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The 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 gives a modern interpretation to the classic American muscle car.

So many things in life look better in hindsight.  You’d probably never be caught dead in the outfit you wore to the prom.  And remember the moves you mastered back in the disco days?  The same is true with the muscle cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Those lumbering lumps of metal just wouldn’t cut it today.

Not without a dramatic update, anyway, as Dodge has done with two of its classic nameplates, the Charger and Challenger.  We were pleasantly surprised when we got a long weekend behind the wheel of the 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8, discovering a remarkably modern take on the classic American muscle car that delivers not only gobs of power and a distinctive retro style but also the sort of ride, handling and braking one would expect in 2012.

When it comes to a muscle car, let’s face it, the most important thing really is muscle.  And the new Challenger SRT8 comes through.  Parent Chrysler has done a great job with the 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 shared by all four of the new Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep SRT models.

Tip the throttle and you’ll be rewarded with neck-snapping acceleration and the sort of rumbling exhaust note that is, for muscle car fans the equivalent of popping an automotive Viagra.  As the kid in the next lane looks on in awe, the Hemi’s 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque will launch you to 60 in just 4.8 seconds.  And if you’re willing to risk a night in jail, keep your foot on the floor as you accelerate to a 180 mph top speed.

This is the sort of Motown metal that could even intimidate the gold-chain Ferrari crowd.

The SRT's 6.4-liter Hemi V-8.

No matter how much you love performance, indeed, no matter how fat your bank account, it’s hard to ignore fuel prices these days.  True, as the economy has faltered pump prices have come down.  Temporarily, you need assume, and few experts anticipate seeing the figures stay below $4 a gallon for long.  So, kudos to Chrysler for modernizing the Hemi with, among other things, a new active exhaust system allowing the standard Fuel Saver Technology to engage over a wider RPM range meaning at least a 10% decrease in fuel consumption.

No, this ain’t no hybrid, but considering the way you can spin those fat tires, 14 mpg in the city, 22 on the highway – with the automatic, and for the stick 14/23 – is a big improvement over what you might once have anticipated.

Don’t confuse the 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT 392 with a European sports coupe.  It’s bigger and badder and made for cruising.

The 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 is arguably the most retro of all the current Detroit muscle cars.

The good news is that with the press of a button the soft and slightly ponderous ride is transformed by the new adaptive damping suspension, or ADS.  It tightens up steering and handling in ways you’d never have imagined possible on the traditional American muscle car.  You won’t catch a BMW in the corners but will still hold your own.  Then watch out on the straights.

Meanwhile there’s a surprising amount of room in this coupe, both front and back, where three can ride in reasonable comfort.

The 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 and '12 Charger SRT8.

If we have any complaints, it’s the fact that the design of the Challenger is a bit too literal an interpretation of the original muscle car.  We’d love to see Dodge designers get a bit more creative, as Chevy’s styling team did with the newly-reborn Camaro.

Inside, meanwhile, the cabin needs the sort of makeover given the four-door Dodge Charger SRT8.  The layout of the gauges and the use of materials is dated and a bit down-market on the Challenger, especially after seeing what Dodge is doing on some of its other new products.

We’d also appreciate a little more work on the 6-speed manual, which is notchy enough to occasionally miss a downshift.  But once you get the shift pattern down it’s quick to plant power onto the pavement.

Overall, the 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 is a major improvement that enhances the look, as well as the sound and the fury, of the classic American muscle car.

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