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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 18, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    California Dreaming

    Neil Briscoe

    Every January, when the Detroit Motor Show (or North American International Auto Show, to give it its full and correct name) rolls around, there comes a brief gust of hope. Hope that, at last, American car makers have seen the light not only in terms of quality, handling and efficiency, but also in terms of remembering that many of us still drive on the left. It has long been a source of frustration to myself and other car enthusiasts that so many great American cars are stuck with their steering wheels on the wrong side. I know many of you may not appreciate the magic of a Mustang, Corvette or Charger, or even the humble but (to me anyway) brilliant Ford Crown Victoria, but there are many of us who pine for something similar on this side of the pond.

    Are we mad? Can American-centric cars ever truly ‘work’ in Europe, or more significantly, in Ireland? We already have a symbiotic relationship with the US, we love their TV shows, their movies, their food and fashion, so why not their cars. There was nothing else for it, I was going to have to get hold of some proper Detroit iron and work it out for myself…

    The USS Midway sits, looking rather like a grey cliff-face, at the side of the harbour in San Diego, California. It’s not segregated from the public, but is in fact a floating museum, charting the hundred-year history of American Naval aviation, and even if you’re not visiting (and you should) you can walk right up to it and marvel at its sheer size.

    She displaces 74,000 tonnes, which sounds like a lot, until you consider that the 101,000 tonnes displaced by the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers that can be clearly seen across the harbour in the sprawling Naval base that is downtown San Diego’s neighbour. The Midway might be a lightweight compared to her more modern shipmates (a Superleggera aircraft carrier?) but she has a fascinating history. Commissioned at the end of the Second World War, she was originally a straight-deck design, but was updated in the sixties to the then new technology of an angled flight deck; allowing aircraft to land and take off at the same time and more safely to boot. When her career began, her pilots would have been flying Grumman Bearcats and Vought Corsairs – classic warbirds with huge radial piston engines and massive multi-bladed propellors. When she was decommissioned and turned into a museum, just after the 1991 conflict in Kuwait, her air group consisted of fast jets like the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. She has had, in other words, a long career distinguished by evolution.

    You can see where this is going can’t you?

    Parked on the quayside next to the Midway, Dodge’s Challenger SRT8 396, in its bright orange paint with black stripes, looks barely any smaller. It is a classic American muscle car, almost self-consciously so, with lines and styling that are more or less a straight lift from the 1970 original. And just as the Midway was the last of her kind to be commissioned during WWII, the original Challenger was the last of the great original US muscle cars. Just after the first Challenger, with its vast 440-cu.in (7.2-litre) engine came along, so did the first of the OPEC oil shocks and the market for such cars changed utterly, virtually disappearing overnight. Where such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang prostituted themselves to the new reality, appearing in ugly, downsized forms, the Challenger battled on as was, before disappearing from Dodge’s line up for three decades.

    In 2008, it came back, with gloriously OTT retro styling, to take on the challenge of rejuvenated rivals from Ford and Chevrolet (who also revived the Mustang and Camaro in dramatic new forms) and this, the SRT8 396 is the king of the Challenger hill. 396-cu.in translates as 6.4-litres and that gives you 470bhp (which sounds like a rather paltry output for such an engine) and 637Nm of torque (which doesn’t).

    It’s a recipe that could only be American. Massive engine, lazy torque, 16-feet of length and barely enough room to seat four. Another link with the Midway, then. Both have massive, flat flight-decks reaching out in front…

    It would be easy to dismiss the Challenger as a cartoon, a car with no relevance whatsoever for Europe or for Ireland. A car for Sunset Boulevard, not for parking at the kerb on Kildare Street ( I know; you can’t ACTUALLY park on Kildare St…).

    And yet, that would be just wrong. There is something deeply significant about the Challenger. It is Sergio Marchionne’s personal favourite car from the entire Fiat Group empire and his weekend transport. Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and therefore also of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep carries more influence than most individuals when it comes to car making in Europe, and if he loves his Challenger, then you’d have to assume that future Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati models will bear some of its influence.

    And that, I can tell you, would be no bad thing. The Challenger has its faults, which we’ll come to in a moment, but it is such a glorious thing, in and of itself, that it is impossible not to love and even to covet.

