Supper.
Taking US-95 north alongside Death Valley, I discovered one of the most beautiful sights on Earth is twilight in the desert, just after the sun has dropped below the mountains.
After staying the night in Beatty, Nevada, we set off for Yosemite National Park on the way back to Los Angeles. You expect a park like Yosemite to be beautiful and yet it still takes your breath away. I felt somewhat guilty belching exhaust fumes in one of the world’s most mesmerizingly beautiful locations.
It sure made for some splendid photos, however, as well as a marked contrast to the days of driving through the desert. Later, the slow, traffic-packed roads through Sequoia inspired us to wind down the windows and listen to the intoxicating burble of the Challenger’s V8, however. Even though it wouldn’t fall over in the twisty roads of Sequoia had we been driving at a faster clip, the big Dodge nevertheless feels in its element just cruising and burbling along.
There’s that distinction between the Challenger and its rivals again. It will never be as adroit in the corners or as aggressively sporty as a Camaro SS or a Mustang GT but it can do things those cars can’t, like carry four people in comfort with three large suitcases in the trunk. And there are more expensive Challengers that can match or best the SS and GT’s performance figures, like the SRT and the legendary Hellcat and Demon, plus a dizzying range of other Challenger variants like the T/A and R/T Plus Shaker.
If you want a sporty coupe but want to use it as a daily driver or you occasionally want to drive people around and go on some long-distance trips, the Challenger is an excellent compromise. In all, according to Google Maps we put around 1500 miles on the Challenger’s odometer. But for some infotainment glitches and some weak high-beam headlights, the Challenger was one of the best vehicles we could have taken on our adventures. (For even more practicality, the mechanically-related Charger R/T would also be a stellar choice)
If you only care about pure driving excitement and only intend to carry one passenger, the Camaro or the Mustang are better bets. If you want the extra space but you still want chiselled good looks, the Challenger is a compelling buy.