The 2012 Dodge Charger, though a new design, is in many ways a relic. We got our first glimpse of the car in December 2008, when Chrysler invited deputy editor Joe DeMatio to preview future products (remember, this was a time when many assumed Chrysler didn't have future products). DeMatio saw a promising Jeep Grand Cherokee and a nicely massaged Chrysler 300. But the biggest surprise was an absolutely stunning new Charger that stepped out of the 300's shadow with a sculpted body, full-width taillamps, and a modern interior. "That's a Charger I wouldn't mind being seen in," he said, although he mused that Chrysler might go broke before he got the chance. That chance arrived when the U.S. government and Fiat stepped in, even if it's safe to say that neither were too excited about the large rear-wheel-drive sedans that had been pushed through by the previous regime. "I won't even tell you the amount of money that the platform costs -- you'd be shocked out of your pants," said new CEO Sergio Marchionne in the fall of 2009. "But it's done, and life will move on."
Despite that less than ringing corporate endorsement, the Charger, when it finally debuted, impressed us enough to make our 2012 All-Stars list. Even that recognition, though, read like a lifetime achievement award for the nearly dead rear-wheel-drive family sedan: "We need to take a step back and celebrate the fact that Dodge still makes a car like this. Because nobody else does," wrote Ezra Dyer. Left unsaid was that we really weren't sure whether anyone really should still be making a car like this. We would find out in a yearlong Four Seasons test.
We specified the most modern Charger. That meant, first and foremost, passing on the Hemi V-8-powered R/T and its sub-20-mpg combined fuel economy in favor of a 3.6-liter V-6 paired with an eight-speed automatic. Six-cylinder Chargers were once little more than fleet specials, but our $34,835 SXT Plus bristled with features like Bluetooth, passive entry, an 8.4-inch color touchscreen, and Nappa leather seats. To that we added navigation (which includes a backup camera) and adaptive cruise control.
Of course, a Charger isn't a Charger without muscle and attitude. Our Blacktop package bought sport seats and a sport-tuned suspension as well as black twenty-inch wheels, a black grille, and a black interior. To say this combination looked cool with black exterior paint would be an understatement. "It's a black-on-black-on-black-on-black testament to the epic feats of badassery coming out of Auburn Hills these days," said associate web editor Ben Timmins. OK, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement. But everywhere we drove, from northern Michigan to South Florida and New York, the Charger elicited similar hyperbole from editors and bystanders alike.
Dashing good looks aside, we'd be lying if we said we became fast friends with this big beast. In fact, it didn't do anything fast. "This car's looks promise performance it can't deliver," complained one hotshoe staffer. Our Charger required 6.9 seconds to hit
60 mph, about a second slower than a V-6 Toyota Camry. The problem? The eight-speed automatic has gearing taller than Jack's beanstalk and software programmed to hunt for the highest gear. This surprised us since this same basic transmission, supplied by ZF, is a model citizen in many Audis and BMWs. The powertrain did, however, achieve its ultimate mission: over the year we observed 24 mpg -- a bit better than the EPA combined rating -- and traveled as far as 540 miles on a single tank.
Editors weren't much happier when they had to change gears themselves. The Charger's console-mounted shifter looks conventional but is actually a shift-by-wire unit that lacks clear detents for park, drive, and reverse. This frequently caused frustration of the kind described by managing editor of digital platforms Jennifer Misaros: "I tried reversing into a spot but underestimated the length of the car, so I had to pull forward to straighten out. It took what seemed like an eternity to hunt for reverse, drive, and then reverse again. Fellow motorists agreed that it had taken too long, honking in irritation as they passed." The shifter also drew complaints for its backlighting, which was so blindingly bright that we covered it with gaffer tape. Dodge eventually recalled early build Chargers to resolve this. On that same visit, the dealer reflashed the transmission. This seemed to smooth out the shifts, although it was possibly just a placebo. Over the year, the dealer also had to replace a radar cruise control sensor and a wiring harness that tripped an airbag light (but, thankfully, no airbags).
Misaros's parking-lot run-in revealed a more central issue with the Charger: it's huge. "The name Starship Enterprise comes to mind while driving the Charger," quipped associate web editor Donny Nordlicht. Indeed, the Charger's wheelbase stretches nine inches longer than that of a Toyota Avalon. Whereas most modern cars try hard to hide their mass, the Charger flaunts it with its broad shoulders, long hood, and wide taillamps. And as much as we loved the looks of the Blacktop trim, it didn't quite have the thinning effect of a cocktail dress of the same color. The expanses of dark plastic, leather, and sheetmetal envelop the driver like a cave, and the plus-size wheels compromise ride quality. "The Charger's tires could be filled with cement, so heavy-footed is this car over broken pavement," complained senior editor Joe Lorio, who added that he'd driven a Charger with eighteen-inch wheels that rode much better. It only got worse when all four of our wheels bent on potholes within 20,000 miles. Indeed, our overall verdict early on was rather damning. "The Charger is not small, not easy to maneuver in the city, and not particularly quick with a V-6," said senior web editor Phil Floraday. "If I were buying a Charger, I'd go all in and opt for an R/T."
