ARLINGTON, Virginia — An overlooked class of full-size sedans is seeing some action, even if the cars aren’t action-packed: The Toyota Avalon, Chevrolet Impala, and Hyundai Azera are the kind of smooth, commodious front-drivers preferred by men and women of a certain age.
The Dodge Charger has been the outlier here: Great for muscle-car diehards, thanks in part to its rear-wheel drive, but a bit rude and crude for people who associate Chargers with parking-lot doughnuts or the General Lee.
Smartly refreshed for 2015, the Charger gets better at playing both sides of the street. And this is one crowded street, as we learned at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where 23 Chargers lined up for our hangar inspection.
We’ll let those two duke it out (or Luke-and-Duke it) in another story. The main showroom event begins with popular SE ($28,990) and SXT ($30,990) models, whose 3.6-liter V-6 makes 292 horses and 260 lb-ft (or 300 and 264 with the SXT’s optional Rallye Group). Those V-6 models alone offer AWD for $3,000, giving the Charger a prayer of success in northern, rear-drive-fearing climes.
A new body, including a shoved-back C-pillar, does wonders for the Charger’s formerly ham-fisted styling. That includes a full-width grille and aluminum hood; new fascias, fenders, and freshly scalloped doors; and “light ribbon” LED taillamps. Modern safety upgrades include available adaptive cruise with full-stop capability, forward collision and lane-departure warnings, lane-keep assist, and a backup camera.
Inside, Chrysler continues to earn forgiveness after decades of crap-plastic interiors. Drivers can stroke softly padded surfaces, a range of UConnect infotainment touchscreens, and a faux-aluminum IP bezel, while viewing a standard 7-inch driver’s display. The fast-acting, fuel-saving TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission is now, finally, standard at no extra cost in the SE model, which throws away the five-speed automatic for good and raises the base model’s highway fuel economy to a best-in-class 31 mpg.
A range of Hemi V-8s, including the Hellcat’s 6.2-liter supercharged freak, further separate the Charger from the full-size, family-car herd. Naturally aspirated 5.7- and 6.4-liter versions can deactivate four cylinders to conserve fuel. Most affordably, a Charger R/T with the 370-hp 5.7-liter, paddle shifters, and 20-inch wheels starts at $33,990. For the R/T Road & Track edition at $36,990, key additions include heavy-duty brakes and track suspension, 20-inch cast aluminum wheels, a 3.07 rear-axle ratio, HID headlamps, the charming Performance Page readouts and recorders, and interior goodies such as leather-and-Alcantara performance seats.
For added haste, Dodge offers key V-8 models for fans who can’t stretch to the $64,990 Hellcat. At $40,990, the smart street-racing money may be on the R/T Scat Pack, which (along with exterior and interior goodies) drops in 485 horses worth of 6.4-liter Hemi, four-piston Brembo brakes, and charming Performance Pages data readouts and recorders. Cosmetics aside, the $48,380 SRT 392 is largely a Hellcat with 485 horsepower — which seemed more than adequate before Mopar’s Mephistopheles touched down on Woodward Avenue. The SRT 392 adopts such ’Cat toys as six-piston front Brembos with 15.4-inch front rotors, forged wheels, and 20-inch Pirelli P Zeros; launch control, three-mode adaptive suspension and drive modes settings for engine, transmission, and stability control; Nappa leather-and-Alcantara seats, 900-watt Harman Kardon audio, and a flat-bottomed, heated SRT steering wheel with tilt-and-telescope. Dodge even throws in a day of training at an SRT Driving Experience school.
At Summit Point Raceway, both the 392 and R/T Scat Pack were fast, fun, and surprisingly balanced steeds, despite Clydesdale curb weights of roughly 4,400 pounds. Chrysler figures a roughly 4.5-second rip to 60 mph.
A rainstorm had the grace to hold off until minutes after our track departure in a Charger SXT V-6. That bread-and-butter Charger charged a smooth, dutiful course to D.C., aided immeasurably by the new eight-speed transmission. Throughout the Charger lineup, new electric power steering loads up nicely under cornering but transmits little road feel. Seats are well-bolstered, but the cushions are too squishy for long-distance comfort — the most glaring flaw of many Chargers we drove.
And in the smoking wake of the Hellcat, the Charger’s V-6 models felt underpowered. Of course, everything feels underpowered after the Hellcat.
Across this soup-to-nuts lineup — emphasis on the “nuts” — the Charger’s subtler styling and civilized cabin may indeed draw another look from large-sedan generalists. Still, it’s hard to imagine many Toyota Avalon prospects cross-shopping a Charger, and vice versa.
But for enthusiasts who hone in on the Charger, we’d recommend really honing in: Once you drive V-8 versions, whether it’s the R/T or the Devil himself, the temptation may prove hard to resist.
2015 Dodge Charger Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Price: $28,990 (SE), $30,990 (SXT), $33,990 (R/T), $40,990 (Scat Pack), $48,380 (SRT 392)
- Engines: 3.6-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6/292-300 hp @ 6,350 rpm, 260-264 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm; 5.7-liter OHV 16-valve V-8/370 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 395 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm; 6.4-liter OHV 16-valve V-8/485 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 475 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
- L x W x H: 198.4-200.8 x 75.0 x 58.2-58.5 in
- Wheelbase: 120.4 in
- Weight: 3,934-4,410 lb