Dodge isn't dead in California

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EDITOR'S PICKS: This story has been corrected to note that the original Dodge Challenger was first produced in 1970.

LOS ANGELES -- For all the snarky folks saying Chrysler LLC might as well pack it in -- because no one buys their cars other than rental car fleets -- here is some anecdotal evidence that the Pentastar may not yet be dead.

I recently drove a Dodge Challenger SRT-8 around Los Angeles for a week. This experience followed stints behind the wheel of a Nissan GT-R and Bentley Continental Supersports. And while the GT-R and Bentley got some admiring looks, nothing came close to the wild response the Detonator Yellow Challenger received. People saw the Challenger and went slightly berserk.Remember, this is California, where driving a Dodge is slightly less cool than smoking while wearing a Members Only jacket and listening to Justin Bieber. And yet the Challenger repeatedly won over hearts and minds.

Dodge Challenger is turning heads in California.

Example 1: As I parked the Challenger for some errand-running at Home Depot -- Bob Nardelli's old haunt -- a small crowd of contractors and weekend warriors quickly gathered. These were the true-blue of the blue-collar, dirt-under-fingernails guys. They wanted me to pop the hood. They had questions. This was their dream car, more so than any Ferrari or Corvette. These gnarly dudes were positively aflutter. When they found out the car's sticker price -- around $45,000 -- you could see the financial gears turning in their heads.

Example 2: As I returned to the car after running my Home Depot errands, a 30-something woman -- who by appearances knew her way around hanging drywall -- walked right up and asked for a ride. I've been doing this gig for 17 years, and this has only happened twice before, in a Jaguar convertible and a Ferrari 348 Spider.

Example 3: Forget SlugBug, or PunchDub, or whatever ad slogan VW has these days. As I was stopped at a red light, I saw two guys on the opposite corner waiting for the "walk" signal. One saw the Challenger, the other didn't. Guy One slugged the other guy on the arm, really hard, to get his attention. They then made enthusiastic gestures of wanting a smoky burnout, and the throaty 6.1-liter Hemi and my lead-infused foot did the rest. As I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw two grown men bouncing around and down like popcorn kernels in a microwave.

Example 4: At Trader Joe's, a guy walked up to me and asked what this "awesome" car was. I told him, to which his baffled response was, "Dodge? I thought they were out of business." Reassured that was not the case, the guy said, "I have to get one of these. This thing is bad-ass." He walked back to his shiny new Acura and drove away.

Example 5: In my chiropractor's parking lot, a fellow old enough to have driven the original Challenger insisted that this screaming yellow zonker was a restoration of an original early '70s-era beast. When I informed him that, no, this was a brand-new car, he then went on a tirade as to why this Challenger's rebirth was so much better than that awful Camaro. Sorry, Chevy.

So … if Dodge can impart so much proletarian grunt and lust into the Challenger, all hope is not lost. They just need that pixie dust to waft its way to the rest of the product line. That's what a halo car is all about.

Attention Chrysler and Dodge designers and product planners: You have been Challenged.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter

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