2009 Dodge Challenger SE Review

By Kevin Miller


img_0729A year ago this month, Chrysler’s PR reps dropped off a 425 HP Dodge Challenger SRT8 at 100 Autosavant Plaza for a weeklong review. Our intrepid editor Chris Haak garnered more attention than most B-list celebrities over a long weekend driving the then-new Challenger SRT8 in Hemi Orange for a week. We later had the opportunity to review the Dodge Challenger R/T, which features a 375 HP Hemi V8 coupled to 5-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission.

Now, we have finally tested the third member of the Challenger family, the SE. Equipped with a 250 HP, 3.5 liter V-6 and a pedestrian four-speed automatic transmission, the Challenger SE finds itself resolutely unable to live up to its reborn muscle car looks.

img_0378Those looks are remarkably similar to the Challenger R/T. While the HEMI badges are missing (as is the trunklid spoiler), the aggressive chin spoiler, hood vents, and bulging wheel arches on the Challenger SE convey the same look of power and menace. Driving the Inferno Red test car for a week, I got second looks, thumbs-up ,and hollered appreciative comments from bystanders and other motorists throughout my week in the Challenger.

While the Challenger SE benefits from the powerful, menacing look of its more muscular stablemates, it also shares their flaws, such as the large C-pillar blind spots and minimal rear seat legroom. Though it wasn’t mentioned in our previous reviews, the shape of the car’s rear end dictates a high liftover to stow cargo in the trunk, which itself is quite large. Lifting heavy items such as suitcases into the back of the Challenger was a “challenge”, as was reaching things that were way up at the front of the trunk.

img_0381Another demerit is the fact that the Challenger’s dashboard is very plain looking; I had the opportunity to check out a new Chevrolet Camaro during my week with the Challenger, and the comparison between the Camaro’s stylish, retro-themed dash and the Challenger’s dull assembly was striking.

My tester’s interior color was called Dark Slate Gray by Chrysler, I’d call it black. The dashboard, carpets, seats, and headliner were all this color, leading to an incredibly dark, somber appearance. While my Challenger SE featured the optional Leather Interior Group (which includes leather –trimmed front bucket seats and front seat heaters), the leather was only small inserts on the front seats, while the rest of the seats were vinyl; the scent of vinyl permeated the interior of the Challenger.

img_0380One pleasant surprise was finding LATCH child seat anchors for all three positions in the back seat of the Challenger. Unfortunately, my test car only had access to the back seat using a quick-release seatback on the passenger side of the car. On the driver’s side, the power seat controls had to be used to slowly motor the driver’s chair forward. That was inconvenient not only for getting my seven-month-old daughter into her rear-facing car seat in the center of the back seat (the only position where it would fit), but also for stowing a briefcase or jacket on the back seat.

During my week with the Challenger SE, I found that the shape of the cup holders in the front console, which feature a raised disc-shape in their center, prevented my water bottle and my travel mug from sitting properly in the holder. Too, the cup holders were too small to hold some larger drink bottles. Another demerit is that my tester lacked Bluetooth phone integration, even though the head unit had buttons for telephone control (pressing the buttons displayed the message NOT EQUIPPED on the display).

img_0368So now that I’ve gotten all of those details out of the way, how does the Challenger SE drive? How does it compare to the R/T and the SRT8 versions of the Challlenger? Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold a candle to either of those more powerful cars, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The four-speed automatic is quick to downshift in an effort to improve fuel economy (the Challenger SE has an EPA rating of 17 city/25 highway/ 20 combined), and for the same reason it is not quick to upshift. Note that later-production 2009 Challenger SE vehicles are being manufactured with a five-speed Autostick automatic with a 19/27 MPG rating. Unfortunately, my test car’s four-speed automatic had no manual override or manual shifting scheme for the archaic transmission, just the gear selector with P, R, N, D, 3 and L. The 250 HP, 3.5 liter V6 has its output sapped by the transmission’s torque converter, to the point that the menacing-looking Challenger SE can’t even burn rubber when setting off from a stop. The only time I successfully squealed the rear tires was at full throttle while turning a corner. Too, the exhaust is incredibly muted; on acceleration it sounded like one of Dodge’s minivans rather than a performance car.

