The Two Coolest Cars in America There will be 4,200 Challenger SRT8s on the road this year, while 7,700 Bullitts will hit the pavement. By Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor Date posted: 04-30-2008 1st Place - Dodge Challenger SRT8 - Faithfully fulfills the promise of 1970 Mopar muscle while proving a remarkably modern and useful car. It's big, though. 2nd Place - Ford Mustang Bullitt - Faithfully resurrects Steve McQueen's legendary 1968 film car right down to the exhuast note and antiquated live axle. The rebirth of the American muscle car is about a lot more than retro. It's about pride. It's about recalling a time when Americans looked down the road to the future with confidence, and they wanted a great big V8 engine to get them there as soon as possible. It's no wonder the 2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt has our respect. It's the best version yet of the 2005 Ford Mustang, the car that set Detroit on fire again with enthusiasm for good old American muscle. Maybe the fuel-guzzling muscle car won't save Detroit from the challenge to build cars that people need, but it's surely restored the domestic car industry's confidence in its ability to do so. And it's shown that Americans can build cars that are utterly unlike anything you'll find in Stuttgart, Shanghai, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur or any of those other places that economists think they're so clever to know about. Now that the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is here, Chrysler is cracking the seal on its own Mopar-branded can of muscle-car whoop-ass to show that it understands what's at stake in the muscle-car sweepstakes. The Bullitt and the Challenger are the two coolest cars in America, and it's only natural to bring them together. Mustang Mania Is there anything more American than the smoky burnout? The Mustang, with more than 9 million examples sold since its introduction in mid-1964, is as synonymous with American culture as Marlboro Reds, the White Stripes from Detroit and blue jeans from Levi. It's no wonder Ford has been doing little else but building specialty models of the Mustang over the last two years. The latest addition to the Mustang lineup owes its existence to the role a Mustang GT 390 played opposite Steve McQueen in the 1968 cult classic Bullitt. Minor changes to the inherent goodness of the Mustang GT Premium model ($28,215) have netted a noticeable improvement. Stripping off the pony badges and gimmicky rear wing help, as do the repro Euro-style wheels and the paint in Dark Highland Green. (Black is also available.) Of course, we really appreciate the Bullitt's new cold-air intake system, free-flowing exhaust with an H-pipe and recalibrated engine electronics. A new, more sophisticated ignition system allows the Bullitt to run on either regular or premium fuel (we used 91 octane exclusively during this test), and the V8's redline has been extended to 6,500 rpm. Top speed is 151 mph. The 3,517-pound Bullitt's engine setup nets 315 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 325 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm, so each horsepower has 11.2 pounds to carry around. It shows, as the Bullitt's throttle response is quicker than that of a stock GT, while the sound of the Bullitt's dual exhaust, tuned to replicate the movie car's unfettered glass-pack rumble, is appropriately lustworthy. The Tremec five-speed manual transmission is matched with a snappier 3.73:1 final-drive ratio. New springs and shocks, along with a front strut tower brace, are tuned to deliver crisper handling, working through BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDWS tires. Finally the Bullitt's front brake pads are more aggressive, adding feel and reducing fade. You could transform your stock Mustang GT into a Bullitt with a parts list, a spray booth, a clever ECU code cracker and a few weeks of down time, but for the Bullitt's $3,130 option cost, why not buy one with a Ford factory warranty and call it a day? Enter the Challenger The Challenger's stability control complicates the burnout process; modulate the brake pedal to fool the electronics to your advantage. The Bullitt's authentically retro limited-slip differential delivers more fun than the Challenger's brake-lock differential. Even if your dad were a television repair man with the ultimate set of tools, you could not cobble together a 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 from the Dodge Charger SRT8 on which it is based. For one thing, you'd have to slice 4 inches out of the wheelbase with a plasma cutter, then hammer out new body panels and get to work fashioning everything from a new driveshaft and a unique grille to a complete interior and those trademark taillights. The Mopar guys have always been a little different, a little off center. Their cars were always a little larger, and they came in flamboyant colors that defined the muscle-car era — Go Mango, Plum Crazy, Sassy Grass, Sub Lime, Top Banana and Tor Red. But what made Mopar truly unique was the Hemi, the V8 engine of the legendary Ramchargers. Now the Hemi is back, and the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8's Hemi V8 displaces not the celebrated 426 cubic inches of the past, but 370 instead, or 6.1 liters. What these two Hemi V8s from different eras share is a prodigious output of 425 hp, once under-reported but now SAE certified. Exclusive to SRT8-badged products from the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 to the Chrysler 300 SRT8, every Hemi 