Bad day in the design dome
I still remember going into the design dome at the Chrysler tech center in Auburn Hills to see the upcoming 2006 Dodge Charger. The recently introduced Chrysler 300 was a sensation; the Dodge Magnum was a ballsy station wagon. Now there would be a sedan. There had been a Dodge Charger R/T concept car, back in 1999, that was very promising, its styling inspired by the excellent ’68-’70 model. But when Chrysler design boss Trevor Creed pulled the drape off the production Charger, I could only think, “What happened?”
The cool influences of the iconic Charger were nowhere to be found. Instead there was a weird hop-up ahead of the rear fenders that didn’t match the shape of the rear side glass, the graphic for which came to a point even though the glass area and the door opening didn’t. The car had the same squashed roofline as the 300 but none of that car’s design cohesion and none of its presence. To make matters worse, the interior, cheapened compared to its Chrysler counterpart, was an unrelieved house of rubberized hard plastic.
The Meathead Division
Here was a rare beast, a V-8-powered, rear-wheel-drive, American sedan, but it was impossible to get excited about it because the execution was so dumbed down. This was around the time Dodge was running its “That thing got a Hemi in it?” ads, with white-trash actor dude Jon Reep. It was as if Dodge was trying to position itself as the Meathead Division.
In the years since, we’ve seen a spate of mostly disappointing products. A redesigned Charger, developed during Chrysler’s darkest financial hours, was not hotly anticipated. All of which makes the new Charger one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 model year.
A wholesale improvement
The new Charger’s exterior dimensions are all within an inch of the previous car, but the overall impact is far greater. (The new car is significantly more aerodynamic as well). A new greenhouse features a more raked windshield and taller side windows, and the pillars aren’t quite as fat, all of which improves outward visibility. The upsweep at the rear fenders flows from the C-shaped side scallops, which recall the ’68-’70 Charger (and the ’99 concept). Full-width rear taillights give the back end a lot more distinction, and also echo the muscle-car-era Charger. Here, however, they’re modernized with 168 LEDs.
Exit the cave
The previous Charger interior was a dark cave that was impossible to see out of, and yet given its cheap materials, one wonders why Chrysler designers would want to focus your attention inside. Now, however, not only is the Charger (somewhat) easier to see out of, but when your gaze returns to your surroundings, what you see is a whole lot nicer.
The interior has a fairly simple dash, with the instruments and the huge touch-screen encased in a swath of machine-turned silver trim — which may be to everyone’s taste. The sleek fonts for the gauges, however, are unlikely to find any detractors, nor will the large, grippy knobs for the fan speed, the stereo volume, and the radio tuning. The touch-screen is huge, but it has sucked up too many functions that deserve their own, dedicated switches or buttons. The radio band and presets should move off-screen, because they’d be easier to use by feel and they wouldn’t disappear when you switch the screen to navigation. So, too, should the seat heaters. The screen graphics and resolution, however, are top-notch, and the procedure for pairing a phone with Bluetooth is the quickest and easiest I’ve yet to experience — and you needn’t talk to the dashboard to do it.
My particular Charger presented particularly well, as it was equipped with supple Nappa leather. The seats have a neat sew pattern, which is repeated in the contrasting-color door panel inserts. The driving position is quite good, with a prominent dead pedal. Getting into the rear seat is hazardous to one’s cranium due to the sloping door opening (a problem in more and more sedans). Once you’re plopped down on the soft seat, however, headroom is adequate and legroom is okay.
A polished performer
All of the above changes and improvement allow you to focus on the driving experience, which is might not be worlds better but is a lot easier to appreciate. Although the new Pentastar V-6 blows away any of the previously available sixes, the Charger is still a V-8 kind of car. With 370 hp, the Hemi is virtually unchanged from before; it has a nice rumble when provoked but has the manners to keep its mouth shut most of the time. Acceleration is good but not blistering fast (for that, you need the 465-hp SRT8, apparently). The five-speed automatic shifts smoothly, but there’s no hiding the fact that it’s down on ratios; an eight-speed automatic (available with the V-6 for 2012) would lessen the gaps between ratios and provide a welcome improvement in fuel economy.
As it is, the rear-wheel-drive Hemi is rated at 16/25 mpg, while the all-wheel-drive version gets 15/23 mpg, according to the Feds. I got an indicated 16 mpg in mostly around-town driving, in my AWD test car. All-wheel drive, however, might not be the way to go here. Besides the fuel economy penalty, there’s the $2150 extra cost. Also, I did not find this to be a particularly fast-acting system. For instance, when you jump on the gas to pull out into traffic and the ramp angle of the pavement causes the rear wheels to lose traction, there’s a good bit of wheelspin and tire squeal before torque finally shifts to the front wheels.
Otherwise, though, the chassis is very impressive. One might expect a heavy, burly American sports sedan to ride stiffly, with plenty of side-to-side body motions from its fat antiroll bars, and some tramlining due to the wide tires. But, continuing the theme of muscle with manners, the Charger exhibits none of those bad behaviors. Instead, it stoically sops up bad pavement, and steers precisely, with proper effort levels. Interestingly, the rear-wheel-drive R/T has a firmer suspension setup than my AWD test car. That firmer suspension also is optional on the base SE but not on the AWD R/T; still, I can’t say that I missed it, as the base tuning is very responsive.
The car’s structure feels solid. The car is also fairly quiet.
Yes, this is a better-mannered machine, but any polish it had before went unnoticed, so hard was it to see past the car’s design and interior. Now, however, the Charger stands tall as the classic-style American sedan it always should have been, but that it was hard to imagine it could be.
2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD
Base price: $33,370
Price as tested: $38,385
5.7-liter V-8 engine
5-speed automatic transmission
Stability control and traction control
Tilt/telescoping steering column
12-way power driver seat w/4-way lumbar
Heated front seats
UConnect Touch 8.4 touchscreen LED display w/SD card reader, and voice command
Options on this vehicle:
R/T Plus package
– Security alarm
– Nappa leather seats
– Heated rear seats
– 12-way power driver and passenger seats w/ 4-way lumbar
– Heated and cooled cup holders
– LED interior lighting
– heavy-duty alternator
Driver confidence group
– Backup camera
– Blind-spot warning system
– Rear cross-path detection system
– Rear audible parking aid
– Rain-sensing wipers
– Smartbeam headlamps
– Auto-adjust in reverse exterior mirrors
– Approach lamps
– Auto-dimming drivers exterior mirror
Driver convenience group
– Power-adjustable pedals w/memory
– Memory for power seat/mirrors/radio
– Power tilt/telescope steering column
– Heated steering wheel
Navigation/Rear back-up camera group
– UConnect touch 8.4N
– Garmin navigation system
Redline 3-coast pearl paint
Key options not on vehicle:
R/T Max package
Adaptive cruise control
Alpine premium audio system
Fuel economy: 15/23 mpg (city/highway)
Horsepower: 370 hp @ 5250 rpm
Torque: 395 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Curb weight: 4450 lbs
19 x 8 in wheels
Michelin MXM4 235/55 R19 tires