The parts-bin steering wheel, which lacked audio controls, also lacked feedback. It had poor on-center feel and was imprecise in its actuation; I found myself constantly needing to make small steering input corrections as I piloted the car around town and on the freeway. The P225/60R18 Touring tires seemed to be set up to isolate the car from the road rather than to connect the car to the road, and they worked with the suspension to produce isolation and make the car feel handle like a vehicle much taller than it looks. The Challenger SE is not a car to be hustled from corner to corner and apex to apex, instead it is at is best on straighter roads over long hauls. Trying to drive the Challenger SE in a sporting manner was not an enjoyable experience, as it is not light on its feet.

img_0367My week with the car proved that the Challenger SE suffers from a classic case of “all show, no go”. So let’s look at the price difference between it at its better-endowed siblings. The SE has an pretty low base price, at $21,320 which includes standard equipment such as front, side, and curtain airbags, four-wheel disc brakes, cruise control, air conditioning, split-folding rear seat, power windows, tilt/telescope steering wheel, 17” alloy wheels, and power mirrors. The vehicle I tested included Preferred Package 26G for $2705 (uconnect studios Sirius satellite radio, 18”x7.5” aluminum wheels, traction control, antilock brakes with brake assist, electronic stability program, fog lamps, leather wrapped steering wheel, luxury front and rear floor mats, P225/60R18 tires (upgraded from P215/65R17), security alarm, and sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors); Sound Group for $995 (AM/FM stereo radio with 6-disc in-dash DC/DVD/MPD player, six Boston Acoustics Speakers and 276 W amplifier); Leather Interior Group for $855 (leather trimmed front bucket seats and heated front seats), Power Sunroof for $950, and Compact Spare Tire for $100, a Destination Charge of $675, for a total of $27,690 as tested.

That price compares to the $30,945 starting price of the 375 HP Challenger R/T, though to get a similarly-equipped R/T you’ll pay around $33,000. Still, that is about $5500 (from the vehicle I tested, or nearly 10,000 from the base Challenger SE) for an additional 125 HP, which will gives the Challenger the performance to back up its swaggering, muscular appearance. While my test vehicle garnered a lot of attention during the week I spent with it, the car’s performance and handling couldn’t live up to its aggressive appearance. Though the SE’s base price of $21,320 may look like a bargain, its powertrain has only enough power to disappoint nearly every time you climb behind the wheel.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved


Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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  1. These are the cars that normal people buy so it begs the question; how does this compare to the Mustang? Being the perennial sales leader, the Mustang will crush the Challenger if it can’t match or exceed the Mustang in comfort and style.

  2. Maybe it will crush the Challanger, but not if you don’t like the way the Stang looks. Like me. I like Camero, Challanger, not, Mustang.

    Dealers cant get enough Challangers, so someone must like it.

  3. I just hope the future family of V6 engines at Chrysler known now as Pentastar (formelly Phoenix engine) will be under the hood of the Challenger soon to face the future 3.5L V6 for the Mustang (who’ll replace the old 4.0L V6) as well as the current 3.6L V6 from the Camaro.

  4. Agreed, Stephane. The new-generation V6 with, say, a six-speed manual and six-speed automatic would probably greatly improve the fun quotient in the Challenger. The Camaro is only a little smaller/lighter, and it’s not too bad with the V6/auto combo.

  5. This is a lot closer to what used to happen, fire-breathing performance cars with an anemic base car. “Secretary’s car”, it was called.

    Not the case now with the base Camaro, it’s got real pop. This base engine does not.

  6. The 3.5 liter will never be mistaken for a hemi, but the real problem is weight. As beautiful as it is–and they look even better up close than in a picture–the Challenger is too heavy. It’s more like a 70’s personal luxury coupe than a pony car–although the Camaro/Firebird eventually became porky but low-to-the-ground personal coupes as the 70s progressed.

    Still beautiful though, and if you don’t care about performance the base model could be a good value. Especially given that no one should have to pay list price. The base model, at least can be had in these parts for around 17K.

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