6.1 makes the same 425 hp at 6,200 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. In our 4,154-pound Challenger SRT8, this means it hustles just 9.8 pounds of metal, plastic and glass with each stallion. No tree-hugging multi-displacement technology here; instead a gas-guzzler tax of $2,100. Unfortunately every 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 comes with Chrysler's five-speed automatic transmission with a tall 3.06:1 final-drive ratio. And instead of a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD), the Challenger makes due with a brake-lock differential (BLD), a kind of electronic traction control that uses the brakes to control wheelspin and direct torque to the tire with the most grip. A manual transmission and LSD are on the Challenger's to-do list, but you'll have to wait until next year. (More about this later.) Muscle-Car Time Slips The Challenger's better power-to-weight ratio and sticky optional tires give it a substantial edge in acceleration. The Hemi 6.1 makes 425 hp at 6,200 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. Though the Mustang Bullitt is 637 pounds lighter than the Challenger and has shorter overall gearing, the mighty Challenger ruled on the drag strip. The Hemi simply pulled its weight, even in this 4,154-pound wrapper. The Bullitt sprinted to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds (5.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), while the Challenger made the trip in 5.1 seconds (4.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The quarter-mile arrived in 13.2 seconds at 107.5 mph. The Challenger is substantially quicker to 60 mph than the almost identical Charger SRT8, and we think the Challenger's optional Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires make the difference. It took only a couple of runs to get the most from the Mustang. Once you coordinate the clutch and throttle to get just the right amount of wheelspin, the Bullitt delivers times that are so easily repeatable that we'd recommend it as an ideal bracket racer. Five consecutive quarter-mile times were separated by just 0.09 second, and we ultimately recorded 13.7 seconds at 103.0 mph. Easier still, however, was getting the best run out of the Challenger. Simply disabling traction control and dropping a size-43 Piloti on the go pedal put the Bullitt in the Challenger's rearview mirror. As far as drag races go, a half-second and 4.5-mph margin of victory is pretty decisive. As far as automatic transmissions go, we have to admit the W5A580 five-speed in the Challenger SRT8 is a pretty good one. Intelligent and aggressively programmed, it usually goes about its business unobtrusively, but it'll pop off an upshift crisply with a momentary pause between gears that sounds something like Satan belching fire through a stainless-steel esophagus. Torque converter lockup is so aggressive that it's almost necessary to lean your melon against the headrest when you upshift at full throttle. Nudging the leather-wrapped shifter into manual mode actually prevents the engine from running into its rev limiter at 6,400 rpm, the transmission shifts up a gear on its own. We even caught it short-shifting from 1st to 2nd gear to quell wheelspin in certain conditions. (SRT says its customers requested this feature, but we're skeptical.) After the Challenger is driven hard for awhile, the transmission program learns your behavior and even the downshifts get pretty aggressive. Muscling It The 4.6-liter Ford V8 makes 315 hp at 6,000 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. Even after five stops from 60 mph, the Brembo-equipped Challenger was still improving its braking performance, with the best stop at 115 feet. Feel remained excellent, fade was never an issue and each stop was straight and shudder-free. Conversely, the Bullitt's first stop was its best at 126 feet, and then the distance grew another 6 feet or so thereafter. Though the feel of the brake pedal is improved from a stock Mustang GT and the fade resistance is good, we'd like more bite from the brake pads. The size of the Challenger proved to be a challenge in the slalom, but finally the immense grip afforded by the Challenger's optional Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires and the quick steering transitions afforded by the short-travel suspension helped produce a 66.2-mph pass. A remarkable feat, really, from a 2-ton automobile. The Dodge's skid-pad performance was similarly incongruous, with a 0.86g effort. The only real complaint from the Challenger's driver seat came from our experience in the slalom, where the combination of the slow (16.1:1) steering ratio, a large steering wheel, and so much size and weight made us feel like we were tacking a small boat upwind. The 3,519-pound Mustang felt alert and nimble in comparison. Quick turn-in characteristics made the car seem far better balanced than you might guess from its weight distribution of 54 percent front/46 percent rear (which it shares with the Challenger). In the end, however, the Bullitt's old-school solid rear axle limited its slalom speed because slight pavement irregularities upset the rear of the car long before the front goes off line, ultimately making the Bullitt more of a handful than the Challenger. Yet by timing the slide from the rear just right, the Mustang's limited-slip differential hooked up the car through the last slalom gate and we shot across the finish line at 66.1 mph. Around the skid pad, the Bullitt's upgraded suspension paid off with good balance up to the point