We take the wheel of the Dodge Challenger concept car for a combination driving impression, focus group and publicity stunt You always have to wait and see what a new design looks like out in traffic before you know for sure if it works. The Challenger works. By Kevin Smith Date posted: 05-22-2006 What would you do if someone handed you the keys to a sexy zillion-dollar concept car? You'd go show it off to your buds, right? So when DaimlerChrysler bravely agreed to let us take its Dodge Challenger concept car out in public and play for a day, we knew exactly where to go. The Challenger design study paves the way for a retro-revival production vehicle intended to fire passions in enthusiasts of all ages. (Doesn't "2007 Dodge Challenger" have a promising ring?) So in an exercise that was one part driving impression, one part focus group and one part crass publicity stunt, we spent 20 miles behind the wheel of the Challenger in real traffic, and showed up at two of Southern California's most popular Saturday-morning car-people gatherings. Safe to say, we made an impression. It was some spectacle, arriving at Donut Derelicts, the enduring Huntington Beach get-together in a modest strip mall at Magnolia and Adams. At a groggy 6:30 in the morning, the place was already packed, and all eyes turned to the striking Hemi Orange Challenger as we pulled in the driveway. Or tried to. This thing is low! And the tires are huge! The crowd at Donut Derelicts, a famous Huntington Beach, California, gathering, went nuts for the Challenger. Its designers had insisted that the Challenger be seen as they had intended: sitting low on big-meat 20/21-inch rolling stock. This was a conscious trade-off, choosing a dramatic stance and fully stuffed wheelwells over real street drivability, since the tires rubbed badly on the bodywork. We wouldn't argue with their choice, since the car looks so good. But for a few uneasy moments there, with a hundred excited faces and dozens of cameras now focused on us, it was dicey. We had to take a couple of cuts to get the car squared up with the driveway, then ease up the incline with everything rubbing and groaning, before we could carry on with our grand entrance. No matter. The Challenger hit the savvy Donut Derelicts crowd right where they live and breathe. Cool cars, some donuts and a lovable bunch of derelicts It didn't matter if they were muscle car fans, sports car aficionados or what, car crowds loved the Challenger. Almost any kind of car and car person can show up at Donut Derelicts, but American muscle cars, classics and street rods are the prevalent themes. So not only did the Dodge Challenger concept car pull the looks, everyone there knew exactly what it was. Making our parade lap around the lot on the way to our staked-out-since-5-a.m. parking slot, we heard it constantly: "Hey, that's the Challenger." "Look, the Challenger's here." "Wow, somebody brought the Challenger." The crowd swarmed over the car, naturally. Have a look at the video but it was many bodies deep the whole time we were there. Mike Castiglione, the Challenger's exterior designer, and Alan Barrington, who did its interior, showed up to answer questions and take in the mob's reaction to their baby. "Where'd those seats come from?" "Are you really going to have a quarter-mile readout in the gauges?" "Did the side marker lights have to be that big?" "Are those wheels producible?" Of course, there was advice as well: "You gotta have a base V6, then a 5.7 Hemi, a 6.1, and finally a 6.1 supercharged." "You're doing a convertible in Year Two, right?" Mike and Alan, whom we talked to extensively in our first Dodge Challenger article and video, were gracious, interested and noncommittal. The official company line on the Challenger's production prospects is, "Still looking into it." PR honcho Scott Brown said that the outstanding questions include whether to go high-price/low-volume or low-price/high-volume, what plant had capacity to build it, fundamentals like that. OK. But to see the eager crowd at Donut Derelicts (and the ones who ogled this same car on the stand at the Detroit auto show), and to hear how everyone talks about it, there's no way DCX decides against building this car now. Rolling (and rubbing) down the road Even with most of the other cars gone from Crystal Cruisers, our Challenger held a crowd. For a show-stand beauty, the Challenger is remarkably roadworthy, but for one small