A modern, eight-speed automatic supplied by one of the top transmission companies in the world was supposed to be the Charger’s salvation. The old five-speed gearbox was sluggish and lazy, and its replacement is the same ZF-sourced transmission used in luxury cars like the BMW 5-series and Audi A6. But one month into our yearlong test, the eight-speed has been the target of vitriol more than a recipient of praise.
While the jury is still out on the transmission’s road manners, the difficult-to-use electronic shifter inside the car has drawn the ire of almost every driver who’s climbed behind the wheel. The problem is that each step of the PRND progression is closely spaced with inconsistent detents between each position.
Ben Timmins, associate web editor, pointed out that even BMW’s electronic shifter with its unconventional shift pattern is much easier to use. “The Charger’s shifter is clumsy and lacks the finesse of a similarly situated BMW stalk,” he said.
West Coast editor Jason Cammisa expressed safety concerns: “This boat-shaped, bone-headed shifter needs to be Ralph Nader-ized quickly, before someone gets hit while trying to find a gear -- any gear -- in the middle of a three-point turn on a busy road.”
Lending credibility to Cammisa’s fear, Jen Misaros, managing editor of digital platforms, nearly experienced that situation -- albeit in a parking lot with impatient, horn-happy drivers being the only threat to her safety. “To my chagrin, it took me what seemed like an eternity to find reverse, drive, and then reverse again because, each time I had to change gears, I over- or undershot the gear I was looking for,” Misaros wrote. “Unless you are actually looking at the shifter or the info screen between the gauges, there is no way to know which gear you’ve landed on. It’s especially difficult to go from opposite ends of the shifter -- from P to D -- and make the correct choice.”
We suspect that the subconscious confusion stems from the fact that there is never a detent moving the shifter one position but there are detents as you move into the second and third positions. So when moving from park to reverse, or reverse to park, or reverse to neutral, or drive to neutral there is no notched feeling to the shift. But push it further, say from park to drive, and you get two detents -- to move three positions on the shifter. You’ll feel one bump as you shift two positions from drive to reverse.
To date, only managing editor Amy Skogstrom has stood up in the shifter’s defense. “Yes, the shifter is odd, but I think if you drove this car every day it would become second nature,” she posited. “In fact, by the end of my four days with the Charger, I didn’t even have to think about the gear shifter.” Perhaps with time, the rest of our staff will acclimate to the shifter’s peculiar feel as well, but we’re not so sure that Dodge and ZF’s logic will ever make sense to us.
Aggravating operation isn’t the only complaint we have with the gear selector, either. Our drivers have also blasted the shifter’s illuminated position indicator as a serious distraction. At night, the blue-white pinpoint burns in the corner of the driver’s right eye. “Chrysler was clever enough to dim even the turn signal indicators at night,” Cammisa observed, “and yet this 1000-lumen blue beacon beams forth from the shifter as a reminder that you forgot to take your migraine meds.” He isn’t alone; the staff is nearly unanimous in their contempt for the piercing light.
Having used 596 words to crucify the shifter, we now change gears to address the more favorable aspects of the Charger’s interior -- which is virtually everything else. “The interior of this vehicle is miles better than I expected,” Skogstrom gushed after her first drive in our long-term car. “Best of all is the leather-covered steering wheel. It’s the one thing you are constantly touching when you drive, and if a manufacturer can get that one thing right, it makes an impression. The materials in the rest of the interior are also a vast improvement over the last Charger. I’m a fan of the Uconnect touch screen; the graphics are clean and the user interface is easy to understand.”
Cammisa chimed in with praise for the 506-watt, nine-speaker audio system, writing, “The stereo is very good with commendable clarity, a sound stage directly in front of you, and a usable media interface. The nav works well too, once you get used to the oversize graphics.”
Misaros appreciates the supportive driver’s seat: “After two stints at the Charger’s helm, I’ve decided that the seats are firm but extremely comfortable. The side bolsters are big enough to keep butts in place but not so much taller than the seat that it’s difficult to swing a leg over to exit the car.”
There’s no question that the Charger’s interior accolades far outshine the obnoxious gear indicator light and the clunky shifter operation, but it’s frustrating to see a few small-but-significant design flaws taint the driving experience so heavily. With the initial grievances aired, though, our drivers are shifting their focuses elsewhere, including the actual performance of the eight-speed automatic. Check automobilemag.com next month for more on our Four Seasons 2012 Dodge Charger.