Mountain Wheels: Challenger’s heavy speed saves the day in Motor City |

Mountain Wheels: Challenger’s heavy speed saves the day in Motor City

Special to the Daily

Detroit – Spend more than a frantic drive-by’s worth of time in the once great Motor City and you’ll get a clear picture of the decay of the American Dream. And a few signs that the old gal might still have some life left in her, maybe.

I jetted east this week to attend the North American International Auto Show, that epicenter of the car business’s hopes and dreams for the slowly re-emerging U.S. auto market.

And while the show had its share of classy debuts and some surprising machines you’ll be seeing on mountain roads in the not so distant future (including an all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee, the 2014 Corvette Stingray and the cool-looking Cadillac ELR iteration of the Volt), I opted to get a better sense for the reality of southeastern Michigan by hitting the roads in a 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8. It’s now called the 392, in honor of those road-melting MoPar Hemis of the past.

I’ve had a few chances to drive the reinvigorated version of the storied muscle car up at altitude – where 470 horsepower still moves you along pretty briskly – but at just a few hundred feet above sea level, the blast is pretty epic.

For 2013, the Challenger has been given even more borderline crazy power as the 6.4-liter V8 Hemi has been tweaked to produce 470 lb.-ft. of torque.

That helps get the car off the line in a very impressive fashion (there’s now an electronic launch control as well to help maximize peel-outs); gigantic Brembo brakes still bring the not unsubstantial automobile from 60 to a stop in 117 feet.

Cruising along the rutted and potholed brick-lined Michigan Avenue into town, Challenger and its 20-inch wheels still provides a more supple and comfortable ride than its other domestic competitors, with a three-mode electronic suspension tuning system also allowing more rigid, combat-ready stiffness if you end up on a track.

And despite all that uproarious power, the car is also capable of up to 23 mpg on the highway, partially due to a fuel-saver mode that deactivates half of the cylinders when rolling along at flat power points. That does produce a slightly ungainly burbling noise, but the fuel saving is there, and the full power is not hard to access.

The fact that I’d been gifted with a bright white Challenger with red stripes made my journeys a little less camouflaged, but the locals appreciated the car’s strong statement and stylish looks.

Challenger’s also one of the more comfortable variations on the retro sports car market, with a sizeable trunk, decent rear seat space – relatively easy to access, as well – and an ample interior that doesn’t feel constrained or claustrophobic like a new Mustang or a Camaro.

The 2013 version of the car (named’s Shopper’s Choice, by the way) has also had a few nice interior touches added – a heated steering wheel with shiny satin chrome highlights and a couple of huge shift paddles if you’re rocking the automatic transmission.

That five-speed system is about the only thing that seems dated, though it’s more than capable of handling the engine’s remarkable power, with a high-performance clutch taken from the 2008 Viper; a six-speed manual is also an option.

An 18-speaker harmon/kardon stereo is also available, providing 900 watts of sound, still not quite enough to drown out the explosive engine noises when you bury the gas pedal.

Dodge is not kidding about fast: The automatic transmission version of the Challenger SRT8 is good for 175 mph in a long, safe environment, while the automatic can take you to an ungodly 182 mph.

As for the NAIAS itself, car fans have certainly worked themselves into a tizzy with peeks at that hyper-stylized 2014 ‘Vette, which will come standard with 450 horsepower and will be capable of sub-four-second runs to 60 mph. And, yes, the new interior is quite remarkable, with honest-to-goodness, comfortable sport seats.

Ford’s upcoming Atlas truck concept will also be an interesting update to the line, and a relaunched Mercedes-Benz E-Class also promises a nice reboot to the mid-line automobile.

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