The Dodge Charger is proof that Chrysler once made damn good cars — and has the potential to do so again.
Back in the automaker's mid-decade glory days, the Mercedes-engineered Charger and its Chrysler 300 sibling stole the show. Largely unchanged, today's Charger has aged noticeably; nearly every competitor feels more contemporary and gets better crash-test ratings. But the car still has its draw: With the short-lived Pontiac G8 gone — and the Ford Crown Victoria's headstone nearly in the ground — the pickings for big, affordable rear-wheel-drive sedans are slim.
From the base Charger SE to the high-performance SRT8, Dodge offers four engines across six trim levels. All-wheel drive is optional. For 2010, the previously optional side curtain airbags are now standard. Click here to compare the '09 with the '10, or here to compare the Charger with its Chrysler 300 sibling. (Note that we break out the V-8 300C as a separate model.)
I tested an all-wheel-drive Charger R/T this time around, but we've logged plenty of miles in other drivetrains over the years. Here's how they stack up:
|Trims & Engines|
|Trim level||SE||3.5L, SXT, Rallye||R/T||SRT8|
|Engine||2.7L V-6||3.5L V-6||5.7L V-8||6.1L V-8|
|Driveline||RWD||RWD or AWD||RWD or AWD||RWD|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||178 @ 5,500||250 @ 6,400||368*@ 5,200||425 @ 6,200|
|Torque (lbs.-ft., @ rpm)||190 @ 4,000||250 @ 3,800||395* @ 4,350||420 @ 4,800|
|Transmission||4-speed auto||4-speed auto (RWD); 5-speed auto (AWD)||5-speed auto||5-speed auto|
|EPA fuel economy (city/hwy., mpg)||18/26||17/25 (RWD); 17/23 (AWD)||16/25 (RWD); 16/23 (AWD)||13/19|
|Fuel usage||Midgrade required||Midgrade rec.||Midgrade rec.||Premium rec.|
|*372 hp and 400 pounds-feet of torque with Road/Track Performance Group.|
Source: Automaker and EPA data
Endowed a year ago with variable valve timing, Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 packs heat. All-wheel drive saddles the Charger R/T with another 183 pounds, but even with four occupants I was able to scoot up to highway speeds with power to spare. With 395 pounds-feet of torque at an accessible 4,350 rpm (or 400 pounds-feet with the R/T's optional, and confusingly named, Road/Track package), there's no waiting to unlock extra oomph as the tachometer needle climbs; the Charger R/T moves vigorously from the get-go. Ford tried to emulate this sort of thrust with the Taurus SHO's twin-turbo V-6, but the results feel lacking from a standing start. Displacement matters, and the era of big V-8s is fading fast. Enjoy the Charger's while you can.
All-wheel-drive V-6 Chargers and all V-8 Chargers get a five-speed automatic. It's a good transmission, though the gated shifter can be a bit reluctant to move into Drive. Upshifts are smooth and rarely happen too early, and highway kickdown comes without undue lag.
Less responsive is the Charger's all-wheel-drive system, which features an active transfer case that can automatically disconnect the front axle and route all power to the rear wheels. The benefits are tangible — preservation of rear-wheel-drive handling and better fuel efficiency — but somewhere along the way Chrysler forgot the whole point of all-wheel drive: traction. The system kicks power to the front wheels only after the rears have spent precious seconds spinning over slippery surfaces. It's hardly a seamless transition, and when you need to move out on a rainy day — say, to catch a gap in traffic — the Charger's all-wheel-drive system doesn't live up to its calling.
On the open road, the Charger's suspension rides softly. Tailored after the prior-generation Mercedes E-Class suspension, it doesn't lend a connected feeling with the road, bobbing up and down on undulating highways and becoming squirrely over midcorner expansion joints. But overall ride comfort is good, and the cabin remains well-isolated on rough pavement — something that complements its general quietness at highway speeds. Bear in mind our test car had 18-inch wheels (17s are standard) and standard suspension tuning. The Road/Track option adds a performance suspension and 20-inch wheels to the R/T, while the SRT8 has its own setup, also with 20s. The latter rides quite firmly; some may find it too punishing.
The steering wheel turns with light effort, but at parking-lot speeds I encountered pockets of less power assist, creating a sort of nonlinear, lumpy resistance buildup as I turned the wheel. Not good. At higher speeds, the steering feels too light; its skittish nature requires more corrections to stay on course than a full-size car should. Note that the Road/Track setup's performance steering and wider tires — P245/45R20s, versus the P225/60R18s on our test car — will likely affect steering feel, as will the SRT8's hunkered-down setup and high-performance summer tires.
Find some back roads, and it's not difficult to drift the Charger's tail out. Our all-wheel-drive tester was easy enough to reel back in, but performance enthusiasts will want to upgrade to the SRT8, or at least opt for the Road/Track package. Without it, the R/T's noticeable body roll and sloppy steering turn-in work against any corner-carving.
Four-wheel-disc brakes are standard. Antilock brakes are included on all but the Charger SE, where they're optional; all-wheel-drive V-6 and all V-8 models have larger front discs. Our test car's pedal delivered firm, linear stopping power. Easing off the brakes left something to be desired — the pedal felt too on-then-off to get going again smoothly.
In terms of power, other Chargers run the gamut. I haven't driven the 2.7-liter V-6, but given its modest horsepower, the midgrade fuel requirement seems peculiar. The 3.5-liter delivers adequate, though never enthralling, acceleration. Its 250 horsepower rating could be inflated, given the engine hasn't been certified according to the industry's latest SAE ratings, which typically dock a few horses. (Both Hemi V-8s have been certified.)
On the other end of things, the SRT8 delivers strong thrust, a satisfying exhaust note and precise handling. Back in 2006, our friends at "MotorWeek" clocked a Charger SRT8 hitting 60 mph in 5 seconds flat. That's not bad for a 4,160-pound car. With massive 14.2-inch front discs and four-piston Brembo calipers front and rear, the SRT8 stopped from 60 mph in 128 feet — neck and neck with the Taurus SHO. Unfortunately, the SRT8's performance returns poor enough gas mileage to strap it with a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax.
Fun as the Hemi is, the Charger is getting dated. The cabin feels higher-rent than those in Chrysler's minivans and midsize cars, but competitors from the Taurus to the Toyota Avalon are better. Our tester's leather seats felt cheaply upholstered and short on lateral support; the bolstered seats in the Road/Track group and SRT8 address both those issues. The materials used below elbow level in the Charger have a crude, unfinished look, and where competitors upholster their A- and B-pillars, Chrysler's are plastic. Certain controls, from the hazard lights button to the trunk release, lack design cohesion with the rest of the cabin, and while other Chryslers have adopted Mercedes-like window switches, the Charger's are cruder. The navigation system has decent graphics but a small map view that's squeezed between a litany of on-screen shortcut buttons.
Both rows of seats provide ample legroom and headroom, but the low roofline and squat windows — something I've carped about since the Charger's early days — limit visibility in all directions. Pull up to a stoplight, and you may have to crane your neck forward to see when the signal changes.
Nuts & Bolts
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Charger scores the top rating, Good, in front impacts. However, even with this year's standard side curtain airbags, side-impact crash-test results are Marginal. (Last year's full complement of optional side airbags also included seat-mounted side impact airbags, which aren't available this year. Their effectiveness is debatable: Even with optional side curtain and side-impact airbags, the '09 Charger also scored Marginal.) Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, which most competitors include standard, are optional on the Charger SE. Other trim levels get them standard. Click here for a full list of standard safety features.
Reliability has been so-so on the V-6 Charger, with V-8 models faring a bit worse. The Charger SE starts at $24,390, which is competitive with the Taurus and Chevy Impala and undercuts the restyled — but better-equipped — 2011 Avalon by nearly $8,000. Standard features include a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack, plus the usual power accessories and cruise control. The V-8 R/T starts at $31,370; all-wheel drive adds $2,100 to $2,760, depending on trim. Move up the ladder, and available features include power front seats, heated leather upholstery, a moonroof, a navigation system and full iPod compatibility.
The SRT8 starts at $39,880, including the gas-guzzler tax. With the full bevy of options, it tops out around $45,000.
Charger in the Market
The Charger, 300 and now-extinct Dodge Magnum showed Chrysler's potential to build engaging, eye-catching cars — an opportunity the automaker squandered, delivering three years' worth of lackluster follow-ups. While it's compelling if only for sheer driving fun, the outgoing Charger will earn its place in a few garages. Cabin quality and crash-test ratings should improve a great deal when the restyled Charger arrives this fall; I only hope Chrysler preserves what made the original such a hit.
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