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Over the few years in which Chrysler has struggled, been bailed out, and quickly worked to rehab its product line, one model that's managed to bolster morale and the automaker's image all the way through is the Dodge Challenger.
The 2011 Challenger coupe evokes the designs of muscle cars of the late 1960s and early '70s, appealing to the Baby Boomer fans of the original coupes as well as a new generation, by offering modern tech and comfort features within a thoroughly retro exterior that hearkens back to the 1970 Challenger. Depending on your perspective, it can appear as cartoonish, crisp and modern, or a blast from the past.
At the top of the Challenger range, the high-performance SRT8 adds some modernity and a new exotic look in the way of faux-carbon-fiber trim and xenon headlamps, but its deeper front air dams and functional brake ducts give the design even more street cred. What's not available, appearance-wise, as a factory option inside or out is bound to be available as a dealer-installed Mopar accessory. Various striping packages, wheels, a Ram air hood, and suspension kits serve to give you whatever customized muscle-car look you want.
The base Challenger SE comes with a new 305-hp, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, and it remains the option for those who don't make performance the top priority but want this muscle-coupe's street style at a more affordable price. At the top of the range, the SRT has an exotic-like 470 hp and 470 pound-feet of torque. In either variant, as soon as the road turns curvy the Challenger reveals its greater mass and feels neither as lean and nimble as the Mustang nor as overtly athletic as the Camaro. What's mostly to blame is the steering, which feels overly light and imprecise.
The Challenger has a very comfortable and well-appointed interior, for the most part, and it's a step quieter and more civil—as well as roomier—compared to other sports cars or pony cars. But it's a different story for rear passengers; there are three seatbelt positions in back, and Chrysler claims best-in-class headroom, though if there are tall people up front, there's little or no space for knees or feet in back, and the very thick pillar lends to claustrophobia as well as a lack of visibility. On the bright side, the Challenger has a huge trunk. There's more than enough space back there—more than 16 cubic feet—for just about any long weekend. But the other big plus for comfort: The 2011 Dodge Challenger rides really well—better than most larger coupes—and the suspension damps out severe jolts without drama (or trauma).
Interior materials have also been improved a bit for 2011; Dodge has added LED cupholders, a new hand-stitched leather-trimmed shift knob, and standard climate control, plus upgraded Nappa hide on Challengers with the available leather interior.
For 2011, Dodge has reconfigured the Challenger's feature list and bolstered standard equipment across the lineup. A new Garmin touch-screen navigation system is available, and it's not only simpler to use but functionally a step ahead many other original-equipment systems. Uconnect Web is also on offer, turning the Challenger into a wireless hot spot, and the available Sirius Travel Link suite brings real-time weather, fuel prices, sports, and movie information.
A number of performance and appearance packages are offered to give the Challenger a custom look or a specialized driving feel. The downside of all these options, of course, is that you can drive the sticker price up toward (and past) the $40k mark for an R/T or near to $50k for the SRT8—where there's top-notch coupe competition from Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz.