by Jay Traugott
There's a harsh truth that needs to be said: the Dodge Challenger is not a very good car without a V8. Opting for any of the available V8s this retro muscle car offers (5.7-, 6.4-, or 6.2-liter, the latter is supercharged, of course) is worlds better than the base 3.6-liter V6. Full disclosure: Dodge graciously lent me a 2017 Challenger GT AWD for a week during a family trip to historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Mayflower landed in 1620, and the site of a big rock with that year stamped on its side.
After experiencing the endless joys of a Challenger 6.4-liter V8 Scat Pack, I have determined the V6 sadly brings out the big coupe's worst traits. Simply put, because I wasn't being enthralled by that throaty, gas-sucking eight-cylinder thing of beauty and upgraded exhaust system, I found myself not judging the Challenger GT V6 as a muscle car, but as an overweight coupe. As a daily driver, it's horrible. It's inconvenient. Rear visibility is dreadful. Parallel parking literally feels like you're docking the Mayflower on a city street. But here's the thing: if there was a V8 under its hood, I wouldn't have cared about any of those annoyances. Before further detailing why the Challenger, sans V8, is pointless, it does have some good traits worth mentioning. Here they are:
Okay, done. That was fast, wasn't it? In all honesty, it's amazing just how much Dodge, or rather FCA, has improved overall build quality since the reborn Challenger first hit the market in 2008. FCA didn't exist back then, and Dodge was owned by Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that didn't know much about the car business, putting it mildly. The '08 Challenger looked great from the outside, but the interior was a very unaesthetically pleasing plastic mess; it looked as cheap as it felt. Not so with today's Challenger. Soft-touch plastics and more than decent fake carbon fiber trim adorn the cabin. The suede and Nappa performance seats are of high quality and comfortable.
My car also came equipped with the $995 GT Interior Package which added a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 9 speakers with subwoofer, and a 506-watt amplifier instead of the standard 276-watt system. As I've said before and again now, the UConnect infotainment and NAV system is fantastic, perhaps the best on the market today. Apple Car Play and Android Auto are now standard fare. If you can swing the extra $795 go for the larger 8.4-inch screen over the standard 7-inch. Why? Because you'll need the largest viewing monitor possible when going in reverse. Never before has a backup camera been handier due to poor rear visibility.
I noted this lack of rear glass in my review of the Challenger V8, but, again, didn't care much. I even affectionately described that car's interior as a "man cave." What the hell was I thinking? Oh, right. That 485 hp V8. Asking a friend or family member to take one for the team and hop in the backseat could damage relationships. My Dad, an average height of 5-foot-9, bitched that a double amputee couldn't get comfortable back there. But what does "GT" mean in the case of the Challenger? That would be for all-wheel drive, a V6-only option first offered for 2017. Now, Massachusetts roads are not exactly the country's finest. They take a beating during the harsh winters. Partly because of the Challenger GT's tight suspension tuning, I literally felt every road crack.
If this had a V8, again, I probably wouldn't have noticed. Did I prefer having AWD instead of RWD? Honestly, because of a lack of snow, it didn't make any difference in July. I nearly fishtailed the Challenger V8 when pulling out of a parking lot post-rain storm, and I tried to replicate that this time around. Didn't work; no rain (except for the morning the car was returned, of course). Having AWD is nice, but isn't that what Subarus are for, especially in New England? Why get a big and bulky coupe that looks like a muscle car but doesn't behave and sound like one? Makes no sense. The eight-speed automatic, the same one you can get with a V8, is nice, but I noticed (again) it has a tendency to search for gears when downshifting.
A gearing ratio software fix could probably solve this. I managed to achieve a combined 20 mpg, close enough to the EPA-rated 21 mpg. Once again, Dodge gave me a Challenger painted what I like to call "Cop Magnet Red," only this time not a single police officer took notice. That's kind of a shame, non-financially speaking. As for the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, rated at 305 hp and 268 lb-ft of twist? I like it, just not in the Challenger. The Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang can both manage without V8s (turbo fours, to be precise) because their respective platforms are brand new and were engineered from the get-go for those smaller engines.
The Challenger's LC platform has components dating back to the Daimler Chrysler days. FCA has spent a ton of money updating it and the work has paid off nicely (see: Hellcat and Demon). The Challenger was already a heavy car, but adding a driven front axle increases weight to 4,103 pounds. A canyon carver it is not. With a base price of $34,490, my 2017 Dodge Challenger GT AWD came with a few extras, totaling $39,765, including destination. The cheapest Challenger V8, the R/T, begins at $32,995. Heck, the base R/T Scat Pack and its 485 hp V8 can be had for nearly the same price as this GT. The Dodge Challenger's inconvenient quirks are easily forgivable when there's a V8 under its hood, and I sorely missed having one.