Ah, but there's a reason we call this a Four Seasons test. As we continued to pile on the miles -- 27,844 in all -- we began to notice the many subtle but important details the Charger gets right. Take, for instance, the soft yet supportive leather seats. "Kudos to Dodge for the most comfortable reclining front passenger's seat in the world," said JeanKnowsCars.com executive editor Laura Sky Brown after a trip to Indiana. That seat won more praise for the fact that it featured power-adjustable lumbar, an amenity that's often offered only to the driver.
Dodge did just as well with more complex electronics. The touchscreen, albeit a bit too dim for some people, has a clearer layout and larger icons than competitors such as MyFord Touch. "Most aspects of the infotainment system are responsive, quick, and easy to use," said Nordlicht. It also doesn't try to do too much -- good old-fashioned knobs adjust volume, tune the radio, and turn up the fan speed. The only chink in the infotainment armor is the navigation system, which relies on dated-looking and sometimes directionally challenged Garmin software. A few drivers had Bluetooth pairing issues, but most found it easy to use. Editors also lavished praise on everything from the remote-start system to the heated steering wheel. The fact that many of these features weren't offered on the last Charger is beside the point; the point is that they worked really well.
We never had a problem with the way the last-gen Charger handled, but the new model feels even tidier. The Blacktop's suspension, which features the same damper tuning and antiroll bars as the R/T, controlled body motions nicely. On the rare occasions that speed and 4000-plus pounds overwhelmed the fat tires, the Charger proved neutral and predictable. The hydraulic power steering felt direct even when the car was wearing winter tires and had a BMW-like heft at low speeds. That didn't make parking any easier, but the car felt very competent, if not quite playful, on curvy roads. "There's no hiding the fact that it's a big car, but like a big-boned person, it carries its size and weight pretty well," said managing editor Amy Skogstrom. On long, straight stretches, editors praised the float-free ride and -- when the sensor worked -- the adaptive cruise control. The latter brakes more smoothly than similar systems we've tested and -- this is crucial -- has a conventional mode for those conditions (like snow and rain) when radar sensors work poorly.
All of these details add up to something more than just a good-looking retro ride. "There's so much that's good about the Charger and so much that's better than expected," said New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman. That's not to say our initial problems disappeared -- to the last day of our test, some editors hated the shifter. Neither will it convert everyone into lovers of big, rear-wheel-drive sedans. Last year Dodge sold 82,592 Chargers, a respectable total that doesn't even come close to the hottest front-wheel-drive sedans. But the Charger's execution, value, and charm should earn it a place in the future. Floraday sums it up: "I'm not the biggest fan of big cars (I own a Miata), but I get along with the Charger just fine. There's certainly a place for something so distinctly American in the automotive landscape."
The Dodge Charger has weathered many tumultuous years. It debuted in 1966 as a fastback version of the Dodge Coronet featuring hidden headlamps and distinctive full-width taillamps. A 318-cubic-inch V-8 was standard; $878 bought a 426 Hemi.
After two relatively unsuccessful model years, the Charger got new notchback styling for 1968. Steve McQueen chased a menacing black one through the streets of San Francisco in the movie Bullitt. The very similar 1969 model is also a celebrity, having played the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard. But no Charger inspires lust like the aerodynamic 1969 Daytona, the first NASCAR vehicle to go faster than 200 mph. A street version with an optional Hemi V-8 can command close to half a million dollars at auction.
Like most muscle cars, the Charger faded in the next decade, disappearing entirely in 1978. It woke up four years later with a killer hangover -- it was an option package for the 84-hp Omni coupe. It got better in 1983 when Carroll Shelby developed a performance version with a 107-hp four-cylinder and a five-speed manual. The Charger disappeared again in the late '80s and remained dormant for more than a decade before resurfacing in 1999.
The Dodge Charger R/T show car ran on compressed natural gas, but what really shocked Mopar fans was its four doors. The Charger didn't return to production until 2006, after Dodge dealers had expressed their displeasure at getting the Magnum station wagon while their Chrysler compatriots sold the striking 300 sedan. The Charger's available Hemi power and its rear-wheel-drive chassis, which borrowed components from then-partner Mercedes-Benz, were praiseworthy, but the styling was pretty busy. Development money all but dried up as Daimler pushed Chrysler into the cold embrace of a private-equity firm. We were thus pleasantly surprised when we first saw the new Charger. It still rides on the previous generation's LX platform but has a more refined interior, clean sheetmetal reminiscent of the '99 concept, and a new 3.6-liter V-6. For 2013, the six-cylinder's output increases to 300 hp. Dodge also offers all-wheel-drive.