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A second chance to meet the Challenger

           Just as Phil's pals in the movie City Slickers urged him to embrace his marital and job woes as a "do-over'' -- a second chance -- carmakers sometimes offer a second opportunity to seize that model you could once only dream about.

        Sometimes the retro version is a mere imitation and we pass on it. Sometimes, like with this beefy Dodge Challenger, you simply can't resist the attraction.

        And, for 2009, comes the sorely missed manual tranny, a six-speed regulated by the classic pistol-grip shifter of the early '70s. Was not available with the introductory '08 model.

Challenger         Challenger, the nameplate that ruled the muscle-car era alongside the likes of GTO, Mustang and Chevelle, debuted as a 2008 model. That's the one I spent a week in, followed by gawking men and smiling women everywhere, many of them too young to know the original.

        There is no mistaking that this is the son of the old Challenger, which ruled the "strips'' between 1970 and 1974. One 50-something woman reacted: "Wow, that is beautiful," she said, unable to exactly identify it. "How old is it?"

        "Oh, it's brand new," I said. The Challenger has the same wide, aggressive grille with fog lamps and attitude, reminiscent of its kin. An expansive hood has twin scoops that actually offer venting for the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 underneath.

        A lower front spoiler also is functional, offering cooling to the brakes. Rear tail-light cover spreads across the entire width of the car. And the rear spoiler works, too, offering significant rear downforce, says Chrysler.

        Chrysler figures the 40-something crowd wants this car most, but so does my 25-year-old son, Brett, And he's a pickup-truck kind of guy. 

        With 425 horses (exact same as the 1970 Hemi Challenger) and 420 foot-pounds of torque, the rear-wheel-drive beast sprints to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. And its clear badging reminds you the power source is a 6.1-liter Hemi.

        As Motor Trend magazine points out, it'll be outgunned by the Mustang Shelby GT500, but only by four-tenths of a second. Hey, who's counts tenths, really? (It's also more than $4,000 less than the Stang.)

        Top speed is listed at 170 mph -- Chrysler does not believe in electronic limitations.

        Even at high speeds, the five-speed automatic is game, kicking in when you punch it. But the '09 six-speed manual will truly ignite the driving enthusiast.

        New for '09 SRT8 a limited-slip differential for stronger track performance.

        Challenger sits on the Charger platform but has a somewhat softer suspension. Bad for handling, you say? Let's call it a compromise, but Challenger is surprisingly agile and will be enjoyed in the twistys. But keep a close eye on your sides and rear as visibility is hampered by broad rear pillars.

        The red Brembo calipers provide superb braking.

        Mileage is going to be in the teens, and the low teens if you're getting some kicks. But with new trims this year, an available V-6 will get a combined EPA-rated 21 mpg. Same great looks, better mileage, tamer ride.

       This bad boy, by the way, will get in the low teens when it comes to mpg, and that means an extra couple grand in gas guzzler tax.

        Chrysler did a remarkable job with the seats, a perfect combination of support with bolstered sides and comfort, with soft but cushions you could enjoy all night. This year a red accent stripe is added as well as accent stitching.

        The gauge cluster, dark headliner and slanted shifter console are reminiscent of the original Challenger. Monitor your speed on the 180-mph speedometer. More details are available on the SRT-exclusive display that offers instant performance figures on 0-60 times, quarter-mile time and even G-forces.

        Cargo capacity is surprising with 16.2 cubic feet of space.

        The last model year was for the true Challenger devotee, but '09 promises something for everyone who has ever lusted after it. Besides the 6.1-liter and 5.7-liter Hemis, a modest 3.5-liter V-6 is available.

        You can get into Challenger for as low as $22,000 for the V-6 and figure on around $40,000 for the nasty one.   

        The beauty of today's Challenger, of course, is that it is laden with today's technology, including traction and stability control systems, six multistage air bags, MP3 and Bluetooth capability.

        Go figure the luck that this sweet Challenger debuts when gas prices are on the fall. There must be a God.

        I shouldn't even mention that Dodge is one-upping the Challenger nameplate this year with an SRT10 Concept, powered by Viper's screaming 8.4-liter V-10 engine and its herd of 600 ponies. There, I said it. You have to deal with it.

      Dodge Challenger SRT8: $37,320 (base price)



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