Modern Muscle Showdown: V vs SRT

As much as I may hate to admit it, we actually live in a pretty good time for performance cars.  Those boring beige jellybean shaped sedans can hit mid fourteens in the quarter, every performance car and its brother can hit the double century, and four hundred horsepower is considered acceptable.  Not only that, but performance cars are capable of hitting ludicrous speed and setting record lap times on race tracks the world round while being more reliable and easy to drive than ever.  You aren’t looking for that, though.  You are looking for something mean, with a big V8 in the front, power to the rear wheels, and an exhaust note that’ll scare little children and make the happy wombat unhappy.  You want a coupe, because sedans are too much of a compromise.  And you want this car to make a statement about you.  You want the world to know you love going fast, and those piddly little high strung four bangers are for children.  America is about hot, wet, nasty speed, and these two big coupes are all about America.

The 2011 SRT8 in its natural environment...

The Setting…
Once a year, all the manufacturers that deem it appropriate roll into Dallas for the Dallas Auto Show.  In the past years, a number of manufacturers have started offering ride and drive events where show goers can take any number of any maker’s vehicles out for a spin.  This year, the event was attended by GM in the guise of Chevrolet and Cadillac, Hyundai, Ford, Chrysler through Fiat, Jeep, Ram, and Dodge, Subaru, and Volkswagen.  Now, I could spin marvelous tales of how quiet the new Touareg is (or how much it fails without a V10 Turbodiesel), or the poise of the Cadillac SRX, or how hip and young and youthful I felt while scaring the product rep in a Veloster.  But I’m not.  Why?  Because you don’t come to Cars and Cranks for such nonsense.  No one really cares about the matching interior trim on the new Beetle because Cadillac came with some flying Vs, and Dodge had a few toys out there with the SRT badge slapped on the trunk.  What we are looking at is a show down between Dodge’s controversial Challenger SRT8 and Cadillac’s Msomething luxo fighter CTS-V Coupe.  Two different answers to the same question: If I want a big V8 Muscle Car, where do I go?

Business in the front, party in the back.
So lets go ahead and get the important part done first.  You aren’t looking at either of these cars for their fuel sipping four cylinders.  You want the V8, and the biggest one you can get.  Both of them are big.  Sitting under the Stealth Fighter hood of the Caddy is the LSA, a motor based on the architecture of the supercharged LS9 found in the Corvette ZR1.  The supercharged six point one liters of bad ass pushes out 556 horsepower and 551 lb-ft of torque.  The butt dyno confirms that this car is fast.  Numbers indicate a 4.2 second 0-60, while taking up a scant 12.2 seconds moving at 117 miles per hour.  The CTS-V had plenty of power throughout the range thanks to the roots style supercharger sitting on the motor, but while the exhaust has a distinctive almost big block rumble, the characteristic supercharger whine was nowhere to be found.  Power came on smooth and had a linear climb, but even with a light prodding the rears would give up grip and just go for spin.  The LSA gives the Caddy a track star feel, leaving you with the impression that no matter when you gave it the loud pedal, it would respond quickly, not hunting for revs.

Good old fashioned blown small block.

Across the lot from the blown Caddy is the Dodge Challenger SRT-8.  The top of the line offering, the Challenger SRT-8 is powered by a 6.4L Hemi V8, up from the earlier six point one.  Dodge won’t let you forget that with the “392” badges proudly displayed on either side of the car.  The naturally aspirated V8 is down on power from the Caddy, registering 470 horsepower and lb ft of torque.  I wouldn’t let that stop me from considering the Dodge a contender though, as down on horsepower it still nips at the V Coupe’s heels with a 12.4 at 110 quarter and sixty coming in just 4.2 seconds.  Much like the supercharged LSA, the 6.4L Hemi has a beautiful powerband, nice and linear with no surprises or hiccups along the charge to redline.  There are no words for the exhaust note other than addicting, and I found myself getting on the gas at inopportune times just to hear it.  It fits the car.  It should be pointed out that the Hemi has caught up to the 21st century with its own version of variable valve timing, while the LSA is sting a singe OHV design.  Even with the automatic transmission found on our test model, there was no hanging or lag from the time I hit gas pedal.  I should note that both cars came equipped with the automatic gear box option with paddle shifters, and while not a quick shifting dual clutch box, both transmissions responded well with a hard, positive feeling shift anytime either paddle was pulled.  Compared to the Caddy, the Dodge felt faster, even though times indicate it isn’t.

