Never Stop Driving #53: The many lives of the Dodge Challenger

One day, the Dodge Challenger will be required study for every automotive marketing executive. The rear-wheel-drive platform that underpins the two-door Challenger and its Charger sedan sibling is now nearly two decades old—ancient as automotive life cycles go—yet Dodge continues to reap publicity and sales with its muscle cars. Just this week, Dodge confirmed that the promised pairing of a six-speed manual transmission with the 717-horsepower V-8 is finally available. There’s even a digital tool called the “Horsepower locator” to help consumers locate stick-shift Hellcats.

Why do we care? In an era when most vehicles on the road are lookalike crossovers, Dodge’s devotion to audacious throwback machines is admirable. These cars can roast tires with such ease that it feels socially irresponsible, which can be, yeah, fun. Unfortunately, both the Challenger and the Chevy Camaro, another cherished muscle car, end production later this year. A lot of car nuts figure they better do the gettin’ while the gettin’s good.

I don’t see the need for hand wringing. Both cars have “died” before only to be resurrected. Perhaps there’s a natural cycle for impractical muscle cars. Tens of thousands of Camaros and Challengers were made over the past two decades, so there should be a healthy supply of used models for a very long time. And who’s to say what coolness is around the corner? A Tesla recently lapped the Nürburgring in under seven and a half minutes, which is about as quick as a Ferrari Enzo. And the Ford Mustang isn’t going anywhere. An updated version will debut this fall.

Speaking of Ford, the company now has a reported 400,000 subscribers to its digital products that cater to commercial fleets. The software provides reports on vehicle health and driver performance, plus other productivity tools. Carmakers see these scalable software services as major future revenue sources. Expect to see this field grow.

Subscriptions, however, won’t cover a safety feature that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wants to make mandatory in all new cars: automatic emergency braking, which automatically slows or stops a car if on-board computers determine that an impact is imminent. Most new cars already have some version of this technology, so the proposed regulation is probably a done deal.

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’ve got kids and loved ones and there are too many idiot drivers who are now playing with their phones rather than looking at the road. On the other hand, we risk abdicating driver responsibility. You want to stare at your phone while you’re in charge of a two-ton speeding object? No problem, we’ll have the computers save you and your fellow drivers. Seems like a slippery slope to fully autonomous vehicles to me.

While the hype around self-driving vehicles has markedly cooled, the technology is steadily improving and both Waymo and Cruise plan to expand their services. This article is a helpful summary.

I’ve long advocated that self-driving cars can take the wheel from those who don’t cherish driving. I might see that in my lifetime. Meanwhile, I’m passing on the love of driving to whomever I can, including my own kids. The other day, I drove the Webster family’s 1992 Miata, which I purchased 20 years ago for $1800. The roadster, with sun-damaged paint and a cracking soft top, is our beater fun machine. It looks tired but drives brilliantly and is now most often used by my oldest kid.

I texted my son that I’d forgotten how much I love the little Mazda. He replied: “I always get out of the car happier than when I got in.” Oh, I silently celebrated, he gets it. Miatas are so cheap and plentiful that they lack cachet, so they’re too often overlooked. Do yourself a huge favor: Drive one and please post in the comments how it made you feel (here’s a handy Miata Buyer’s Guide and a list of all the articles we’ve published on the car).

Our Miata in 2008, when it still looked new. After 15 years of multiple Webster drivers, that’s no longer true. Larry Webster

Like the Miata, the first-generation Porsche Boxster is a driver’s gem and also a bargain. A nearly untouched Boxster will be auctioned this weekend at the Porsche Experience Center.

We released a fascinating piece about a weird 200-mph Aston Martin, wrenched on an old Chevy pickup, and showed the global nature of car culture with a video from Indonesia. All of this high-quality material is free and you can help us spread the car love by joining the Hagerty Drivers Club.

Don’t forget that the 24 Hours of Le Mans race is this weekend. There are too many juicy story lines to list here, but it should be a cracker of a contest. General Motors, for example, is running three cars. We also produced a documentary on the race and its history, which is a terrific primer.

Have a great weekend!

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    Joy for me is whatever new car I can still lease that has a manual transmission. I’m hanging on to two older cars simply because of that. Automatics (remember the term ‘slush box’) and electric vehicles hold no joy for me. Driving has to be engaging, or it’s not worth it.

    The way you put the driving experience is wonderful. I have been into cars since I was 12. I am now 58 and cars still hold that same feeling for me. I can give countless stories regarding the what when and where.
    Just yesterday I had an experience that took me all the way back to when I was 13. Working on a car under the family shade tree. My wife and kids sometimes look at me as if I am a nut. That’s OK. I smile and remeber that they have not and will not see my passion in the same way as they did not have the experience.

    Thank you for your writings
    Pete Sell

    I always have said” if your driving a Miata and you don’t have a smile on your face, then you don’t like driving”

    During one of the several air bag recalls I asked my mechanic if he thought my almost 30 year old air bag would work as intended in my 1992 Miata. He was not optimistic. So I gave him a “hold harmless” letter and asked him to remove my steering wheel with the air bag and mount my old “Nardi” wheel. The joy of driving this wonderful car was increased two fold that day.

    I know what you’ve mean and have done the same with a few cars. The steering feel, in my opinion, improves with a lighter wheel.

    my “miata” says “roadster” on its bootlid and it’s only four years from the factory in hiroshima but even a boring run to the shops in that wee beast puts a big stupid grin on my face. mazda has updated the car four times now and every time, they are weirdly able to make it better without ever losing the mechanical joy that driving one entails. that’s pure genius.

    Could not agree. I was holding on to our NA version because I thought it had captured something unlikely to be repeated. Then I drove the ND. Mazda gets it.

