The Plymouth Barracuda may have been the first pony car, but its E-body cousin, the Dodge Challenger, brought the same potent powertrains to the streets starting in 1970 and created a strong following of its own. Though the original iteration only lasted five years, Challenger cemented its muscle car status with a number of memorable engines.
When it was time to rekindle the long-dormant pony car war, Dodge resurrected the Challenger and has offered rumbling Hemi V-8s in varying horsepower levels ever since. It has now been 50 years since Challengers first hit the road, and we’re looking back as well as forward to our 10 favorite Challenger variants of the past, present, and future—in no particular order.
Disclaimer: Yes, before a debate breaks out in the comments, a pony car can also be a muscle car. Now feel free to argue about which Challenger deserved to be on the list, so long as you don’t include any 2nd-gens.
By the time Dodge entered Trans Am competition with the Challenger, the SCCA had softened its homologation rules. That meant that the big-bore small-block that Dodge raced on road courses across the country came to the dealership not at 5.0 liters, as mandated on track, but with a bit of extra stroke to create the 340. It was topped by a trio of two-barrel carbs that perform as well as they looked. This gutsy small-block brings lots of power to the party without the heft of the RB big-block.
Small-block 340s weren’t the only Mopar V-8s to get triple carbs in 1970. The 440 Six Pack brought three Holley 2300 carbs in a row, just like the 340 Six Pack—albeit with different specifications for the center, primary carb. This is the meanest wedge that Dodge put in the E-body, and the 1971 model with its new grille is every bit as cool yet noticeably more affordable.
The legendary 426 Hemi under the hood of an E-body is an imposing sight. From the twin four-barrel carbs to the massive cylinder heads, it’s apparent that this engine was built to draw in plenty of air and turn it into tire-churning power. The Hemi’s 425-hp rating was just a starting point; as with every big V-8 from the muscle car era, there was plenty more to be had with a bit of tuning and a set of headers. With or without the shaker scoop, these are among the meanest muscle cars ever built.
Of course, the Demon made the list. It was the first car to leave the factory with drag radials and even came with an extra set mounted on the front. The Demon was also the first factory car that could lift the front wheels at launch. The Demon Crate added the pizza-cutter front-runners and the tune that unleashed the full race-fuel potential of the Demon’s 840-hp, 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi. These cars’ limited production run and tremendous drag-strip performance will surely make them collector favorites in the years to come. For now, we’re happy to see them show up at the odd test and tune day and watch the drivers do their best to put down the power.
Challenger Hellcat and Hellcat Redeye
Fewer engines have done more for the democratization of horsepower than the 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi. The Hellcat’s 707 (and eventually 717) horsepower rating makes it one of the quickest muscle cars you can buy and the fact that it starts at around $60,000 is still almost too good to be true. The beauty of the engine is that it’s so docile at idle and at part-throttle; yet it still has plenty of torque everywhere in its operating range. The exhaust note, combined with the supercharger’s whine, is intoxicating. The later models have an additional 10 horsepower, but we tend to prefer the center-scoop hood of the earlier cars.
Everything that makes the Hellcat awesome—and the supercharged 6.2-liter Hemi in particular—gets turned up to 11 for the Redeye version. It packs 797 hp when, quite frankly, 717 was more than enough. Nobody needs that kind of power in a muscle car … and it’s exactly why we want that kind of power in a muscle car.
Back when SRT was still a stand-alone brand, the only way to buy a 6.4-liter Hemi was with all the high-zoot options—at least, at first. The SRT 392 Core was a more bare-bones version that carried the 470-hp Hemi and Brembo brakes of the deluxe SRT Challenger but ditched the leather seats, HID headlights, and adaptive suspension. It shaved around $6000 off the MSRP and probably a few pounds along the way as well. It’s not that the regular SRT Challenger wasn’t equally cool; it’s just that the 392 Core proved Dodge knew what truly mattered to lots of muscle car fans.
2019 Scat Pack 1320
Not everyone that wanted a Demon got their hands on one. To feed the demand for die-hard drag racers that wanted the hardest-launching car they could buy, Dodge released the Scat Pack 1320 powered by the fantastic 6.4-liter Hemi engine. It is the only street-legal Challenger besides the Demon to offer a trans brake. The package also includes beefier half-shafts, 275 drag radials, and a specially tuned suspension. Yeah, a Hellcat will still post better ETs, but for pure drag racing fun, there’s nothing quite like a trans-brake launch.
2020 and 2021 Super Stock
Just a bit down on power compared to the Demon, the Super Stock models that followed used a similar engine without the race-gas tune and trans brake. With 807 hp, a drivetrain that’s been similarly reinforced for drag strip abuse, and enough tire to launch it into mid-10-second ETs, this is the top of the heap for road-going 2020 Challengers—so far.
R/T Scat Pack Widebody
The Hellcats may have a lot more power, but the 485 hp from the current version of the 392 Hemi makes a very solid case for a naturally aspirated V-8. Few V-8s sound better, and the 392 provides plenty of thrust to make quick work of highway passing jobs. When paired with the extra road-holding afforded by the wider tires under the Widebody’s flares, the Scat Pack becomes even more fun to drive as a balanced grand-touring machine. As hard as it is to resist the siren song of the supercharged Hellcat engine, the well-rounded Scat Pack Widebody makes a compelling case as the value muscle car in the Challenger lineup.
Challenger Drag Pak
One of the best parts about having Chevy, Dodge, and Ford pony cars on the market again has been the three-way battle fought in the NMCA and NHRA between the COPO Camaro, Challenger Drag Pak, and Mustang Cobra Jet. The latest iteration of the Drag Pak is powered by a 354-cubic-inch Hemi topped with a 3.0-liter Whipple supercharger and will be limited to just 50 copies. These haven’t even hit the burnout box yet, but we know they’ll carry the torch for Challenger drag strip performance into 2021.