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts.

So they go fast, but how well do they go?
There is little question that even domestic automotive enthusiasts, once focused almost solely on the quarter mile and drag race, are learning that sometimes going fast around bends is also fun.  The CTS-V and Challenger both handled far better than one would expect, and neither one had that stereotypical “swing the ass out” feel that muscle cars of the past have had.  The Caddy comes equipped with a magnetic ride suspension, which is a big fancy way of saying it has a big, fancy suspension.  Yes, I know what the magnetic set up is and how it works, but I’m not here to write a technical paper.  What I will say is that the Caddy felt nimble, almost on the edge of twitchy.  I say this and it makes sense, as the seating position in the V was similar to that I’ve experienced in cars like my Z and the BMW Z4, where you are damn near on the rear axle.  As a result, changes in the back reach your butt faster, and the car feels more on edge.  This isn’t a bad thing, just something that those used to bigger performance cars would need to get used to.  I didn’t get a chance to take the traction control off, however I feel that there would have been an incident with a light pole had I tried.  Steering in the V Coupe is lighter than I would want for a car with that much power, but the road feel was good and I had a good feel over what the front wheels were doing in our test.

Looks good, goes good, is good.

The Dodge was the bigger surprise though.  There was much hate surrounding the handling of the previous Challenger, and much has been fixed.  Steering was just quick enough and direct and the feedback over the twisty portions of the test drive was reassuring.  In fact, the handling of the Challenger reminded me somewhat of my old 325i.  It wasn’t the best handling vehicle, but the Challenger’s set up inspired more confidence when pushing it harder.  When entering the first turn on our test drive, the CTS felt like it was getting a bit loose.  The Challenger on the other hand dug in and asked for more of the go juice.  This has been done over the previous Challenger by what is essentially bolt ons.  Dodge fitted better control arms, stiffer springs, and adjust the camber.  Basically a bit of garage tuning and the Challenger can actually challenge the CTS in the twisty bits.  While we aren’t talking about Porsche simulating handling, the road feel was just about right, with plenty of grip.

If you need a real idea of how serious both GM and ChryCo were about making these vehicles go good at the track, one needs to simply look behind the wheels and see the name that makes the difference: Brembo.  Both cars are fitted with massive Brembo stoppers that real in the speed when five oh is around.  The brakes feel good, not the usually mushy “push the brake pedal for miles” feel that I’ve come to find standard in domestics.  That was the biggest surprise I had with either.

Beauty is not only skin deep

I'm not driving fast, I'm flying low

Styling on either car is hit or miss.  The smooth transitions of Harley Earl are gone with the V, and replacing them is the aforementioned stealth fighter looks.  There is no doubt that the V Coupe makes its presence known.  It works well on the two door; I have a few thousand miles worth of seat time on a CTS sedan and the four door is plagued with blind spots in which you could hide several of the old Cadillac land yachts.  The coupe, on the other hand, has plenty of visibility.  The sharp creases give off the aura of a well pressed suit, and I think that is exactly what Cadillac was going for with the V Coupe.  It isn’t supposed to have the look of a track star, but a power broker.  The big end for me was getting into the V.  In an attempt to mimic the European subtlety that borders on Spartan, the V just felt cold inside.  The leather was cushy, the rubber soft, but it felt clinically luxurious.  No, I’m not saying it needed wood trim, and with the optional saffron interior I’m sure it can be quite nice, but the black on black interior was somewhat of a letdown.  I also question how long the alcantara steering wheel will hold up in the Texas summer.  That being said, it could have been worse.

