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.