of mild understeer on the way to an impressive 0.87g orbit. Driving in the Real World The Challenger has all the retro style you'd expect, plus the retro performance you hoped for. The Mustang started this whole business in 1964 and then started it up again in 2005. While the Challenger held the upper hand in our track testing, technically outscoring the Bullitt in five of the six instrumented categories, it was on the open road and in average daily use where the Dodge really proved to be the more capable, more modern car. On the highway, the Challenger's ride is characterized by a sense of big, heavy wheels, but we've got to admit that as skeptical as we were of 20-inch forged-aluminum wheels wrapped by 45-series tires, the Challenger's ride quality is fantastic. There's some tire thump over sharp seams in the pavement, but the impacts are enveloped quickly by the sophisticated suspension: double wishbones in front and a multilink arrangement in the rear. There's no secondary or sympathetic shudder or vibration transmitted to the chassis or passengers. We wouldn't have believed it if we hadn't experienced it ourselves. On the other end of the evolutionary suspension timeline, the Bullitt's highway manners remind us why live-axle rear suspensions are relics found in pickup trucks. If the Mustang isn't required to tow anything, why does it need a live axle? So omnipresent were the motions of the rear suspension on anything but freshly steamrolled asphalt that it was damn near impossible to read the already inscrutable speedometer. We'd hate to guess what would happen if the Bullitt's 18-inch wheels were replaced with the Challenger's 20s. Will the Real Car Please Step Forward? The Challenger's dashboard is retro in its plainness. Sometimes retro is bad, as in the Mustang's painfully austere interior. The old-versus-new question tips the comparison of interiors in the Challenger's favor as well. Unlike the Bullitt's 2+2 setup, there are four truly inhabitable seats in the Challenger. The Bullitt's rear accommodations don't offer hostages an armrest, cupholders, a power point or even an air vent. The Challenger does, and gives passengers 2 inches more legroom and 3 inches more headroom. The Challenger's front seats (exclusive to the SRT8) are like racing seats compared to the Bullitt's retro-to-a-fault front buckets. All the switches, dials, buttons and stalks in the Challenger feel substantial and operate so cleanly it's as if they have been oiled. There are audio, trip computer, vehicle status and performance-related telemetry buttons on the Challenger's steering wheel, while the Bullitt has only cruise control. This Bullitt has an optional DVD-based touchscreen navigation and audio system, but it's so poorly laid out and encumbered with safety lock-outs that we'd rather keep its $2 grand cost. Finally, the Challenger offers as standard convenience equipment like an MP3 adapter, Sirius Satellite Radio and HID headlamps. All are optional on the Mustang. Muscle Without Retro Until you see it in person, you don't really understand just how large the Challenger really is. Poised, confident, and a part of the future, not just the past. So is the $40,145 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 really some $5,440 better than the $34,705 2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt? Yes, and when we crunched all the numbers into our comparison test formula, factoring performance, features, price, evaluation scores and personal/recommended choices, the Challenger won by three points. This might not be a win decisive enough for some budget conscious muscle-car buyers, especially if we're accurately predicting at least a $5,000 dealer markup for the first year's allotment of Challenger SRT8s. After all, if you have $45,000-$50,000, you could consider the 500-hp Shelby GT500, which is quicker than the Bullitt or the Challenger SRT8. Then again, even the Shelby has a live axle and the same interior as a common Mustang. Here's the bottom line. Be patient. Let the guys who gotta have 'em go ahead and snap up every 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 with its automatic transmission, brake-lock differential and dealer markups. If you're smart, you'll wait for the 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Just make sure to check off the option box that says, "Track Pak." You'll get a louder exhaust system, more aggressive steering alignment with more caster, firmer springs and dampers, and a stiffer rear antiroll bar. More important, the Track Pack will feature the Tremec TR-6060 six-speed manual transmission (from the SRT10 Viper) with a ZF-Sachs twin-disc clutch and an even more aggressive 3.91:1 final-drive ratio, plus a mechanical limited-slip differential. It'll also have a pistol-grip shifter. Some things that are retro are worth having, aren't they? Second Opinion Chrysler's corporate five-speed automatic can rip off upshifts hard enough to snap your head back. When you have a big, old American V8, you want a manual transmission with big, old American gears. Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says: I love the idea of Dodge's new Challenger. I also love the original car on which it is based. Hell, I even love bad movies written around this car. So what's the problem? The Challenger is more powerful, more sophisticated and quicker than the Mustang. So it's the easy choice, right? Not quite. Let's be honest. Neither of these cars was designed to win refinement awards. Neither was designed for elegance going around corners. And nobody ever passed Grey Poupon between American muscle cars. What these knuckle-dragging beasts are designed for, to put it simply, is judicious wheelspin — burnouts and powerslides. And both should be able to accomplish those feats simply and easily. But the Challenger can't. Its electronic ninnies must be disabled with a dance of button pushing, button holding and pedal play before any rubber will smoke. And even then it won't really smoke with authority. This, friends, is an insult to drag strips and motorheads across our great nation. Even with its traction and stability control "disabled," it insists on upshifting, closing the throttle or applying brakes to quell wheelspin. These demons make even a modest burnout or, heaven forbid, an honest-to-goodness powerslide near impossible. As evidence, just look at the photos and video which accompany this story. Don't see anything resembling serious tire smoke from the Challenger, do you? Sure, there's a little here and there, but you'll never see the Challenger carry a slide around a skid pad or produce a genuine smoke-trailing rolling burnout. And that's just plain wrong. But the Mustang does all this with ease. Partly, this is thanks to its manual transmission. SRT8 Challengers won't be available with a manual transmission until the 2009 models roll out. What's more, the Mustang requires only a single button push to eliminate its electronic ninnies. Completely. And, believe us, pushing that button is as refreshing as ushering your mother out of the room during a first date. I want to love the new Challenger. But with half its appeal lost to fear of liability, there's little choice but to pick the solid-axle, manually shifted, tire-smoking Mustang. Performance - Dodge Challenger SRT8 0 - 30 (sec): 2.3 0 - 45 (sec): 3.4 0 - 60 (sec): 5.1 0 - 75 (sec): 6.9 1/4 Mile (sec @ mph): 13.2 @ 107.5 0-60 with 1-ft Rollout (sec): 4.8 30 - 0 (ft): 29 60 - 0 (ft): 115 Braking Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Excellent Slalom (mph): 66.2 Skid Pad Lateral acceleration (g): 0.86 Handling Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Very Good Db @ Idle: 48.2 Db @ Full Throttle: 82.7 Db @ 70 mph Cruise: 71.1 Edmunds Observed (mpg): 14.5 Combined average (16.5 best, 11.5 worst) Acceleration Comments: With ESP and traction control disabled, the quickest launch was the result of simply whacking the throttle to the firewall -- no brake torque. Just the right combination of gear ratios, available torque and tire slip produced a textbook-perfect launch, bog- and wheelspin-free. Upshifts are blazingly fast with a built-in burp between gears. Gearing and power delivery are very well matched. Exhaust is almost too muted inside the car. Handling Comments: Slalom: Given its size, I was initially apprehensive to throw the Challenger around, but its capabilities became immediately obvious after the first slalom pass, which was very controlled and produced little body roll. From then on, it was only a matter of coming to terms with finding the widely spaced corners of the car. Steering wheel feels about 2 inches too large in diameter, but offers a decent balance between effort and precision. Road feel is a little vague, as is turn-in. Balance is quite neutral and short-travel suspension helps it transition surprisingly well in directional changes. Skid pad: Mild understeer on the limit that turns into gentle lift-throttle oversteer. Nice. Steering doesn't seem to load much. Braking Comments: Firm pedal with excellent feel. Virtually no dive, little ABS noise and zero fade from first to last stop. Performance - Ford Mustang Bullitt 0 - 30 (sec): 2.2 0 - 45 (sec): 3.6 0 - 60 (sec): 5.4 0 - 75 (sec): 7.8 1/4 Mile (sec @ mph): 13.7 @ 103.0 0-60 with 1-ft Rollout (sec): 5.1 30 - 0 (ft): 32 60 - 0 (ft): 126 Braking Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Good Slalom (mph): 66.1 Skid Pad Lateral acceleration (g): 0.87 Handling Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Very Good Db @ Idle: 50.2 Db @ Full Throttle: 81.5 Db @ 70 mph Cruise: 70.8 Edmunds Observed (mpg): 17.3 Combined avg (21.2 best, 14.5 worst) Acceleration Comments: With the traction control turned off and quick clutch engagement, it's easy to find the sweet spot in terms of wheelspin for an aggressive and highly repeatable launch. So consistent is the Bullitt that of the five runs we made, 0-60 times varied by 0.1 second at most, and quarter-mile by 0.09 second. This thing would be an excellent bracket racer. Clutch engagement is a little vague, shifter is a little heavy (appropriately so) but accurate. I believe the higher redline (250 rpm more than GT) allowed the Bullitt to cross the finish line in 3rd gear, saving time-wasting shift. Handling Comments: Remarkably adroit turn-in in the slalom, but even the fortified Bullitt-spec suspension leaves a little more room for improvement. The car takes a good set, but the up-down motions of the rear axle affect the overall balance in quick transitions. On the other hand, the LSD pays off on the exit, where the Bullitt blasts through the timers in a controlled, slideways attitude. Skid-pad behavior is biased slightly toward understeer, with moderate body roll and plenty of grip. Braking Comments: The first stop from 60 (at 126 feet) was best by 8-10 feet. We couldn't duplicate that short stop, but the Bullitt maintained 132-134-foot stops thereafter, showing no signs of fading. Despite Bullitt-spec front pads, the pedal still doesn't have the kind of resistance/feel/feedback we'd like to experience in a sports car. Good brakes, but not great.