detail: The rubber meets the road, and also lots of bodywork. The slightest bump or seam or contour in the pavement had the 275/40R21 rear tires hitting the inner fender liners, biting hard enough to slow the car down. And the 255/45R20 front tires scarfed the fender flares getting up the driveway into Donut Derelicts. So our "driving impression" was going to be a gentle tiptoe down the road rather than a proper blast. Still, the Challenger managed to give us some sense of what a production version would feel like to drive. The engine, after all, is a dead-stock 425-horsepower 6.1 Hemi as used in SRT-8-version Chargers and Magnums, and it's bolted to a standard Viper six-speed manual gearbox. Even the chassis is a shortened (4 inches out of the wheelbase) Charger/Magnum/300 sedan unit, just as the original Challenger and Barracuda E-bodies were based on a cut-down B-body platform. Since the basic shapes of the windshield, side glass and roof pillars echo the old Challenger, the view out from the cockpit does, too. The high beltline with its characteristic kickup over the rear wheels is also vintage Challenger and indeed, the long-hood/short-deck architecture recalls the proportions of all those pony car coupes from the mid-'60s and early '70s. The modern interpretation of the pistol-grip shifter feels right, the deep front seats (extra padding over Charger SRT-8 frames) offer lots of support, and the Flowmaster mufflers emit a lusty exhaust rumble. We expected a cramped backseat but the space is actually pretty usable, if dark. As a road car, this auto-show beauty did ask us to overlook a few details, which is normal with these things. The doors had to be eased shut very gingerly, and the power windows and driver seat went dead when a fuse blew. Also, the instruments and other switches inside were all dummies, but the shapes and appearances bode well for what the production version would (will?) offer. Of course, the big detail the Challenger asked us to forgive was the tire clearance. When the tires rub every time the wind changes, no one's going to learn much about the car's real performance. But we can see it hiding in there someplace. On paper, 425 horsepower, a six-speed manual and a curb weight of maybe 3,600 pounds could translate into the 4.5-second 0-60 time that DCX talks about. And the brakes and steering were accurate and responsive enough to confirm our sense that the car should stop and steer like a tautly sprung, short-wheelbase Charger SRT-8 that has shed a few hundred pounds. Can't be bad. Crystal cruising Open wide and show us your Hemi. After inching and rubbing down Pacific Coast Highway from Donut Derelicts, we nosed the Challenger into the Crystal Cove Promenade, south of Newport Beach. This snazzy shopping center hosts its own Saturday car gathering, one that caters a little more to the Ferrari and Porsche set, but muscle cars show up there as well. Especially this Saturday, since the Mopar Club of San Diego had heard we were coming. A couple of "real" Challengers turned out, and it was fun to see them alongside this modern, weightier interpretation of their classic lines. Also at Crystal Cruisers, as it's called, were a bunch of folks from DaimlerChrysler's Pacifica Advanced Design Center, the studio where the Challenger concept was born and built, just down the coast in Carlsbad. They were obviously enjoying the crowd enjoying their car. We've said the new Challenger looks a little like an old one that TV designer/customizer Chip Foose did his Overhaulin' thing to; and Chip was there as well, to check out the styling work of his Art Center classmate Mike Castiglione. Once again, the bodies packed deep around the Challenger, and the commentary came thick and fast. Not even the Gallardo Spyder insecurely clearing its pipes nearby distracted our crowd. So, did we succeed in snagging a driving impression, creating a ruckus and drawing some reaction? On the driving impression, only sort of. As to the ruckus, oh boy, yes. Shamelessly so. This was playing to a real easy house. And based on this highly biased crowd reaction, the car clearly must go into production. Dodge's Challenger concept popped eyeballs and dropped jaws at the biggest grass-roots car get-togethers in town. Visitors from Mars would not have drawn this much interest. Unless they were driving a one-of-17 Hemi 'Cuda convertible. The family resemblance shows in the face, fender line and highlight crease.