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.
Rental Car Review: 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1SS – Having Your Cake And Eating It, Too
Well, that looked like good fun.
We had a Jeep Compass for our family’s epic SouthWest trip a few years ago, I think your choice was better.
Since Bodie is typically accessible from US 395 where did you make the crossover from 95 Nevada into California? I hope to take 395 next spring starting from Topaz Lake down to Indian Wells in a much older car. Like to see Mono Lake, Bishop, Manzanar, Bodie, and possibly side track along 190 into Death Valley and back out before heading back to the Bay Area.
The backside of California on the other side of the Sierras, if you want to call it that from the Pacific, is a very little traveled route yet full of immense beauty from wilderness to desolate isolation. In many ways better than US 1 which is so heavily traveled today to pretty much take the fun out of it unless driven in winter.
We continued up to Tonopah, then went west through Coaldale, followed the road down to Benton, then went across to Lee Vining. After Bodie, we went back to Lee Vining which is basically a gateway to Yosemite.
Although I personally prefer a more offroad oriented vehicle for my travels in that area, the Challenger is the next best choice. Did you take Nevada 359 and California 167 over from Nevada to 395 south of Bodie, like Kowalski did? Although the film apparently ended in a fictional Cisco, the movie’s route would have taken him along 167.
I actually met a young couple from Holland in a rental Challenger about 5 years ago, who were running some of Kowalski’s route, through Goldfield and over to 395. I had seen the film in the theater when it came out; the Dutch folks weren’t even born then, but were fans from seeing it on video.
No we didn’t but damn that would’ve been cool!
I’ve been on a lot of those same roads and enjoyed them no matter what I was driving, but I have to say that the Mustang GT works well on such roads. The road from Valley of Fire State Park along Lake Mead to Boulder City runs through some interesting geology and certainly isn’t the typical Nevada highway with twenty-mile straights. The park itself is well worth visiting; I’ve never managed to be there near sunrise or sunset, the best times for photography.
For all the years it has been out there, the Challenger is one vehicle that I have not experienced firsthand, either as driver or passenger. Therefore your review is a particularly enjoyable one for me.
Chrysler seems to be the last bastion of “The American Car” at its best. It is big, it is fast, it is good looking and it will cruise comfortably for hours on end. Unfortunately, its buyer base remains relatively small.
Agreed. Every time I see a transport loaded with 300s, Chargers, and Challengers coming out of Brampton, I wonder how many more years they will continue to pump those out. I’ve driven the Charger and I have a 300C, but have not piloted a Challenger to this point. I wonder when the sedan market size shrinkage will claim these as their next victims.
I love the photos and travelogue. Nice perspective on the west from someone who grew up and lives far away.
One small correction, it’s US 95 (not I-95) in California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana. When the Inter State highway system was designed they flipped the numbering from the US highway system to prevent confusion (or so they hoped). east west are low to high south to north and north south low to high west to east (I-5 in CA, I-95 up the east coast, I-10 Santa Monica, CA to Jacksonville, FL & I-90 Seattle to Boston?). It get’s a little murky in the middle but that’s just how it worked out.
Thanks for the post, FYI, I rented a Mustang 5.0 GT in St Louis in late September, fun to drive, comfortable & 20 mpg in city driving.
The outlier on the highway numbering is US 6, which from my California perspective starts quite far south (Bishop, well south of US 50 for example). But of course it really starts in Provincetown, MA which I guess is pretty far north. All depends if you consider it an east/west highway, or a west/east highway.
Corrected. Thanks for that!
The challenger usually gets lumped in with the 2 pony cars but it seems more like a Monte Carlo.
This has been my beef from day one. The Challenger, for all intents and purposes, is a 2-door Charger. As such, IMHO, Chrysler made a big mistake by doing a retro-Challenger and not a better-looking, retro-Charger 2-door, complete with hidden headlights, flying buttress roof, and tunnel-back rear window. One of the most iconic cars to ever come out of Highland Park was the 1968-70 Dodge Charger and it’s simply beyond me why Chrysler didn’t build one of those instead of the retro-Challenger.
