As my best friend and I cruised around car dealerships looking for a suitable ride for his future motoring enjoyment, we stumbled across an unlikely specimen for two teenage drivers. Tucked into the back corner of a Ford dealership was a black-over-blue Dodge Charger — the cool-looking 1970 edition with the full-width open grille. One tire was nearly flat and the car was really dirty, almost looking abandoned. We sidled up for a closer look.
The vinyl interior was also dirty but appeared to be in pretty good shape. A huge automatic shift lever rose from the elongated center console like a tiller on a boat, which was ironic, because this particular Charger had apparently belonged to a lobster fisherman who decided that he needed a vehicle that could do more than just haul. Unbeknownst to us two rookies, this Charger packed some serious heat — 440-cubic inches of triple, dual-barrel carburetor heat. When we lifted the unlocked hood (hey, this was 1972) nothing but a big old Chrysler V-8 and a huge orange air-filter cover were staring back.
Imagine my envy. My buddy talked his dad into co-signing for a Charger R/T with a Mopar 440-six-pack. I was driving a Saab 96 with a four-speed-on-the-tree that my dad picked out because it was ‘safe.’ I think my dad had already seen my driving prowess behind the wheel of the Rocket V-8 Oldsmobile family wagon and knew that I wouldn’t be long for this world if I had more power than the Saab’s V-4 engine could muster. I got my revenge the following year by buying a motorcycle — a nice, fast, wheelie-prone motorcycle. Neither of us knew what that would lead to.
How is this relevant to the newest Dodge Charger, a sedan that I basically panned last fall when compared to some other recent four-doors?
The newest Charger is markedly improved over the sample tested last year — in every way — so comparisons between the two models will be brief. And, the 2011 Charger brings more styling to a model that wants to trade on its namesake, without the baggage of a total retro-design. Yet, the newest Charger fully embraces the earlier Charger’s passion for power, performance, and presence. That passion for really driving and enjoying the whole car experience is an emotion that hasn’t always been present in many Chrysler products of late; perhaps that is finally changing.
The previous Dodge Charger model was really not a bad car. Based on the Chrysler 300 sedan, the Charger is a full-size sedan with a nice long 120.9-inch wheelbase for stability and ride compliance, plus ample space for a roomy back seat and large trunk.
The newest Charger capitalizes on those existing attributes and enhances them to work even better. Suspension recalibrating and retuning improved all aspects of the Dodge’s chassis performance — removing the ambivalence that I disliked in last fall’s test Charger. Right from the get-go, this Charger R/T provided an outstanding balance of ride comfort, handling sense and all-around composure over every kind of surface. Excellent braking and steering feel, as well as smooth throttle tip-in action are just some of the key indicators that several enthusiast engineers at Dodge played a huge hand in developing this updated independent chassis.
Equipped with optional all-wheel drive, my Charger R/T had a decidedly rear-drive push when hard on the throttle yet the chassis never slithered out of control and never misbehaved on the snowy edge of traction. Lamentable for some, there is no traction control defeat button with the AWD system, so lurid power slides are out of the question here.
Not that the Hemi V-8 couldn’t provide the necessary thrust, because this motor is up to the task of raising your heartbeat. Power output is about the same as last year, 370 peak horsepower from the 5.7-liter Hemi, plus 395 pound/feet of peak torque. All Chargers now use a new five-speed automatic with manual-mode shifting, even for the new 292-hp Pentastar V-6 motor. Click the shift lever into driver-operated shifting mode, and this big sedan can be transformed into a major hooligan car. Leave the lever in drive and mash the pedal and the Dodge races to redline with no reservations, time after time. Aah, maybe this is why police officers like the new Dodge so much over those antiquated Crown Vics.
Inside, current Charger owners will be impressed by the new level of fit and finish as well as the refined textures and upscale surfaces in use. Gone is the plasticky finish throughout, replaced by complementing fabrics, leathers and efficient switches. A 4.3-inch LED screen in the center dash is standard on all models, while my R/T featured a huge 8.6-inch LED screen with an ultra-colorful Garmin navigation system, back-up camera and oversized audio displays. This is easily one of the most user-friendly and visually attractive nav screens in production.
In R/T trim (SE is the only other trim) the Charger has two-tone red and black leather seating — heated front and rear here — plus push-button ignition and dual-zone auto climate controls. Options include blind-spot detection (subtly effective in the Dodge) power tilt and telescoping steering column with memory, Smartbeam HID headlamps and a heated/cooled center console and beverage tray. Sirius satellite radio is standard as are several auxiliary input jacks. Stereo output was powerfully entertaining.
While the refinement inside the Charger is a pleasant surprise, it is outside where Dodge design guru Ralph Gilles has worked his visual magic. While retaining most of the car’s full-size dimensions, the new Charger looks smaller from several angles. The front fascia appears to be narrower, the scalloped side panels invoke visions of earlier editions, while the glass area is about 15 percent larger than before, improving visibility in many directions. At the rear, all models get dual exhaust pipes plus a side to side taillamp using 162-LED bulbs reminiscent of the first Chargers. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard with sizing all the way up to 20-inch chrome wheels.
In the full-size sedan class, nothing else is really like the Charger. The Impala still offers an SS V-8 version, but this is a front drive sedan only. Same for the Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon, and the Buick LaCrosse. Ford’s new Taurus comes in front- or all-wheel drive, while the Charger is rear- or all-wheel drive. But the Taurus feels heavy and unbalanced next to the lithe new discipline of the Charger. Even the SHO model is cumbersome when compared to the R/T’s relatively nimble manners. Plus, the Hemi V-8 stomps the Ford’s Eco-Boost V-6 while delivering equal fuel economy ratings.
The new Charger feels solid. It is quiet going done the road, and undeniably strong in R/T trim. The cabin is almost plush given how low-brow the previous model was.
It’s early in the year, but this Charger R/T is already holding down a spot on my Ten Favorites List. This new Charger isn’t hiding in the back corner of any car lot.
Just the Facts: Dodge Charger
Charger is a five-passenger full-size sedan available with rear-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive. Base pricing for an SE model with V-6, automatic is $25,995. R/T trim with Hemi and AWD starts at $33,145. As shown, the test car stickered for $37,165.
Hemi V-8 produces 370 hp and 395 pound/feet of torque. EPA mileage estimates are 15/23 with AWD, 17/25 for rear-drive R/T models.
Charger measures 199.9 inches long and rides on a 63.4-inch track that needs only 37.7 feet for turning, 4 feet less than a Taurus SHO. Trunk space is 15.4 cubic feet.
Charger is built in Brampton, Ontario.