Dodge Challenger GT AWD first drive

Dodge’s AWD 2017 Challenger GT goes where no muscle car has gone before

On snow-dusted Maine winter roads, a Dodge Challenger looks a bit out of place. But this is no ordinary Challenger.

Dodge brought Digital Trends to Portland, Maine, in the heart of winter to show off the 2017 Challenger GT, which has something rivals Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro don’t: all-wheel drive.

Until now, all three Detroit muscle cars have been rear-wheel drive only. That’s great for performance, but makes these cars pretty much useless in foul weather. By adding all-wheel drive to the Challenger, Dodge hopes to gain an advantage over the competition, and lure more buyers in snow-belt states.

Snow drifter

The all-wheel drive system itself comes from the Charger sedan, which makes sense, as the Challenger is basically a Charger coupe. Under normal driving conditions, the system defaults to rear-wheel drive. Power is only sent to the front axle when extra traction is deemed necessary. To decide whether to engage all-wheel drive, the car’s electronic brain looks at everything from available to traction to ambient temperature, and even notes whether the windshield wipers are on, said Alison Rahm, chief engineer for the Challenger.

Another factor is steering angle, which makes for some interesting possibilities. As the steering wheel is turned in all-wheel drive mode, more power is sent to the rear wheels. This was meant to help the Challenger GT turn more easily, but it helps the car do a lot more than that.

On the snow-covered track Dodge booked for this test drive, the Challenger GT was a bona fide drift machine. Just turn into a corner, hit the gas, and the car slides in a nice, controllable manner. Start to pull out of the drift, and the all-wheel drive system feeds power back to the front wheels to pull the car away.  In a normal Challenger, tackling the white stuff is a stressful experience but in the GT, it’s pure fun.

Confidence (and fun) on the road

On the road, the Challenger GT imparts a similar level of confidence to other all-wheel drive cars in poor weather conditions. When you stop acting like a hooligan, the car simply grips and goes. The all-wheel drive system doesn’t split power between the front and rear axles in a fixed ratio, instead constantly varying the split depending on conditions. In all-wheel drive mode the Challenger GT feels fairly neutral, without any real front or rearward torque bias.

By adding all-wheel drive to the Challenger, Dodge hopes to gain an advantage over the competition, and lure more buyers in snow-belt states.

While Dodge offers a variety of powertrain options in rear-wheel drive Challengers, the Challenger GT only gets one. The sole available engine is the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 used in numerous other Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) products, from the Chrysler Pacifica minivan to Jeep’s rock-crawling Wrangler. In the Challenger GT, it produces 305 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic transmission is mandatory.

The Pentastar lacks the overwhelming power and dramatic soundtrack of the V8 engines available in certain rear-wheel drive Challenger models, and some buyers might miss the engagement of a manual transmission. Nonetheless, the V6 provides plenty of power to get the Challenger GT moving in a hurry. The GT also gets stiffer suspension based on the setup used in all-wheel drive versions of the Dodge Charger Pursuit police car. Handling has never been a strong point for the Challenger, but this suspension setup does help sharpen things up a bit. Unfortunately, it also makes for a somewhat harsh ride on uneven road surfaces.

All-wheel drive also brings a slight fuel-economy penalty. The Challenger GT is rated by the EPA at 21 mpg combined (18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway), compared to 23 mpg combined (19 mpg city, 30 mpg highway) for a rear-wheel drive V6 automatic Challenger. This is due to the roughly 200 pounds of weight the all-wheel drive system adds, and the GT’s raised ride height, which increases aerodynamic drag slightly.

Retro styling, plenty of tech

The rest of the Challenger GT is unchanged from the basic Challenger that has been around since the 2008 model year, with a major refresh for 2015. That means it boasts undeniably-cool retro exterior styling inspired by the classic first-generation Challenger, and a cavernous interior that’s admittedly somewhat less stylish than the exterior. On the outside, the 2017 Challenger GT looks like a modern version of a 1971 Challenger, but the interior doesn’t feel special at all. The dashboard is an amorphous blob clumsily shaped around the car’s two display screens.

The Challenger GT comes standard with FCA’s Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Uconnect remains a fairly straightforward system to use, with a responsive touchscreen and vibrant graphics, and is supplemented by a 7.0-inch TFT display screen in the instrument cluster. Using Dodge’s Performance Pages feature, the TFT display can show performance information such as 0 to 60 mph times and a G-force indicator.

2017 Dodge Challenger GT
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

Besides the tech features and all-wheel drive system, the Challenger GT also gets 19-inch wheels, Nappa leather seats, heated and ventilated front seats, power driver’s seat and tilt-and-telescoping steering column, park assist, and a rearview camera as standard. All of that helps justify the GT’s $34,490 base price, which is about $6,000 above that of the least-expensive rear-wheel drive Challenger. Loaded with options like navigation, 18-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, and sport seats, our test car rang in at $39,465.

Conclusion

If you all you want is an all-weather performance car, you’d be better off getting a Subaru WRX. And if all you want is the full muscle car experience, you might want to look at a rear-wheel drive V8 Challenger, or its more well-rounded Mustang and Camaro rivals. But the 2017 Dodge Challenger GT is still something special. It offers a combination of muscle-car coolness and year-round usability no other car can match. As far as all-wheel drive vehicles go, it’s also much cooler than an SUV.

Highs

  • Confidence-inspiring all-wheel drive
  • Easy to get sideways
  • Same great Challenger styling

Lows

  • Same underwhelming Challenger interior
  • V6 soundtrack
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