PASADENA, CA – Chrysler LLC’s ’08 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a retro-themed time warp back to the simpler times of the 1960s and early 1970s, before political correctness and the green movement sucked the swagger out of the much-loved, yet uncouth, muscle car.

And with our troops once again far away fighting an unpopular war, a pending energy crisis looming on the horizon and performance cars nearing their horsepower peaks, the return of this 38-year-old icon epitomizes the auto industry’s ability to gloss over the finer points of history’s lessons.

But the Challenger SRT8 is one of the cars for 2008, and its mere presence in the modern world marks the impact Detroit’s auto makers have had on the hearts and minds of enthusiasts.

Like the original ‘70 model, the new Challenger is based on the Dodge Charger (now a sedan), with 4 ins. (10.2 cm) hacked off the LX platform to accommodate the coupe’s profile.

It’s rorty 425-hp 6.1L Hemi V-8 and 5-speed automatic transmission are plucked straight from the Charger’s Street and Racing Technology parts bin and displayed in a SEMA-worthy engine compartment that’s as well detailed as the sheet metal surrounding it.

The multi-link short/long-arm front and 5-link rear suspensions are shared with the Charger, as well, with tuning and fiddling optimizing the setup for the Challenger’s long-hood, short-deck proportions.

Standard Brembo disc brakes the size of the original Challenger’s steel wheels offer wonderfully confident stopping power on the track, while 20-in. Alcoa alloys and Goodyear F1 Supercar rubber let the new car hang on in maneuvers that would send its “E-body” predecessor into a guardrail.

Overall balance feels good, albeit softly sprung, with a slight reduction in high-speed composure vs. the Charger due to the shorter wheelbase. Sport-tuned stability controls keep things in check when left on, but there’s no hiding the 4,140-lb. (1,878-kg) Challenger SRT8 is a big and heavy car.

Chrysler says it’s the most track-tested SRT model to date, but the car drives like a machine from a bygone era on the undulating Angeles Crest Highway near here. Its numb, lazy steering requires frequent correction and only occasionally reminds the driver of what the front wheels are doing, a normally terminal ailment for sporty cars that actually bolsters the Challenger’s rustic appeal with authenticity.

While the priorities of Dodge’s street racer historically have dealt with dusting Fords or Chevies in the next lane, the Challenger SRT8 isn’t the dominating force the original car and its big-block Hemi once were.

Chrysler and the SRT8’s on-board Performance Pages confirm the car can hit 60 mph (97 km/h) in the low 5-second range and trip the quarter-mile lights in a tick over 13 seconds. That’s marginally better than the older, lighter car, but the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 will keep up with it just fine.

Chrysler is proud of the aerodynamic tweaks it’s made to the Challenger’s historic curves and says the laws of physics won’t overcome the SRT8’s grunt until 170 mph (274 km/h).

The retro flat-black chin and trunk spoilers look great and vastly improve the car’s relation with the air, the auto maker says, as do the subtle angles, nips and tucks that differentiate the production Challenger from its 2006 concept-car form.

Color choices for the 6,400 special-edition ’08 models (all SRT8s) include orange, black or silver, all with standard carbon-patterned stripes.

Other unique throwbacks include the wide-open grille, chrome fuel filler (with period-correct script), full-width taillight assembly and rectangular exhaust tips. Extra cool are the door-mounted mirrors molded from the original car’s design and optimized for less wind resistance.

On the road, the visual impact of the reborn Dodge is astonishing: Passers-by all but knock down Pasadena’s little old ladies to snap pictures of the SRT8 on the road, with highway patrolmen similarly unable to resist stopping for a closer look. In black, the execution works so well that double takes are required to discern the new car from old.

The muscle-car feel continues inside the Challenger’s cabin, with the large dash and high cowl framing the view of the long, bulging hood. The AutoStick shifter is canted slightly toward the driver for flair, but proves clumsy and won’t be missed on ’09 models optioned with the Viper’s 6-speed manual.

The interior design, however, is painfully similar to other Chrysler vehicles to the point that it compromises the overall experience. The off-the-shelf steering wheel is far too big and looks shamefully ordinary in such a special car.

Modern safety features and electronics, including a pounding Kicker sound system, are sourced from other LX cars and make up for some of the shortcomings. Four adults also comfortably fit inside, with front passengers gripped by SRT sport seats with orange accents.

All-season tires, a sunroof and Chrysler’s MyGIG multimedia navigation system are the only options for the already-sold ’08 models, which are reaching dealerships this month priced at $37,995.

Although the Challenger was last to the pony-car party the first time around, it rides the new Ford Mustang’s coattails to market ahead of next year’s rebirth of the Chevrolet Camaro. The ’09 match-up, which will include less-expensive R/T and SE variants of the Challenger, as well as more options for the SRT8, promises a street brawl of classic proportions.

However, the Dodge’s spacious interior and timeless design make it better suited to cruising the late-night strip than running hard down a canyon road.

And with restored Challengers frequently retiring to marble-lined garages as 7-figure darlings of classic-car auctions, many of these commemorative SRT8s will quickly be enshrined in altars to the Mopar creed, having hardly seen the light of day.

An irrational toy the Challenger SRT8 may be, but Chrysler obviously understands and embraces the unwavering devotion for the car.

Why else would the engine bay be fitted with cupholders, if not for extended viewing by the Hemi faithful?

msutton@wardsauto.com