While I agree that the 68-70 Charger was significantly better looking, I don’t think a modern interpretation of that Charger would have turned out that well, hidden headlights? “No way!” Buttresses? “What about aerodynamics!” And proportionally no platform including the LX will reach the perfection of those cars, the overhangs would be too long by today’s standards yet are are critically important to the balance of the original design, same with the length and low height. The Challenger’s more close coupled ponycar proportions work better with modern short/tall standards, even it looks fat next to a 1970, but a fattened stubby 68-70 Charger I fear just wouldn’t work at all. The 15+ sedan is the best modern interpretation I think we could hope for.
Besides, the 1970 Challenger was a shortened reshaped Charger(B body), not so different from today.
You’re right, Matt. I wish it wasn’t so though.
What separates the Challenger from the other two is that, like muscle cars of yore, it is based on a full-size sedan chassis. The competition both use dedicated chassis, as neither GM nor Ford offer a full-size RWD sedan anymore.
Sharing bits with the Charger and Chrysler 300 makes for more compromises than having a dedicated chassis. On the plus side, that’s what allows the Challenger to have a habitable back seat.
On the really plus side it’s likely what allows it to still exist in the first place. Spreading everything across three vehicles makes it all much more realistic to produce profitably.
The thing I like about the Challenger is its position in the “ponycar” market is almost exactly what it was in 70-74, it’s way bigger and heavier than a Camaro or Mustang, isn’t necessarily their equal in performance consequently, but it looks great, is practical(for the segment) and has tons of character and lots of options(I was overwhelmed seeing all the Challenger variants when I started looking), the R/T is kind of the inbetween of a V6 and a Scat Pack, which Ford doesn’t offer for the Mustang or Chevy the Camaro. A sub-400 horsepower V8 seems ridiculous on paper in this day and age, but for street driving you get an engine you can lay into a bit without sirens going off in every direction and still get the fantastic V8 soundtrack.
I’d love to do this drive someday, I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the west and the desert. I couldn’t think of a better car to do it in, it’s just too bad it’s in boring grey instead of white!
I have a 2010 Challenger R/T 6 speed that I bought new. No rattles, no mechanical failures and its a very well-built car; in other words, they are not typical Chrysler late model junk (I do wish it had the upgraded interior that the new ones have.) The LX cars are built like tanks and fare very well in accidents. I have gotten as much as 30 mpg at 65 mph on country roads and high 20s on the interstate. No complaints here as its a 4200 lb car that runs 13 second 1/4 mile times.
Since the Challenger has a real backseat and a huge trunk (one of the reasons I bought one was so that I could haul my kids around), it really cant be compared to a Camaro or Mustang but if youre looking for the bestest and the fastest, theres always the Hellcat.
+1 to all of that. The LXs are one of the best FCA products ever, even the DCX era ones. I have a LOT of enthusiast friends, many of which are on their 2nd or 3rd LX car. Major issues are rare, and every last person who has extensive time with one would happily buy another, myself included after 2.5 years with my ’09 Challenger. It should be noted that while none of us abuse our cars, none are treated like delicate flowers. Many see significant time at the track. Just all around damn good cars, they make excellent daily drivers, hot rods, and have something for everyone from casual owners on up to hardcore enthusiasts.
Thanks for the travelogue. I am a dedicated old car guy, but sometimes we just need to get out on the road with something new, comfortable, and worryfree. I’ve kind of backed myself into a corner with too many projects and don’t have the available money and time to do any travelling right now.
I drove a Challenger once and it felt quite bulky and the interior felt cramped due to the intrusiveness of the dash. There was a couple in the backseat who had more room than in either of my Mustangs, the 2007 being much better in this regard than the ’96. Still, it sounded aggressive and was fast. You don’t need to drive a big SUV all the time! These new pony cars area great alternative. If the kids are gone have a little fun.
