The Dodge Charger exists in a class of one. Its attitude, style, and rear-wheel drive distance it from an otherwise bland segment defined by the unexceptional Ford Taurus, Chevy Impala, and Toyota Avalon. As much as we respect the Charger's swagger, though, we could never get past its less compelling traits -- tired six-cylinder engines, sluggish transmissions, and a dour interior.
With the 2011 redesign, Dodge moved to address every major complaint we'd levied against the previous Charger. The interior achieves unseen levels of quality for a Chrysler product with a dual-gloss dashboard, genuine aluminum trim, and a crisp, 8.4-inch touch screen. The new 3.6-liter V-6 measures up to the competition with 292 hp. Perhaps most critically, the five-speed automatic can be replaced with an optional eight-speed -- the same ZF-supplied gearbox found in many BMWs and Audis. The Charger's comprehensive revitalization was as surprising as the entire Chrysler Group's rapid resurgence, and at our annual awards test, the big sedan sauntered away with one of ten All-Stars.
Curious if American machismo can truly co-exist with sophisticated manners, we ordered a 2012 Charger for a yearlong evaluation. Starting with the $31,420 SXT Plus netted the six-cylinder engine paired with the eight-speed automatic, plus passive entry and push-button start; heated, power adjustable, Nappa leather seats; heated and cooled cup holders; heated second-row seats; satellite radio; and the touch-screen infotainment unit. We added adaptive cruise control, a heated steering wheel, navigation, a backup camera, and the $1495 blacktop package, which includes sport bucket seats, a nine-speaker stereo, paddle shifters, a sport suspension, and 20-inch gloss-black wheels, bringing the total to $34,835.
That our imposing, monochromatic Charger has the presence of a police cruiser hasn't escaped us. We're hoping the paint scheme will improve our chances to fly both under the proverbial radar and past the very real radar gun. Within a week of its arrival, the Charger was already returning results; a Detroit police officer approached our illegally double-parked Charger, not to ticket it, but thinking that its driver, West Coast editor Jason Cammisa, was one of his own. (Quite the opposite, sir.)
Back in Ann Arbor, the Charger has been reminding our staff that it wasn't an imposter among our All-Star winners. "I was pleased by the superb Bluetooth interface and the touch-screen navigation system," reported deputy editor Joe DeMatio after his first drive. "The driver's seat seems really comfortable, so it will be interesting to see if it stands up to a long trip," he added.
The new gearbox has also set about erasing the reputation established by the Chrysler transmissions we were driving just half a year earlier. "The shifts from the eight-speed aren't as crisp or as quick as those from the same gearbox in a German luxury car," noted senior editor Joe Lorio, "but they're much better timed and more precise than what you got with the reluctant five-speed. The three additional cogs also address the issue we experienced with our long-term Jeep Grand Cherokee, that there wasn't an appropriate gear for highway passing maneuvers."
While we love that the Charger's styling is as bold as ever, the road manners have evolved into something much more civilized. We're eager to see if the grown-up Charger will last twelve months without revealing a single old habit that could be lurking beneath the surface.