Off Topic: 2014 Dodge Challenger SXT

The following post has nothing do with watches but I wanted to write about a car and I have a blog. Not to worry, there are plenty of watch reviews in the works, but for now, enjoy something a little different.

After an unfortunate incident with a mini van, my beloved BMW ended up in the body shop and I ended up at Enterprise Rental Car on an uncommonly busy morning. They were out of vehicles and turning cars around for customers as soon as they came in. When a dark grey Dodge Challenger SXT rolled up, my son asked if we could have it and I shook my head. The insurance company had authorized only enough for a wheezing economy car. Surely this mighty machine was intended for someone else. Much to our delight, it was ours.

I had rather low expectations for the Challenger. I have rented a number of Dodge products in recent years, and they have ranged from perfectly adequate Chargers and Darts to the hilariously awful Caliber. (Honesty did anyone actually buy one of those on purpose? I can only imagine that would be a purchase made while blackout drunk.) So my highest hope was that the car be "not shitty." 

Right off the bat I liked what I saw. The Challenger is almost a caricature of an American car. It has the classic long hood - short deck proportions. The nose is low, the tail high, and the belt line towers above  the tarmac. It is remarkably wide, so much so that there is really no need to exaggerate it with full-width tail lights and a recessed grille, but they did it anyway. Base model wheels are 18" satin silver, five-spoke alloys. The dark grey metallic paint gave the car a particularly sinister air. It is handsome, menacing, and God-damned cool, like something out of a 1970s cop show.

Inside, I discovered a broad expanse of black and silver plastic, but it was a step above what I had expected. Interior materials and finish have moved up a few notches since my last Mopar experience. You won't mistake it for a Honda or Volkswagon, but it no longer resembles a Fisher Price toy. I question how well it will hold up though. This car had less than 600 miles on it and was already getting scuffed and scratched. The textured cloth seats were high backed, bolstered, and very comfortable. The seating position was not as low as I had imagined, a happy consequence of this coupe sharing a platform with the large Charger sedan. Still, the doors and dash are a bit high, and rearward visibility is like peering through a mail slot. This, combined with the car's prodigious girth, makes you feel more than a little isolated from the world outside.

Behind the wheel, I was treated to an array of black-on-white instruments with a simple multi-function digital display for speed, temperature, distance, etc. You could also select a 0-60 timer. This last one would be great fun in more potent models, but less so in this Pentastar V6 version. The 3.6L engine pumps out 305hp and 298 lb-ft of torque, almost identical to that of the twin-turbo 3.0L six in my BMW, but with dropping the hammer produces more noise than speed. Other reviewers have timed the 6-cylinder Dodge at 6.8 seconds 0-60 with the 5-speed auto, and by my seat-of-the-pants evaluation, I have no reason to doubt them. It is perfectly adequate for daily driving, but if you want the real muscle car grunt and the visceral throaty rumble, you need to step up to the Challenger R/T with the Hemi V8. 
Admittedly, I had little opportunity or inclination to play stoplight Grand Prix in this car. Its duties were relegated to that of school shuttle, grocery getter, and daily commuter in the slog of DC traffic. In these tasks, it did surprisingly well. My son's car seat snapped into the LATCH anchors with ease and though he had a little trouble squeezing in and out of the tight confines of the back seat, he immediately declared the car to be way cooler than mine, and professed to be perfectly comfortable back there. Still, I left the passenger seat pulled up all the way to make his access a little easier. The back seats are good for a 6-year-old, but anyone bigger than that will have a hard time with the leg room. The trunk is enormous. Lift over is on the high side, but the floor is flat and there is only minimal wheel well intrusion. The sheer size of this car makes parking lot maneuvers harrowing at times, but you get used to it. The ride is compliant, loping over potholes and bumps that jarred my teeth in the BMW, but the comfort comes at the expense of road feel.

Mostly, driving the Challenger was about attitude, and that is something it had in spades. The headlights glow menacingly from their sunken depths. It rumbles around (well, about as much rumble as a V6 can muster) with a macho swagger. A friend described it as a "9 out of 10 on the automotive codpiece scale." My wife described it as a "rolling mid-life crisis." No one was ambivalent. Sadly, no one appreciated the car's cultural significance. Everyone made the same Dukes of Hazzard crack (Come on folks! The Dukes drove a Charger.) and no one got my Vanishing Point or Archer references. Sigh...

I noticed a huge gap in the way men and women viewed the Challenger. Women were universally unimpressed. Men fawned over it. One morning shortly after I collected the Challenger, I was dropping my son at school, tilting the front seat and holding the seat belt out of his way so he could awkwardly scramble out, when the headmaster walked up. "Wow!" he exclaimed, eyes wide, "what kind of car is that? It's so cool!" He walked around it, excitedly asking questions. I was amazed. How is it possible could he not know this car when it has been in production for 7 years? Then I looked at everyone else: mini van, SUV, minivan, German sedan, minivan... For a brief moment, I was The Guy with the Cool Car, the baddest Dad in Kindergarten.

After two weeks, my BMW was finished and I turned in the Challenger. Climbing back into my car, I was amazed at its visibility, feedback, and acceleration. I was also delighted to shift gears for myself once again. I had missed the BMW, and after two weeks in the Challenger, it felt like a formula car. Yet in spite of myself, I was sorry to see the Dodge go. So was my son. He told me I should keep it, and his friends agreed. That is the beauty of the Dodge Challenger, even in its base model form, it is an exaggerated vision of American muscle, and a hell of a lot of fun.

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