by Peter Dushenski
After a dreamy night of Unibroue-induced sleep, I was up at 8:00am. Careful not to wake my parents, my brother, his girlfriend, and my hosting Gran’pa, I tiptoed across the creaky wooden floor booby trapped with slippery Persian rugs and deftly made my way towards the kitchen. I found a banana and a poppy seed muffin before settling into the living room sofa to get my bearings and slowly wake up. The late summer sun filtered in through the stained glass windows as I meditated for a moment on the following passage from Alan Watts’ 1957 masterpiece, The Art of Zen:
If we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide. We are free to decide because decision “happens”.
Decidedly, I took the keys to the dark gray 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 waiting on the grass out front. I creaked down the wooden stairs and slipped on my Porsche Design Adidas lace-ups before gently closing the door behind me. Only the occasional V-Twin passing by the Round House broke the steady chime of birds and rustling leaves. Pictured above, the multi-story masterpiece that is the Round House was hand-built 40 years ago by my mother’s family and is located 150km southeast of Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
With keyless entry, the car was unlocked when I reached for the handle. I settled into the manly red chair, ca-thunked the parking brake release, and prodded the 6.4L (392 cubic inches, thus the name) into a weighty hum. I pulled down the driveway, past the swimming pool on my left, and turned right onto Route 243 in search of I knew not what, but possibly a cappuccino.
Mansonville arrived first. Entering town on Rue Principale, the road surface improved with the suddenness of a lightning strike. Quebec isn’t known for its glassy roads, but this town could’ve been. As the weekend was getting into its stride, the Challenger was garnering no shortage of attention. Every school-aged boy wanted to see its driver’s face. I smiled and waved at the eager onlookers. They smiled ever bigger. Without yet spotting a café, I found a parking spot outside a small grocery store and proceeded to search for caffeine on foot.
A couple blocks on, the scintillating scent of French bread graced my expectant nostrils like heroin dripping into my veins. A few steps further and my eyes focused on the Boulangerie Owl’s Bread. Popping up a half-dozen wooden steps to the quaint shop, I went in search of a cappuccino. The atmosphere of the charming bakery was exactly what you’d want to start a sunny Saturday morning with: a friendly smile, a heavenly smell, and the pleasing sound of French being spoken. Sure enough, “cappuccino” was on the chalkboard menu. A few polite words later and I had $4.88 worth of foamy milk and espresso. The drink itself was unspectacular, but I didn’t care. I was now awake, in a delightful mood, and ready to begin exploring what is essentially an enormous engine in a fetching wrapper.
Grabbing the pistol-gripped shifter, a hand-held delight that deserves all the praise it receives, I cruised southeast Quebec with something resembling aimlessness. On those postcard roads, tucked into valleys as serene as a painting, the SRT8 was all too happy to have trees-lined sound magnifiers to bounce its burbling exhaust note off.
But if I’m honest, despite the perfect start to the day and an eager car at my disposal, as I pushed it a bit harder I found the Challenger to be a bit out of sorts. On the rougher tarmac that covers much of the non-Mansonville parts of the region, the 4,170 lbs really struggled to settle on the SRT-tuned Bilsteins and didn’t give me the confidence to push on and explore the car’s limits, no matter how many lateral G-force meters the dashboard had. Although never harsh or crashy, the big Dodge didn’t inspire the driver to test himself. The steering, which didn’t gain enough weight at speed, was also to blame. It quickly became apparent that the Challenger preferred overtaking to outright road attack. Not that a Mustang or Camaro would’ve fared much better on that perilous pavement…
Then, after a few more spontaneous turns, came the gravel roads. Tucked some ways off the main drags, on unmarked stretches of land, were beige tracts of wide-eyed potential. Although I’d had some formal training on gravel last summer, that was in a 120hp FWD hatchback. Now I was dealing with 470 hp, 470 lb-ft of torque, RWD, and defeatable traction control. This was the kind of territory where I had Chrysler PR on speed dial.
With all the grace normally reserved for cradling a newborn, I explored about 17% of the SRT8’s potential and nearly soiled my pants in the process. The potency of the new 392 engine, revived for the first time since 1958, was crystal clear on the loose surfaces of the area’s tertiary roads. The adrenaline rush was so addictive that I spent the next hour slipping, sliding, and cackling like a child on a merry-go-round. After a bit of a laugh, I started to long for solid ground and fourth gear again, so I made my way back onto the highway and headed in the general direction of Round House for lunch.
On my way back, I started to notice the signage in the area, but not enough to avoid accidentally hitting the Vermont border east of Highwater. Spinning a one-eighty, I learned that radar detectors were not allowed and that going 75 kph in the corners was a safe deer-avoiding speed. I hadn’t been particularly keen in tracing my steps but the helpful navigation system, complete with double-tap-to-zoom, knew where to go, pointing me back to the nearby town of Knowlton.
After lunch, my mother and my brother’s girlfriend, Jessica, joined me for a ride to Abbaye Saint-Benoit-du-Lac where there were promises of monastic cheese and apples. My favourite! Naturally, I would play driver. My mother despises it when I drive
like a maniac quickly, but I was keen to impress Jess, who’d voiced her interest in more spirited driving. Balancing these conflicting preferences turned out to suit the Challenger to a tee. Between painting elevens and taking the curves more gently, the hulking coupe ferried us to and from the monastery with evenness and poise. It was perfect. And so were the cheese and apples!
The next day, after a canoe ride on Sally’s Pond across the street from the Round House, we were back on the highway to the Trudeau airport, snaking through the masses of cars returning to the city. Just 58 hours after we’d picked them up, we tossed the SRT8 keys back to the airport valet. Business people and auto journalists are used to brief trips like this for work, but few are unorthodox enough to travel 3,500 km to see their family for the weekend.
It’d been six years since I’d been to the Round House, months since I’d seen my brother, and too long since I’d seen my Gran’pa. The Challenger SRT8 392, for all its impressive numbers, could never have been the highlight of such a meaningful trip, but it made a memorable trip all the more fantastic.
I couldn’t have made a better decision.
This vehicle was generously provided by Dodge Canada for the purposes of this review.