As hard as it may be to believe, there are more accolades given out in the auto industry than there are entertainment award shows on television. "North American Car of the Year"; "Green Car of the Year"; "Most Delightful Small Car of the Year." Yes, the last one is real.
On a drive up the Hudson River Valley this past Labor Day weekend, I was surprised to discover yet another that makes them all seem pedestrian by comparison.
Cruising along in a bright orange Dodge Challenger SRT8, I came upon a group of about two dozen particularly burly Harley Davidson owners out on a ride. Fully aware of how little my life would be worth if I caused a problem for these leather clad guys and gals, I gave them as much leeway as I could and slowly began to pass. As I did, heads started to turn, and one of the rider's eyes fixed on mine. When I realized he was raising his fist in my direction, I wasn't sure if I should hit the brakes or gun it and get my butt out of there.
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Then, a funny thing happened. He extended his thumb, and gave me a grin so sly that it would bring tears to the eyes of a casting director working on an “Easy Rider” remake. I saw similar looks of approval from the other members of "Trashed," the New York City Sanitation Department’s motorcycle club, and tears nearly came to mine. As long as I was behind the wheel of the Challenger, I was officially "bad," so I held back the tears.
In a show of mutual admiration, I stepped on the gas and sent back the Dodge HEMI V-8 version of a "Loud Pipes Save Lives" salute as I made my way past the line of bikes. It felt good, but only lasted about 5 seconds, my pregnant wife quick to remind me that she and my 18-month-old son were in the backseat. I dutifully eased up on the pedal, but not before glancing in the rearview mirror to catch the sly grin on the boy’s face. At least one of them got it.
The Challenger SRT8 is a car from a bygone era, a couple of years ago before gas prices went rogue. An astonishingly accurate recreation of the legendary muscle car of the same name from the 1970s heyday of that breed, it packs presence as well as a period correct wallop provided by a 425 horsepower, 6.1-liter engine.
With a fuel economy rating of 15 miles per gallon combined, it drinks premium like we’re running out of it, but at least it puts it to good use. According to the performance computer built in to the speedometer, the trip to 60 mph is over in less than 5 seconds, a quarter mile dispatched in the low 13s. Impressive figures, even if the car didn't weigh 4,200 pounds, which it does.
Keeping it in check when you leave the drag strip is a firmly damped, fully independent suspension that does a terrific job of steadying the SRT8 through curves. You expect a car this big and bloated to wobble at least a little when you turn the steering wheel, and for those of us who remember when cars like this did, it's almost disappointing that it doesn’t. But it’s a disappointment we can live with, mostly.
The price is a stiff ride that pushes you back and forth on bumpy roads like a couple of bullies in the locker room, but with a soft edge to the impacts that never hurts as badly as it could, just roughs you up. It's more like getting pounded on by a bag of oranges rather than a crowbar, or so Hollywood has led me to believe.
The excellent seats help out here. Soft yet solid, they have huge bolsters that hug your torso and thighs so fully that it seems like they could reach around you and touch in front. Covered with leather and suede, the big chairs probably weigh more than some passengers, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything unless my pink slip was on the line.
The back bench is nearly as good, and it even has a hump and belt for a fifth person, as long as their feet are less than 4 inches long, which is about how much room there is between the seat bottom and the center console up front. It's the perfect excuse to use the spot for a child seat and take Junior out for a spin.
Everyone on board gets to enjoy what is without question the best interior of any Dodge available today, and possibly any day. Where the Charger sedan that this car is based on is full of discount rack plastic, the SRT8 gets soft touch material that looks even better than it feels, and it feels good. The entire dashboard has a chunky, linear design that is decidedly modern, yet fits the updated bad-boy style of the rest of the car. It’s quiet in there too, almost too quiet.
The main reason you buy this car is because of the monster under the hood, but unless you fully unleash it by putting your foot through the floorboard, it might as well be a pet turtle. If you do let it loose, the sound it gives you in return is ferocious. Each shift of the 5-speed automatic transmission is accompanied by a sharp roar like a startled jungle cat. For 2009, a 6-speed manual is available, but the slushbox somehow fits the car better.
With stripes and scoops on the hood and the broad shoulders of a backstreet brawler, the SRT8 is as much about the show as the go. You'll probably spend more time strutting its stuff around parking lots as you will leaving timing lights in the dust, and rightly so. People want to see it.
Of all the cars I've driven recently, none has received such universal affection. Park it on a busy corner and it’s not just the passersby that stop to give it a good gawk, hordes come from across the street and out of stores to rub shoulders with it. Even doormen abandon their posts to walk down the block to check it out. It makes that kind of impression. The effect may not last much longer.
After offering only this $37,320 limited edition model for the 2008 model year, Dodge is raising the price to $42,245 for 2009 and rolling out a couple of cheaper versions with the smaller, but still potent, 5.7-liter HEMI V-8, as well as a bargain basement 6-cylinder that costs just $22,545.
Aside from different wheels, colors, and a few bits of trim they look pretty much the same. Once these underclassmen begin filling up the drive-through at Burger King, the whopper SRT8 will fade into the background, at least a little.
That might be a good thing.
On the way home from our drive upriver, I heard the unfortunate sound of a police siren, and the flashing cherries filling up the rearview mirror indicated that it was directed at me. After checking my license and registration, the friendly officer all but admitted he plucked me out of the traffic flowing by just a couple of miles per hour over the limit looking for drunken holiday troublemakers, and the SRT8 looked like a good target. Although my son can be a handful now and then, I guess he didn’t rate because we got off with a warning.
We'll see how long that lasts.
DODGE CHALLENGER SRT8
Base Price: $37,320
As Tested: $41,310
Type: Front-Engine, rear-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 2-door coupe
Engine: 6.1-liter V-8
Power: 425 horsepower, 420 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 13 city/18 highway
What do you think about the Challenger SRT8?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.