    I have a 1987 Nissan 300ZX that I drive about once a week. I’ve had it for about 4 years. I have very little money in it and it is the most fun of all of the vehicles that we have. It won’t win awards at car shows, but it’s V6 and 5 speed are great on our curvy roads in the Texas hill country.
    My son, who’s into trucks, recently bought a 2000 Silverado single cab short bed. He replaced the V6 with a 5.3 LS and a 6 speed. He runs it in autocross against the Miatas all of the time. A stock Miata does very well on an autocross track. The drivers talk about how it makes them better drivers. If you can get a hold of a Miata, look into autocross. It’s not real expensive and you won’t hurt the car. You’ll have a blast. Take your spouse and kids and let them try it. They will remember it forever.

    That’s another great point about the Miata that I did not mention: They’re very durable and as you say, an autocross won’t hurt one.

    In the 90s I was in business in SoCal and on a whim rented a Miata. I lived in Northern Cal and decided after a couple days to cancel my flight home and do a mini road trip from San Diego through the Imperial Valley, over the Tehachipis and up the Central Valley where I lived near Sacramento. I’m 6’2” and I drove the last day with the top down. I arrive home with the top 2” of more forehead wind burned and bug spattered and I stepped out of that car grinning like an idiot. It’s a lot like racing my 66 Austin Healey Sprite— they’re something about small, simple sports cars that are just endorphin machines.
    If you haven’t driven a Miata—especially the first gens, you need to.

    Larry, you have a couple of issues embedded in your ‘discussion’. As a guy in my 70’s who has always had and enjoyed sports cars (I still have a 997.1 Porsche Carerra Cab) I am very aware that my driving is not as sharp as it once was and lots of little things endanger my and my passengers. (For example my neck range of motion is less and its hard to see around corners at intersections.) I used to think autonomous driving was a terrible idea but I am beginning to warm to the idea of what I will call ‘fearless mobility’ which will privately and safely get me where I need to go when I get older. Of course, I wouldn’t want that to eliminate self driving which is a joy for everyone who can do it. As for old sports cars, I very much enjoy shifting a manual transmission and am beginning to hoard the couple of cars I have- my 6 speed Porsche and my 5 speed Eclipse/Laser turbo which give me the pleasure of ‘involved driving’. Always enjoy and appreciate reading your thoughts on various subjects.

    I had to comment on the automatic emergency braking. I was driving my wife’s Subaru Outback in heavy traffic, trying to change lanes. A small opening surfaced, so I signalled and made use of the opportunity. The safety feature, however, thought I was going to hit the car in front and jammed on the brakes as I was making my turn. I still managed to safely make the turn, but the experience left me with two thoughts. The safety feature, however, thought I was going to hit the car in front and jammed on the brakes as I was making my turn. I still managed to safely make the turn, but the experience left me with two thoughts, The first is that, as you drive an autonomous car, or any car that provides those safety features, you become brain dead to driving. You become reliant on those features without even think about it, or being aware of them. The second thought is that there is so much work to be done on the safety, features and autonomous cars. Not sure who’s making the decisions on what features are introduced, but it doesn’t seem as if true drivers are having any say in this matter.

    I still prefer to drive my own car. Fully manual, and I am in full ccontrol. It’s a 2020 Subaru STI, and despite not having all the safety features and being fully manual, I have had less close calls in that then in my wife’s car.

    Thanks for the article Larry. I enjoyed it.

    I had the same experience in a rental car once. The automated system makes crude decisions that are sometimes irrational and counterintuitive. It will be a long road to perfecting these features for people who really want them, accounting for every minute variant of every situation. I do think that one day (not yet) humanity will be better off for this automation, because most people don’t care for and aren’t very good at driving, and for them, computers will do the job better. I still prefer to be in control and make my own decisions.

    Having been a car guy for all my life, like many, I had dismissed the Miata in the past as a secretary’s car or whatnot. Muscle was where it is at, amirite? Meanwhile, Mazda makes over 1 MILLION Miatas and the aftermarket and race community adopt it as a modern Mustang!. Prices were reasonable as well. Figured at some point I would test drive one. Ended up buying it, and now I get it! Regretting not having jumped into the Miata game many years ago. Now please excuse me while I go throw the top down and wind the stick on some Blue Ridge back roads!

    My ’99 Miata was my first sports car and my first convertible. With a black body and tan soft top, it looked more serious than Larry’s cute red. Driving it felt like going from black-and-white to color, entirely new layers of experience. The responsive steering, the tight cornering, the open sky all around me, and above all, the short throw oh-so-fun-to-handle stick. Endless smiles. My kids loved driving it too. I had it for 11 years, from 2010 when it was 11 years old to 2021, and regrettably had to sell it for lack of stable space (I now park the newly acquired 2010 370Z roadster in the garage instead). The Z car is a definite improvement (especially the tranny’s synchro-rev-match – now, that would be a fun addition to any Miata!), but I still sometimes miss my first love.

    Still driving the 02 Miata my dad bought new and taught me how to drive stick with. 95k miles and about 5 dozen hail dents (and a shredded soft top) later and I still get out of it reminded why I don’t think I’ll ever sell it. Honestly, it ruined other “normal” cars for me in a lot of ways but that’s alright. I can see a future with an EV Charger Daytona in my garage next to my NB.

    All of my 6 Oldtimers (’53-’66) have a custom license frame, describing the car or a thought.

    I’ll now have to make another one with your son’s quote;

    “I always get out of the car happier than when I got in.”….perfect!

    While I have never owned a Miata, my daily driver has always been a manual transmission performance car. Ultimate power isn’t the key, carving corners, rowing through the gears on a back road or a track day is.

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