7 Things I Learned From My First Muscle Car Experience

As Brit and a complete outsider to the muscle car world, here’s what I learned after taking the keys to a Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack for a week in California

Remind me later
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to try a proper muscle car. Maybe it’s because such vehicles are - for the most part - forbidden fruit in the corner of the world I call home, or maybe I’m just a secret American. It would explain a lot, given my unhealthy love of burgers and BBQ food. But I can’t help but look upon these big V8 hulks we’re cruelly denied in the UK with uncontrollable lust.

Thankfully, before my last trip to the US - California, specifically - I dropped Dodge a line and arranged to nab the keys to a Challenger for the duration of my stay. Specifically, an R/T Scat Pack. Here’s what I discovered from my first muscle car experience…

You quickly get used to the size

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When carefully navigating out of the multi-storey carpark near LAX that I picked up the Challenger from, it felt utterly massive. I gingerly eased the Challenger out of that parking garage with more care than I’ve afforded six-figure supercars, and even when I was out on the local roads - vast expanses of tarmac in comparison to the pathetic ribbons that make up the UK road network - I still felt as though it barely fit.

An hour or so in though, I was happy with the Challenger’s sizeable form, even if it seems curiously cosy inside for such a considerable lump of car. I was happy driving around, happy parking it, and happy threading it across twisty roads. It’d feel unwieldy and ridiculous in the UK, but in the US, no such problem.

Skinny tyres and almost 500bhp makes for lots of smoke

The first few times I drove the Challenger, I managed to light up the rear tyres while pulling away from several sets of traffic lights. I no doubt looked like a yob, but it was totally unintentional: I was barely touching the right-hand pedal. I mean sure, 485bhp is a hefty output, but why, I thought, does this thing have so much issue putting power down?

A little look at the sidewalls revealed why: the Goodyear Eagle F1 ’Supercar’ tyres are just 245mm wide front and rear. Just 10mm wider than the Honda Civic Type R longtermer we used to run. No, I’m not joking.

Thankfully, Dodge has been sensible and fitted the 697bhp Challenger Hellcat with wider tyres. Which are, err, 275-section at the rear. Right.

While the surprisingly skinny tyres on the Scat make putting power down off the line a little tricky, they do mean you can lay down fat(ish) 11s whenever you damn well please. This is less a car, more a $43,795 burnout machine.

But oversteer isn’t the order of the day

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Despite the Challenger’s propensity to light up the rear tyres off the line at the slightest tickle of the throttle, it’s not some lairy, oversteery handful in the corners. Actually, understeer is its Achilles heel. With almost two tonnes of car pitching into a corner and a big heavy engine under the hood, those equally skinny front tyres are at the mercy of the laws of physics, resulting in the front end pushing on with relatively frequency. It’s only if you’re really greedy with the throttle that you start to feel the back end moving. It doesn’t even try to hide its weight with light steering: the theme of butch weightiness is in abundance whenever your turn the wheel.

It handled better than I was expecting. Anticipate the weight and the hefty, wooly steering, and you can make quick and relatively easy progress through fast sweepers. It’s certainly not hopeless on a twisty road, but after heading back to the same Joshua Tree desert road the next day in a Mercedes-AMG C63 S coupe (more on that soon), I was reminded of how a V8 coupe can handle if a different ethos is applied. Which is, in a word, better.

The interior is nicer than I expected

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Us Europeans like to poke fun at those American automakers and their apparently crummy cabins, but I didn’t find much to grumble about in the Challenger. Materials generally feel decent, the general build quality is good - if not exceptional - and while the nav system was a tad slow and had a tendency to shout at you about alternate routes every 10 minutes, it’s perfectly usable.

The retro-style dials are weirdly small and hard to read though - I found myself keeping the big digital speed display on the trip computer in between the clocks most of the time.

There really is no replacement for displacement

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Despite packing 6.4 litres of displacement, the 392 V8 nestling under - and also popping out of - the Challenger Scat Pack’s bonnet isn’t the biggest engine I’ve had the pleasure of sampling. That pleasure goes to the 6.75-litre twin-turbo eight-banger in the Bentley Mulsanne, but the Challenger’s V8 is certainly the biggest naturally-aspirated engine I’m yet to use, not to mention the biggest N/A V8 Dodge makes right now. And it’s quite a thing.

Putting your foot down results in a wall of noise and horsepower, interrupted ever so briefly by the reasonably slick (when you take control, at least) eight-speed automatic gearbox. Yes, I’d rather have been rowing through the gears myself, but the auto didn’t detract from the experience too much.

The closest thing I’ve driven to the Challenger is the sixth-generation Ford Mustang GT, but I always found the 5.0-litre N/A ‘Coyote’ lump to be a tiny bit disappointing. It’s too muted (the active exhaust on the facelift car might rectify this), and it just isn’t the shouty slice of Americana I’ve been looking for. But the 6.4 in this Challenger? It’s bang on the money. It rumbles at low revs, changing to a gruff shout as you reach the redline. This isn’t a V8 with an exotic, high-revving nature, either - peak power is at 6350rpm, which feels just right.

Shaker hoods are awesome and you should want one

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This particular Challenger’s party piece is certainly the engine, but not its considerable power output or shouty exhaust note. No: it’s the shaker hood.

It’s essentially a big intake that’s sticking out of the middle of the bonnet (in additional to a conventional intake piped through the front), the idea being it provides a more direct path for air to be channeled into the engine. It’s only available on the R/T and the Scat Pack, although the Hellcat has its own fancy intake setup in the form of its donut-shaped headlights.

The shaker setup was popular in the days of carburetted V8s, but in the modern world, it’s more of a marketing ploy. If there are any power gains, they’re going to be arbitrarily miniscule - Dodge doesn’t give shaker-equipped cars a higher figure. But you shouldn’t option the shaker for performance. No: you should option it because it’s spectacularly cool.

Seeing the intake wobble each time you rev, bucking and pivoting when you put your foot down and change gear, or just gently rocking as the engine moves on its mountings while you’re cruising down the highway - it makes for an amazing view out of the windscreen.

I’m completely sold on the concept

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You can consider me a complete convert to this kind of car. And in a way, that comes as a surprise to me - the way a car handles and feels to drive is normally at the top of the list of things I look for in a motor. But this Challenger is a big, silly, noisy thing that gets under your skin and damn well stays there.

I was lucky enough to stay in some swanky establishments with valet parking while out in California, and each time the valet fetched the car for me, I heard an unmistakable V8 rumble followed by the thoroughly conspicuous appearance of a big, orange muscle car. Every time it happened I tried my best to look cool, calm and collected, but every time I completely failed as my face exploded into giant, dumb smile.

7 Things I Learned From My First Muscle Car Experience - Features

I’m not sure I’d feel quite the same about the car if I was tootling around my homeland - it doesn’t feel like an experience which would translate to Bedfordshire particularly well. So, my only option is to move to California, buy a house out in the sticks and plonk a Challenger outside. And maybe a Porsche Cayman - I haven’t completely given up on ‘proper’ sports cars.

Clearly, something has to be done, but I’ll settle for heading back for another week to try the Hellcat…