2017 Dodge Challenger GT AWD First Drive: Four-season Grand Touring in an affordable retro package

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In the mid 1960’s a talented group of engineers in West Bromwich, England, dared to ask the question ‘why can’t a muscle car spin all four wheels?’ The end result was the Jensen FF, the first production vehicle to feature AWD, and a coupe that just happened to be hiding a 383 cubic inch Chrysler V8 under the hood. Flash forward 50 years and the Pentastar has picked up the torch once again in the form of the 2017 Dodge Challenger GT AWD, which throws down nearly the same gauntlet at the rear-wheel drive-only options from Ford (the Mustang) and Chevrolet (the Camaro).

In many ways the Challenger GT is a no-brainer. Dodge’s retro-themed coupe shares its LX platform with the four-door Dodge Charger sedan, which has long offered an all-wheel drive option. Porting the system to its equally-hefty two-door sibling presented no significant technical hurdles for FCA’s design team to overcome, other than updating the vehicle’s suspension to deal with the extra 200 lbs or so of weight brought on by the transfer case et al.

More importantly, the all-wheel drive Challenger serves to open up new markets for Dodge at very little expense. As it turns out, the Challenger and the Charger are cross-shopped against each other more than any other vehicles, with those in cold weather states typically ending up either swapping the coupe for the sedan when they find out they can’t benefit from AWD, or moving on to a competitive four-door or SUV in its place. The small investment inherent in developing the Challenger GT sees Dodge poised to scoop up not just those buyers who would have moved on to Charger pastures, but also anyone who’s been pining for a Mustang or a Camaro, but isn’t comfortable with a rear-wheel drive option during the winter months.

There are, of course, a couple of caveats:

– The 2017 Dodge Challenger GT comes exclusively with a V6 engine. Granted, the 3.6-liter unit pushes out 305 horsepower, but put any visions of V8 rumble and four-wheel smoke shows out of your head.

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– There’s no manual gearbox available. Dodge’s excellent eight-speed automatic is standard with the GT, which could be a deal-breaker for three-pedal fans.

I had the chance to slip behind the wheel of the Dodge Challenger GT in snowbound Portland, Maine, where a recent ‘wintry mix’ had dumped ice pellets, rain, and fat, wet flakes of white stuff on the ground over the preceding 24 hour period. Our destination for the day as we rolled out of town in a convoy of candy-colored cars was Club Motorsports in Tamworth, New Hampshire, a recently completed race facility that also happened to host enough real estate for a hard-packed kart track suitable for snow hooning.

I’m happy to report that on the dry pavement of Interstate 295 the Challenger’s AWD system felt completely transparent. Designed with an active transfer case that shuttles power to the front wheels only when its computer-controlled algorithm has determined that it’s time for more traction (based on factors such as temperature, wheel spin, wiper use, etc), in daily driving it’s impossible to tell the rear-wheel and all-wheel drive models apart.

On the tighter two-lane ribbons that connected Portland metro to the outlying towns that dot the border between Maine and New Hampshire, the differences between the GT AWD and the entry-level V6 SXT became more pronounced. Dodge decided to base the coupe’s suspension on the same tune found in the Charger police pack, which makes sense considering the more portly curb weight associated with the geared-up LEO ride. The flipside is a Challenger that wants to bounce its way across every frost heave, crack, and pothole in the road, turning in a demonstrably rougher performance than regular V6 models, especially when riding around on its standard 19-inch all-season rubber (winter tires are always a better option when near freezing temperatures like we were).

Still, if you can get past the stiff-legged act, the 2017 Dodge Challenger GT AWD does offer considerably better grip on a variety of surfaces as compared to the competition. An ill-fated decision to risk a steep, snowed-over wagon path for a photo op saw the coupe fighting for every last inch of traction while my co-driver reversed it back onto the main road, an impressive performance given its all-season tires. Likewise, bombing down a slick and narrow dirt road inspired significant confidence in the car’s capability to claw its way out of a corner, even with the stability control system stepping in like the no-fun police every time I got just a little too sideways for its programming’s comfort.

The real test, however, came at Club Motorsports, where five inches of snow had already been spun into stiff, slushy ridges by the drivers who’d previously sampled the tight confines of the drift course. Under the watchful eye of the Team O’Neil rally school (also based in New Hampshire), I slid, slammed, and skidded the Challenger GT around and around with the traction control banished and the Dodge’s ponderous momentum informing every wheel and throttle input. Under such slippery conditions the more modest horsepower produced by the V6 is more of a blessing than anything else, and while the heft of the Challenger was undeniable (think grand touring rather than sport, or even muscle), never once did the AWD system leave me stuck.

I have no doubt that there’s a built-in market for the 2017 Dodge Challenger GT AWD. Shoppers have been conditioned to believe that anything other than all-wheel drive spells certain doom during winter weather, and given that the Challenger is already one of the strongest sellers in the Dodge portfolio, expanding its mission statement to reach out to those who’d otherwise snag a Charger is a winning strategy. The popular Challenger V6 (which accounts for the lion’s share of sales) is an excellent compromise for those seeking the muscle car look without having to take out a payday loan every time they hit the fuel pump, and that same daily driver competence continues with the AWD model.

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