The Standard of the World wasn't all that great...

Looking at the Dodge is different.  In bringing back their muscle car line, Dodge was no stranger to controversy.  The historically two door Charger came back as a sedan, and the Challenger was as big as the old Charger.  This does however come from a company that when asked why they were naming the new Dart the Dart when it shared no heritage with the Dart of yore, responded that it was done because they still owned the name.  That being said, the Challenger is not a bad looking car.  The 2011 model comes with a few tweaks such as some sculpting in the back, a revised grill, and Dodge’s new cross the trunk LEDs.  It doesn’t try to pretend to be a cool, young, hip sport car.  The Challenger is a retro muscle car, and it looks the part.  Like the V Coupe, however, it is not without its flaws.  Whereas the traditional hard plastic parts in the V Coupe were leather covered and well stitched, much of the plastic was bare in the Challenger.  I’m aware that part of this plays into the pricing difference of $20,000 between the two, but it still would have been nice to not have miles of gray reflective plastic on the inside of the Challenger.  The seats were well bolstered with nice leather, and the alcantara on the door panels was a nice touch.  I also like the steering wheel in the Challenger better, and the media center set up that can record all your performance feats as well as look up movie times was a nice touch.

...but it could have been worse.

And the winner is…
I know that I really should be comparing the Challenger to the Camaro and Mustang.  Truth be told is they had a Camaro available at the event, but I’ve driven one or two in anger already and was never really impressed.  Ford failed to deliver by bringing out a V6 Mustang that was so-so at best.  There is little question about where the price difference goes between the two.  A loaded up Challenger is several thousand dollars shy of an entry V Coupe.  While in the long run those dollars may show up, in the short term the Cadillac looked, but did not feel, like a car that would cost that much more.  It beats the Challenger in performance numbers, but the ricer in me wants to say the money you save on getting the Challenger will get you the bolt ons you need to kick a CTS-V Coupe around on a regular basis.  I would have liked a longer drive in each, but I got a good feel with what time I did have.  I have to mention that getting into the V Coupe, we were alerted that the A/C didn’t work.  In an age where GM is under fire from all sides, they aren’t going to win any BMW or Mercedes converts by bringing out a test car that doesn’t have a working A/C.  This makes me question what sort of long term quality I’d be getting out of my near seventy large for the V.

For me, there was the deciding factor.  I knew where the Dodge stood.  It was a muscle car, plain and simple.  Sure, she was a big girl, but she could move well.  If I had to compare the two, I would say the Dodge is the street fighter, where the Caddy is the big line backer in a suit.  It’s massive, powerful, and strong but restrained.  Yet at the same time, you can tell it is uncomfortable.  It would much rather be out there tearing off heads then all dressed up at a dinner party.  The CTS line has always seemed confused to me.  It is priced along with 3er and C class money (if not less) but sized just around the 5er and E class.  And the V keeps up that sort of confusion.  Is it an M3 or M6 fighter?  Is it an expensive muscle car as denoted by the exhaust tone, or is it a thoroughbred race vehicle wrapped in Versace?  Meanwhile, the no bones Dodge is slower, heavier, and not as nice on the inside.  It knows where it stands, but is it a good thing?

Between the two, my nod for the better car goes to ChryCo.  I really wanted to like the CTS-V Coupe, but the ghosts of too many bad GM cars were haunting it.  I think it is an amazing car, but I think it isn’t the best car GM could put out under its luxury badge, and that is why it fell short.  The Challenger is a great car and a great step forward for Dodge.  You won’t go wrong with the Cadillac, but you would go more right with the Challenger.  This is the way the car should have been released back in 2008, and for that, she gets the nod.

But what about her kissing cousin?

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