While I have yet to drive a Challenger, I have been in a couple of rental ones. From the passenger’s seat, my thoughts are that it was very roomy, more than I expected, it was surprisingly comfortable, and while it didn’t really mind city driving, you could always tell the car longed for a long stretch of road, even if it did have a V6. That experience cemented me always wanting to own one, but having lived with the Eldorado and the hassle of two doors, I decided that for daily driving purposes, four doors are more my speed. Still, I would like to at least drive it, if for no other reason than to see if 17 year old me would’ve actually like it or if it would’ve been a case of never meeting your heroes.
Great sights and the car looks good in any of the settings. I think the Challenger would be my choice by a long way if I had to choose one of the three for a long interstate trip. It’s simply likely to be the most comfortable and best riding.
Challengers to me look good with at least the V8 and in RWD trim. The AWD pnes ride a little high as do the V6 models. I guess he more engine it has, the better it looks to me.
Having driven the Hellcat a couple of years ago certainly made an impression, as good as my 300C was, another 355hp on top of the 345 the 300C had made all the difference…
I only know it looks REALLY DAMN GOOD! I mean, look at it! I think I may have just gotten pregnant…
Looks like a helluva nice trip! Recently I drove my ’09 R/T from Portland to Vegas and back with a pack of my mopar enthusiast friends. You cant ask for a better all around car than the R/Ts. Perfect roadtripping companion and more more than enough muscle to get to stupid speeds…We hit up around 135 at one point and just ran out of room.
Best you did 0-60 was in 5.8 seconds? That seems WAY slow. R/Ts (auto or 6spd) can hit it in 5 seconds flat if your car is broken in good and youre doing everything right. Warm weather will affect it, but I hear tell FCAs automatics–even the TF-8) take a full month to acclimate to a driver and really get in top trim. Yours was a rental, so that should explain that.
Tried a few times. And according to the 0-60 timer in the gauge cluster, 5.8 was the best the previous renter had gotten too…
Some folks want brown diesel stick shift wagons. I’d like a V8 6 speed AWD Challenger. Heck, I’d even be OK with brown … maybe a nice 70’s root beer.
I saw a Charger today while driving on my errands. A really powerful one, too, since it had “392” emblazoned on the hood scoop thing.
The driver had a very pained look on his face as he passed the Chevron gas station that was advertising its regular gasoline at C$1.63 a litre. Premium is $1.87.
My Golf many not be as fast, but this tank is 7.2 L/100 km in city driving.
Driving such things as daily drivers stymies me.
That’s a mighty handsome Challenger that they rented you, too! Much better than the screaming neon colors that seem to be so popular on many of them.
Was the rental company tracking your top speed?
Amazing scenery and great review!
I’ve always admired and respected your own admiration and respect for decidedly “American” American cars Will, and your spirt shines in your behind the wheel reviews of them.
And just as a quick note, rear-view cameras are required by law on all 2018 model year cars in the U.S.
I will say that fuel economy like that in the real world is actually pretty good. Given my 70,000 miles of experience with my Highlander (3.5 V6, 5 speed auto, AWD) it would have likely returned 22 mpg (ish) over the same route.
BTW for the hard core “used cars only” buyers who frequent this website, Enterprise has a pretty decent stock of Chargers/Challenger RT models that they sell with sub 40,000 miles on them.
We don’t officially get the Challenger here, nor did we its ’70’s progenitor. Yet I’ve seen both and the current one is the aesthetic superior (the older being a touch ungainly). I say it is properly handsome devil, and I’m an old(er) fart not usually much taken with new cars.
Though I return to type regarding your “disappointment” with the 5.8 0-60. Now son, when I was a lad, if that performance was even available, it was duly accompanied by enough emissions to deforest Canada, a pricetag that’d pay for the re-planting, and 8mpg if tuned correctly.
