Once upon a time, sedans tuned by Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology group may have looked different from each other, but they certainly didn’t feel discrete. How could they? Beneath the skin, they shared powertrain, suspension tuning, and virtually every piece of mechanical hardware that influences how a car behaves both on the road and on the track.
When it came time to revamp the Dodge Charger SRT8 for the 2012 model year, however, the SRT guys took a slightly different tack. Was it possible to share platforms, powertrain, and basic components with other Chrysler offerings and at the same time instill a distinct look, feel, and personality into Dodge’s ultimate muscle sedan?
An Extroverted Exterior
SRT brand president Ralph Gilles — who also holds court as Chrysler’s vice president of design – says each of the new 2012 SRT offerings was designed “to have each brand’s identity prominently displayed through the sheetmetal.” That’s perhaps most evident with the Charger, which Gilles describes as the “extrovert of the bunch.”
He’s not kidding. The base Charger, which was revamped and resculpted for the 2011 model year, already bears an aggressive, muscular shape. In SRT8 form, however, that aesthetic has been given the BALCO treatment. The Charger’s already angry front fascia is further twisted into a menacing snarl, thanks to a taller air dam and chin spoiler, a blacked-out bumper section between the upper and lower grilles, and an enormous heat extractor on the bulged hood. Two-tone 20-inch wheels (wrapped in Goodyear Eagle RS-A 245-section rubber), chiseled side skirts, and a lowered ride height lend the car a nefarious stance. In back, the tail is capped off with a tall decklid spoiler, an angular rear bumper fascia, and dual exhausts exiting through a unique valance panel.
All of these showy modifications aren’t simply for looks. With the exception of the blacked-out bumper (which can be deleted, if so desired), each part plays a role in helping the SRT8 reach some incredible speeds (drag naturally limits the car’s top end to a wild 172 mph) while simultaneously remaining planted on terra firma.
A Touched-Up Interior
SRT’s interior amendments are a little less significant. A new flat-bottom steering wheel incorporates small aluminum shift paddles, and cast aluminum accelerator and brake pedals add some brightwork to the driver’s footwell. Front bucket seats receive large side bolsters and are trimmed in both Nappa leather and perforated suede, with the door panel inserts trimmed to match.
That’s not to say there’s much more that needs revision. Dodge blessed the Charger with an exhaustive interior makeover in 2011, adding a cleanly arranged (and slightly nostalgic) dashboard design, narrowing gaps between panels, and liberally bathing the cabin with soft-touch plastics. Buyers have the choice of two color schemes, but the two-tone scheme — which bathes door panels, seating, and the center console lid in a bright red hue — turns as many heads as the Charger’s exterior.
A large 8.4-inch touchscreen display dominates the center of the instrument panel and provides quick access to the climate, audio, and navigation system controls, along with Bluetooth hands-free calling. On SRT8 models, this screen is not only tied to an excellent 19-speaker, 900-watt Harman Kardon speaker system, it also provides an additional page of performance-related data, including an accelerometer, acceleration timer, and other potentially relevant gauges (i.e. transmission and oil temperatures, oil pressure, and battery voltage).
A New Engine, but No New Gearbox
Another gauge measures engine output — and there’s plenty of that to go around. For 2012, the Charger SRT8 gets a heavily revamped 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 under its hood. Not only does this engine have another three-tenths of a liter on the previous 6.1, but its 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of peak torque also surpass the older engine by 50 ponies and 50 lb-ft, respectively. That gain is courtesy of a longer stroke, larger cylinder ports, and a hearty 10.9:1 compression ratio. Predictably, the extra output only helps make the Charger even quicker. Chrysler predicts 0-to-60-mph times in the high-four-second range and a quarter-mile time in the high twelves.
Big power doesn’t necessarily mean a big thirst for premium-grade fuel. While the Charger SRT8 will still be somewhat thirsty — especially when driven to its full potential — the 6.4-liter V-8 now features Chrysler’s so-called MDS system, which deactivates four cylinders under light load in order to decrease fuel consumption. Finalized EPA numbers have yet to be delivered, but Chrysler predicts the engine may return a 25-percent improvement on highway fuel consumption over the previous car. If true, expect the official figures to ring in close to 13/ 23 mpg (city/highway).
Power continues to be sent to the rear axle by means of a five-speed automatic transmission – perhaps somewhat archaic in the age of six-, seven-, and eight-speed transmissions, but still well suited to the task of rocketing the SRT8 forward. Gear changes are smooth and are fairly quick — especially when sport mode is selected from the touchscreen menu.
Suspension Tuning? Have It Your Way
Touching that sport mode button does more than simply revise shift points and calibration – thanks to some new hardware on the underside of the car, it also affects how the Charger SRT8 behaves dynamically.
For 2012, each SRT-tuned product — 300, Charger, Challenger, and Grand Cherokee — receives Bilstein adaptive dampers at all four corners. After being fed data pertaining to vehicle speed, steering angle, yaw, and both throttle and brake inputs, both compression and rebound rates are adjusted to provide an ideal ride quality. The sport function provides a firm, stiff ride that’s ideal for tossing the big sedan around a twisty road or on a racecourse, but the automatic setting is compliant and composed — perhaps even a little floaty — over rough roads.
Although it packs massive power into a hefty 4365-pound frame, the Charger SRT8 is more than a stereotypical American muscle machine. Yes, it kicks you forward with a sudden wall of torque, but the car excels at more than straight-line acceleration.
Through some combination of smart chassis tuning, heavy-duty hardware, and sheer homework (ask any SRT engineer: they spend more time trackside than they do at home), this brute proves to be remarkably agile. Turn-in is quick, and a revised steering rack — with a 14.4:1 steering ratio — provides sharper, quicker turn-in and also makes mid-corner corrections a little easier to execute. Push too hard, and both stability and traction controls may also attempt to correct your trajectory, but neither does so in a heavy-handed fashion – in fact, in sport mode, we were able to slide the tail of the car around quite a bit before the computer began to intervene.
The new Bilstein dampers work wonders both on and off the track, but they also help lend the Charger its own personality. SRT may be installing similar units on the new 300, but those used on the Charger are specifically tuned for this application – and engineers labored to give it a sportier feel than that of the 300. As a result, the Charger feels a little stiffer and a little sportier than its premium sibling – a far cry from the days when the only thing differentiating the SRT8 sedans were fenders, instrument panels, and badging.
A Welcome Renovation, If Not a Revolution
That’s a welcome change, in more ways than one. Certainly, it’s a plus for dealers handling both the Chrysler and Dodge brands; no longer do they have to explain the coexistence of two nearly identical cars that somehow manage to carry two different price tags. It’s also a good idea for each of the brands involved. Dodge has a high-performance sedan that drips the attitude it’s been spouting in marketing campaigns, while Chrysler receives a high-speed flagship designed to cosset an upmarket customer. Either way, they’re still being lured into the SRT fold — an important consideration, seeing as the brand has ambitions of expanding its presence in the years to come.
2012 Dodge Charger SRT8
Base Price: $45,795 (est.)
On Sale: Summer 2011
Engine: 6.4-liter SOHC 16-valve V-8
Horsepower: 470 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 470 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
L x W x H: 200.3 x 74.24 x 58.26 in
Legroom F/R: 41.8/ 40.1 in
Headroom F/R: 38.6/ 37.9 in
Cargo capacity: 16.3 cu. ft
Curb Weight: 4365 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 13/23 mpg (est)