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No. of Recommendations: 5
It's been a long time since a trip to the rental counter. Between the home purchase a year ago and change in jobs, the amount of business and recreational travel I'm doing has dropped a lot.

It was a brilliant, warm, sunny Bay Area weekend with the significant other and while she was at a conference teaching a workshop, I was on BART to pickup our rental car for 24 hours.

As I've noted many times, I always play lets make a deal at the counter. The lot was particularly full, the Oakland Rental Car Terminal was shockingly quite, and for $25 a day above my already insanely low Hotwire Rate (where the taxes where more than the rental car fees, yes, you read that right) I was handed the keys to a 2013 screaming orange with black stripe kit Dodge Challenger R/T. Yes, it has a Hemi.

OUTSIDE

One could argue that off all of the retro designs out there, the Challenger is the purest of them. Sure the previous generation Mustang was a great nod to its past, and the Camaro whispers its 1960's ancestors; but if there was ever a truly modern interpretation of a classic 60's muscle car - the Challenger is it.

The R/T with its large 20" rims with black accents, black strip kit and hood scoops. A crate grille with rounded headlights (halogen beam of course now) and driving lights with a splitter. The massive hood flowing back to the A-pillars and the large doors. The tiny rear window and massive C-pillars, giving way to a flat wide trunk, and those taillights, which would look at home in 1970 (albeit the plastics are different). I'm going to guess the exterior stirs controversy, but this car on the outside oozes American muscle. The Hemi badges on the power bulge of the hood say, I mean business.

INSIDE

The inside of the Challenger is a mixed bag. The seats and very comfortable, with nice contrasting white stitching on acceptable leather seating surfaces. The driving position is excellent. The steering wheel is perfectly thick and wrapped in soft feeling quality leather. If anything, the seats and the steering wheel are the best things.

The instrument cluster is rather plain, simple, but serviceable. It is also retro, with "pods" for the gauges with white faces and crisp lettering. There is a small high contrast LCD screen under the speedometer for displaying various information. It appears that the electronics heart is shared with Holden (GM division) or Holden shared with Chrysler Co. as embedded are gauges for volts, oil pressure, and oil temp (just like on the Holden's down under). There are other standard features for adjustments to automatic doors, remote start, and even a 0 to 60 timer.

The UConnect 8" screen is crisp, easy to use, and functioned flawless. There is both a 1/8" stereo input and USB port, and another USB port in the armrest. The Challenger came with the most basic version of UConnect I'm going to guess, and although it did have a harddrive and Bluetooth, the options were far more limited to other systems by Ford and GM. However, there is a beauty in the simplicity.

The Climate Control switch gear was a single zone, with a center knob for adjusting the temperature. It was again, a simple, easy to use setup with modern features that had a nod to its retro past.

However, this is where the niceties end. Hard, cheap plastic - EVERYWHERE. I know that complaints about hard plastic in reviews are incredibly cliche. You can find reviews of a $150K Porsche and somewhere the professional reviewer will admonish some misplaced hard plastic somewhere.

No. This isn't the case. The interior plastics, black, bland, and made by Coleman were everywhere. Switch gear for things like the sunroof, windows, and heated seats were - cheap. Totally cheap. The shifter to what I'm guessing is the Chrysler 5-speed automatic is well geared, but dated. If you go to manual shifting (a snick to the left or the right from drive) I could find no way to go back to drive beyond a quick flip to neutral and back.

I've sat in the new Camaro. If the Camaro is like driving a tank from a visibility standpoint, the Challenger is only a tiny notch better. The massive c-pillars block and view on the left and the right, and the mirrors, to support that retro style, are far too small. This car (like the Camaro) begs, screams, for blind spot notification. I'm a driver, not a fan of "technology" over attention but lane changing in the Bay Area was beyond problematic.

DRIVING

Well, you're probably wondering why this review is all of 38 miles. I'm getting to that.

Leaving the rental center and following my GPS overlord (the car was equipped with Hertz's awful Never Lost system - ugh) I made my way to the Bay Bridge. The plan was to pick up the luggage locked at the hotel, the significant other, and then drive to the edge of the Napa Valley in between San Francisco and Sacramento to introduce her to the mother unit.

Yes, it's that serious (for the record, the mother unit highly approves).

I'm pretty good at checking all the facts, and the first big hint should have been the LONG time the GPS spent calculating a route for me.

On the highway I found the steering heavy, and maybe just a little sensitive when moving off center. I would rarely complain that maybe a touch more play would be nice - but well - believe it or not - a touch more center play would be nice.

The Hemi V8 FEELS brutal in power, which comes on smooth, and the older Chrysler Co. 5-speed automatic snicks through the gears. There was a button for "sport" mode in the center console but I could discern no real difference when it was activated. The 0-60 times of 5.91 seconds according to the computer is very respectable, but I would have expected more.