I will one day get to Yosemite – confessedly, as a child, I thought it was pronounced in the same fashion as Vegemite and wondered if it was also sold as a toast spread – because I have never tired of images from the place.
I too have been transfixed by mountain-framed desert twilight, albeit somewhat closer to home than Arizona (near the McDonnell Ranges in Central Oz). It really is a unique feeling of the world resting and glowing after the efforts of daylight.
A great review, and a nicely-photographed travelog, Mr Stopford. You’ve conveyed a fine sense of a car in it’s element.
That looks like a fantastic trip along with a fantastic car. I warmed up slowly to the “Neue” Challenger, but now I’m deeply in love with that car.
While the 12 year old in me wants a Hellcat, the 56 year old in me wants something less extravagant/expensive in the line.
I think I’d want the R/T or maybe even the Scat Pack, but with no graphics on it, so I can just motor down the road. But, at 485 HP, the Scat Pack will get me into far more trouble than I should be doing at my age. Maybe I should stick to the 5.7L…
Nah, you want the Scat Pack. I had a ’10 R/T for almost 8 years, and never felt the power was quite “enough”. With my mew SP, I do. Only mods are an oil catch can for the PVC line(A must, I have the Billet Tech one), and a Hellcat Airbox and headlight hole duct. The airbox isn’t for power, it’s better at not getting heatsoaked as quickly as the standard one is, and also cooling off a little more quickly once the car is moving. Hemis really like their intake air cold. It’s about 40 outside and the car runs just fantastic.
The pic is an almost identical car to mine, but mine doesn’t have the rear striping.
Did a part of that trip two weeks ago, but in a humble rental Nissan Roque. However, the problem with Google Maps navigation voice was the same. I found out that turning the volume up the moment Google was speaking increased indeed that volume seperate from the audio, and kept it on a level you can actually hear.
I can’t get over the interior of these. They look very 70s to me, and not in a good way. I don’t equate a soft surface to quality. That dash screams cheap to me regardless of texture.
I do like them overall though. A bit cartoonish, perhaps, but not as much as the Camaro.
I think the 2015-current is vastly better than the 08-14(which reeks of Daimler era cheapness) but I have to agree. I don’t think the dash bothers me as much as the bulbous center console does though, the only part of the dash that truly bothers me are the busy and tacky gauges and lighting. I would have preferred a more true to 197-74 dash, although some don’t like the E body interiors either(I know the quality sucks, but I love the design)
Thanks for the tour Will, very entertaining
I was only in one of the these at the Chicago Auto Show back when they were new. I didn’t like the interior. Tall flat doors and windows up too high. But I didn’t then know that was the trend for all the pony cars soon. But the looks of this one make up for anything else to me.
I’d call the Challenger the last American personal-luxury coupe (PLC) and that’s definitely an advantage over the Camaro and Mustang, which are glorified two-seaters. Granted, I can never see past the C-pillar when driving a Challenger, but I do like large coupes.
My 18 Challenger scat pack, 392, Shaker, has the radar sensing mirrors, BU camera, and chime sounds. It takes most of the worry away from changing lanes and backing up.I do back up slowly and windows down, radio off, since I saw a Challenger back up into a lady in a parking lot.
A little late here…have been to Bodie and really enjoyed it. We used to spend quite a bit of time on the east side of the Sierras, in Mammoth and that area, both for winter skiing and summer hiking. Did you stop at Mono Lake?
We did get to see the lake, yes, and stopped at Lee Vining. Beautiful area! The most striking lake we saw though – other than the Salton Sea – was Lake Kaweah near Sequoia… mainly because it doesn’t look like much of a lake anymore. It’s a small bit of water, surrounded by green, surrounded by brown.
I have an 18 Challenger same color as the rental, but with a shaker and a scat pack. Outstanding car!!