There is one good reason new Dodge Challenger — in fact, all the 2011 Dodge models — is better than the car it replaces: the brand’s new boss. Instead of being a middle-aged corporate type who likes nothing more than nine holes of golf after lunch, the new guy is the complete opposite.

Hard-charging Ralph Gilles styled the Chrysler 300C, races Vipers — and wins — whenever possible, has a quarter- mile kart track around his house and a general passion and understanding for the business that’s been lacking for years. So he knew what was missing from the 2010 Challenger. Not that it was all that bad to start with. The Challenger has always been significantly bigger and heavier than the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang, due to its sharing a chassis with the longer 300C and Charger, but it is also arguably closest to the true modern recreation of the muscle car. The Stang is now almost too lithe, quick and sure—footed to be included in the more-power-than-sense muscle-car genre, the Camaro just too cartoonish to be taken seriously, leaving the classically styled Challenger in the man-sized muscle-car sweet spot.

Pony cars traditionally have been as much about the length of the burnout, the pitch of the exhaust and their bruising size as anything else. And on those scores, the Challenger wins every time. But what surprises when you drive one is just how quickly you can hustle this near-two-tonne lump of US iron down the road. The first time we drove it at a race track back in 2009, the whole idea of flinging a car this big around a circuit seemed vaguely absurd. Until the first corner. That’s when it became obvious that Dodge knew what it was doing, the Challenger serving up face- splitting amounts of fun. There wasn’t a huge amount of mid-range power from the 6.1-litre engine, but at the top and bottom of the rev range there was plenty to chew on. However, that was in the range-topping SRT8 version.

The story was different in the wheezy V6 variants. Faced with having to haul around that bulk, and without the benefit of a V8 or the chassis-tuning experience of the Sports and Racing Tech (SRT) guys, they didn’t do the Challenger name any favours at all.

Fast-forward to this launch of the 2011 cars, and it’s obvious all of those messages reached Dodge HQ loud and clear. Starting with the V6 models, Dodge has thrown away the old V6 and slotted in a shiny new 3.6-litre Penta star bent six which has 305bhp — 55bhp more – and 268ft lb of torque to offer your right foot. Your hands get a better deal too, thanks to an all-new electro- hydraulic power-steering system which increases resistance as speeds rise and improves your connection with the actions of the front wheels. And your backside benefits from a retuned and redesigned suspension that not only feels more controlled and precise, but also rides appreciably better too. New brake boosters and pedal ratios across the range improve brake feel and let you feel your way to the edge of front-wheel adhesion better than ever before.

There are three stages of tune for the chassis and brakes: touring (standard on the SE), which gives you 18in wheels and regular brakes; performance (standard on the R/T and Rallye models), which takes the wheel size up to 20in and adds a performance brake package; and Super Track Pak (optional on the R/T), which gets you the 20s, uprated shocks and springs, high-performance tyres, performance brakes with harder brake pads, plus three—mode stability control with the all-important ESC-off mode. In the engine room, the next step up from the 305bhp V6 is the 5.7-litre, 376bhp,410lbft Hemi V8 stuffed under the bonnet of the R/T. You should consider this the standard option, as it’s with this engine that the Challenger really comes alive. Fitted with all sorts of fuel-saving technology, including shutting down four cylinders ‘when less power is needed’  I’ve thought about this, and I can’t think of such a situation ever occurring in a muscle car – it makes all the right noises and delivers a suitably rugged amount of shove.

The auto’s five speeds are fine, but definitely inferior to using the pistol-gripped six-speeder.

As entertaining as the R/T is, it’s not the ultimate Challenger, though. That honour goes to the SRT8 392. The number refers to the size of the engine in good old cubic inches — b,424cc in new money — and harks back to 1951, when a 392in3 Hemi engine was first slotted into a Chrysler. This model absorbs all of the general improvements to the base car mentioned above and then stacks a pile of other tweaks and improvements on top of them. The first of which is power. With eight cylinders of more than 800cc each — just imagine eight Fiat 500 TwinAirs — output is up to 470bhp and 47Olbft, which is 45bhp and 50lbft more than the outgoing model.

But the real key is in the mid-range, where the SRT8’s engineers have now filled in the hole in the power delivery, with 9Olbft more available at 2,900rpm, compared with the last model.

There are a tonne of other detail improvements to the SRT8, including a smaller three-spoke steering wheel and all manner of optional extras that feature everything from a pair of striped white leather seats, which look very Seventies powerboat, to a very 21st-century multimedia system. But they are not the focus here. Out on the test track, all of those things dissolve away leaving you hacking through the bends in a Challenger which has clearly discovered the brains to go with its brawn. Yeah it’s big, yeah it’s heavy, but thanks to Ralph, the new Challenger is still the true muscle car to beat.

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