The Hood is massive - but there is a good quality because despite driving a cave on wheels, you can see where the end of the hood is. The dynamics when driving with the sunroof open was excellent. It was quiet with no buffeting. Seriously, about the best I've experienced since 1992 in both departments.

It wasn't long driving before I hit a complete and total parking lot. I then spent the next 45 minutes crawling to the Bay Bridge toll booth, where the traffic continued to crawl. I finally got down where the number of lanes narrowed down and traffic lights were controlling the Sunday afternoon WTF who are you people traffic and got released onto the Bay Bridge.

I will say the stereo was nice, clear, rich, and made being hopeless stuck in traffic with a V8 under my right foot mildly acceptable. The Challenger getting looks and even a couple of thumbs up, from the politically correct, Prius driving Bay Area crowd.

I marveled at the new section of the Bay Bridge, a beautiful cross cable stay creation (this seems to be the new thing) with some very odd looking light towers. Driving into the sun as I hit the tunnel on Treasure Island, the traffic started to pick up - around 40 MPH.

As I crossed over from the tunnel to the second half of the Bay Bridge, less than three miles from destination the sun dazzled the windshield for a fraction of a second. I found myself squinting and follow what I had learned in driving school. Don't jam the breaks, up, on the throttle, drive to the last picture in your head, don't panic, it will pass quickly.

Blink.

The black Toyota Camry I've been behind for countless minutes is now at a dead stop.

I can say this in the driving dynamics department. The Dodge Challenger R/T is nose heavy and under braked. I mash the pedal to the floor to the surprising sound of four howling tires. I feel no pulsing in the brake pedal. I push it down harder. The nose squats hard; that disappointing for only 6,600 miles on the clock. It's painfully obvious to me - I'm boxed in left and right, and the gap is closing way too fast. Brace for impact.

The Dodge Challenger R/T does well in a low speed impact - as does apparently a 2007 Toyota Camry. Because the nose was squatting down those round headlights and crate grille served more as the bumper than the bumper itself. The car lifting up at the end of the impact, shoving the dead stop Camry forward.

After exchanging paperwork, talking to my insurance company and the folks at Hertz - concluding there was no fluids leaking and everything was intact, I drove the finally 3 miles to my first destination.

Hertz said I could just keep the car and bring it back when done - and examining the damage I considered it - until I realized that the only thing holding the headlights in place was basically the wires they were connected to. The turned up plastic blocking most of the radiator opening, I worried about the highway drive, over heating, and doing vastly more damage to what was a slap on the wrist.

So just a few hours later I'm watching back up to the counter, accident report form in hand and the same clerk looks at me in horror and goes, "what happened?"

On the report there is a section to describe what happened:

"Traffic came to a dead stop and I didn't," I wrote.

As she reviews it she goes, "didn't want," pauses, and then goes, "ooooohhhhh, and starts to laugh a little."

I definitely detect the folks at Avis are not happy with me.

Of course no more Class F vehicles are available for rent - despite the fact we walked passed a row of entry level Mercedes.

We ended up a 2013 Impala LT (not the new one) with almost 28K miles on the clock and ironically, a somewhat scratched up back end and some clear evidence that it had been backed into something.

It was acceptable transportation.

But it wasn't a Challenger R/T.

EPILOGUE

I've triaged the incident in my head a few hundred times. Was I momentarily distracted by the beauty of the new bridge? No - I had long moved on. Was I following too close - a given argument would immediately be yes, but as anyone who has driven in US bumper-to-bumper traffic knows, keeping a two-second gas is basically impossible as everyone will simply pull into your two-second gap, giving you a 1/2 second gap until you widen out to a two-second gap, and then repeat.

Could I have gone left or right? Not a chance - and with the long front end of the Challenger I'm not sure it would have cleared or responded well to an extreme emergency maneuver. The lanes are narrow and there would be zero margin for error - go even a couple of inches too far and I would be a multi-vehicle collision.

No. I did things by the book. It appears, in my first at fault accident with damage exceeding 3-digits (I had a $534 taillight breaking incident in 2001 in a parking lot where we mutually backed into each other) that this is filed under, "this is why you have auto insurance."

The Challenger is a gorgeous looking car. It has some great merits - but in harkening back to its roots, its legacy, its history, the platform suffers.

Just as the hefty Camaro, squeezed onto the VE Zeta platform shrunk down to 7/8 scale, the fundamental design hurts things. It is a beautiful car - and in more suburban, rural, or quieter urban driving conditions would be a blast to drive.

If I was a hero of the Friday night drag strip and have more than a casual interest in bracket racing - I can see what an amazing setup this car would be for that.

I can also see, with its large trunk, and for a pony car, spacious cabin, its liveable.

But cheap plastics, an older 5-speed auto, so-so performance for all that power (what a weird world, 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds is meh), and the cave like driving experience of a hulk of a car hold it back. If it fits your distinct taste, you'll love. If it doesn't you'll hate.

I give it a B-
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