    OK, so that is a conclusion borne of driving it in its natural habitat; along the straight-lines of San Diego’s city streets and the wide spaces of Interstate 5 and Highway 101. All cars always feel better in their own homes. Still though, who could fail to be utterly charmed by that bluff shape, the wild paint scheme or the chesty burble coming from the exhaust pipes? Certainly, downtown San Diegoans were enthusiastic – I was actually at one point buttonholed by a bus driver, who stopped his own vehicle in the middle of cross-town traffic to voice his appreciation for the car. Would the same happen in begrudging Ireland? Doubtful…

    The power output may be shaded by smaller, more efficient European engines, but the Challenger still steps off the line briskly, and thanks to our car being fitted with the six-speed stick-shift (sorry, manual) it was child’s play to light up the rear tyres on pull-out. Well, it would have been had the local headquarters of the California Highway Patrol not been on the same street as our hotel. The CHIPS never actually pulled me over, but their black and white Crown Vics were never far from my peripheral vision…

    Once rolling, the first thing you notice is the Challenger’s sheer size, something that’s not helped by wayward steering that has a huge dead patch just off centre. It makes steering a consistent course in your lane a mixture of concentration and dumb luck, and it’s not helped by a chassis that feels softly-sprung and loosely damped, but with huge 20″ wheels that clatter and thump over every undulation. This is all starting to look a bit bad for the Challenger.

    Worry not, you just have to give it some space and get everything hooked up properly. Third is the best gear, allowing you to lope along with slow moving traffic, and then obliterate that traffic in a howl of inappropriate noise and blurry orangeness. Start to ask deeper questions of the Challenger’s dynamic makeup and it starts to answer back. It’s never what you’d call sophisticated, but then think of a NASCAR race car; that’s as dumb as a brick compared to a tricked-out Formula One car, but hooked up on the banking at Daytona, a well driven one would leave Sebastien Vettel for dead… Thus it is with the Challenger. Start to heed its moods and movements, and the two of you soon start to gel. The weight and bulk start to mentally shed and soon, you’ve got a proper performance four seat (just) coupe. I don’t mind admitting that I fell in love, just a little. I can see why Sergio loves his.

    Hopefully, we’ll see more of the Challenger’s ilk. You can already buy a car in this country with the same chassis and suspension; the Chrysler 300C, which with its muscular VM Motori V6 Diesel engine does about as good a job of being a Euro-friendly lead-sled as you can imagine. Again, it’s a car with many faults relative to its mainstream European and Japanese opposition and yet still a car that I, personally, would own and drive in a heartbeat.

    Given the increasing trend for globalisation in the car industry (almost all Ford models in future, even the mighty Mustang, will be built with right-hand-drive and sold in Europe and Ford Ireland’s Eddie Murphy has promised me that we’ll see the Mustang here at some stage) there is a strong likelihood that future Challengers, in some form or another, will make it to these shores. Even if not, the engineering and philosophy behind them will, mixed and matched along the way with Fiat and Alfa Romeo DNA. And just this week, at the Detroit Show, Chevrolet has promised (albeit not for the first time) that its new Corvette will come with right-hand drive – a particularly delicious prospect.

    But a 6.4-litre engine, that I got a best average of 16mpg out of, when petrol costs €1.60 a litre (it’s the equivalent of €0.77 a litre in San Diego *sigh*)? Well, that’s not going to happen, but if Audi can think of putting a big diesel engine in its R8 supercar (which will happen in the next couple of years) then why not a diesel muscle car? The existing VM Motori V6 3.0-litre would provide plenty enough motive grunt to make a Challenger SRT-D a compelling prospect, and if you strapped a second turbo to the manifold, then you really would have a replacement for displacement…

    Such a car could potentially be a cut-price rival to the likes of a BMW 6 Series or Jaguar XK. Too much of a minority market? Perhaps not, if an appropriate level of chassis and cabin sophistication, and a bargain price tag, can be found.

    Or perhaps a bigger rubicon needs to be crossed. While gently burbling my way along 1st Avenue one afternoon, I was overtaken, silently, by a Tesla Model S. A sexy, low-slung saloon with BMW M5-bothering performance and a potential 400km range on one charge of its massive stack of batteries, perhaps it is this layout that presents a potential future for the muscle car. Just as the Midway’s successors turned away from oil-fired turbines and looked to atoms for their prodigious power, why not have a muscle car fired by electrons rather than hydrocarbons?

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