Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

Chrysler LLC suggests Chicago auto show visitors take a good look at the’08 Dodge Challenger SRT8, because they may not be on dealer lots very long.

The auto maker is dangling the coveted base-model ’09 Challenger allocation as an incentive for dealers to identify buyers of the high-performance derivative, which makes its debut today. As of Tuesday, a majority of the scheduled 6,400 production units were paired with customer names, a Chrysler spokeswoman says.

The auto maker is sorting through more than 10,000 serious inquiries to move the remaining models, she adds.

While identifying buyers ostensibly prevents dealers from profiting beyond the SRT8’s $37,995 sticker price, delivery included, the policy’s primary intent is to insulate the brand from exploitation and to generate goodwill in the marketplace.

“It’s probably the fairest way they have (for allocating base-model Challengers),” says Chuck Eddy, owner of Bob and Chuck Eddy Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Austintown, OH. “I don’t know of a better way. We need integrity in the system on the allocation because (the Challenger line is) really hot.”

And the SRT8, he adds, is “much more than a halo car.”

The Challenger SRT8 is an integral part of Chrysler’s marketing plan, insiders tell Ward’s. It has “long-range” implications, a source says, adding: “This is going to be a big part of our production.”

While the 425-hp car will not have a significant sales impact on its own, it will whet consumer appetites for the base-model Challenger. A knowledgeable source pegs its volume at 40,000-plus.

Chrysler is mum on volume expectations, but Steve Landry, executive vice president-North America sales, admits the SRT8 portends promise.

“The nice thing about (the) Challenger (SRT8) is it’s all incremental,” Landry says in a recent interview. Bolstered further by a full year of sales for Chrysler’s redesigned minivans, and the pending arrival of the Dodge Journey cross/utility vehicle, “we think our retail (share) will be the same or higher” than last year.

This despite forecasts that say 2008 will deliver fewer sales than 2007.

The Challenger SRT8’s 6.1L Hemi V-8, which has a peak torque rating of 420 lb.-ft. (310 Nm), is shared with its platform-mate, the Dodge Charger SRT8. So too is its 5-speed automatic transmission with Chrysler’s AutoStick manual-mode function and other underpinnings, such as its Brembo 4-piston brakes and coil-over-spring Bilstein gas-charged shocks.

But the similarities start to fall away when the cars are measured against each other. The Challenger SRT8 rests on a 116-in. (295 cm) wheelbase, which is 4 ins. (10.2 cm) shorter than the Charger.

Similarly, the Challenger and Charger nameplates occupy distinctly difference places in history.

Soon after its launch in 1969, the Challenger name became synonymous with high performance. Along with its Plymouth Barracuda cousin, the Challenger dominated National Hot Rod Assn. drag strips in 1970 and 1971.

“Our designers wanted to capture the mind’s-eye view of what people today remember about the Challenger from 35 years ago, but with today’s quality and performance,” Chrysler design guru Trevor Creed says in a statement.

A key enabler for enhanced performance is featured on the car’s distinctive blacked-out grille. To cool the massive Hemi more efficiently, Chrysler decided to remove Dodge’s signature crosshairs graphic.

The car’s side mirrors represent another link to Challenger’s glorious past. Designers crafted mirrors using a mold from the original Challenger, then “tweaked” them for modern use.

“(We) ended up with a body-mounted mirror that is remarkably similar to the original, but offers significantly better aerodynamic performance,” says Jeff Gale, lead designer-Dodge Challenger exterior design.

In keeping with a main tenet of Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology brand, the Challenger SRT8 features a race-inspired interior. Highlights include leather seating with beefed-up bolsters and an orange accent stripe.

But the trapezoidal theme of the door and gauge cluster, slanted shifter console and dark headliner are derived straight from the original Challenger.

“The dark headliner was very important to us when designing the interior,” says Brian Nielander, manager-Dodge Challenger exterior and interior design. “It not only stays true to the original Challenger, but it also gives a sinister, more business-like atmosphere.”

The Challenger SRT8 will be the 13th model to sport the SRT brand. And Chrysler claims it will not disappoint on the performance front.

The auto maker expects the car will take less than 17 seconds to go from 0-100 mph (161 km/h) and back to a full stop.

The public excitement about the Challenger SRT8 reminds Eddy of the buzz that accompanied the 1992 debut of the Dodge Viper supercar.

“It’s the exact same thing, only in greater volume,” Eddy says. “When we had the first Vipers and the second-generation Vipers, it was only a limited number of dealers who got those cars. But everybody’s going to get one (SRT8). Some are going to get more, based on the volume and mere size of their dealerships. There’s a lot more opportunity with this car.”

And some dealers won’t be able to resist the opportunity to charge over sticker, says a salesman at a California dealership who requested anonymity. He notes the $400,000 price fetched at last month’s Barrett-Jackson Car Auction in Scottsdale, AZ – an event Chrysler staged to benefit charity.

“I guess maybe that’s the benchmark,” the sales rep says.

Other dealers will be subjected to the pleadings of impatient buyers, Eddy adds.

“I’m sure there will be some of us who will try to appease our customers and take them to a rail yard or take them to the transport company and try to get the car,” he says. “But that’s what builds the excitement.”

Available in three colors – Hemi Orange, Bright Silver Metallic and Brilliant Black Crystal Pearl – production is set to begin in April at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Brampton, ON, Canada, also home to the Charger and Chrysler 300. Production is expected to be complete by July.

The Challenger’s first run ended in 1974. The nameplate was revived in 1978 for a 6-year run as a rear-wheel-drive compact car.

emayne@wardsauto.com