By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
There will always be a segment of the driving public that feels an undeniable need for speed.
Despite upward fuel-economy pressures from the government and ever-fluctuating gas prices at the pump, there will always be drivers who enjoy the rush of putting pedal to metal, the juvenile thrill of green-light skirmishes, the personal challenge of tearing up curvy roads as if they were race tracks.
Take the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 -- one of four high-performance models Chrysler Group is reintroducing to establish its new stand-alone SRT brand. (Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Challenger are also available as SRTs.)
Launching for the 2012 model year, SRT -- short for Street and Racing Technology -- is an evolution of the 10-year-old performance division that hearkens back to the good old days of American muscle-car indulgence.
Yet along with the guttural exhaust of the SRT's all-new 6.4-liter V-8 comes a whiff of environmental responsibility. Not only does the new engine make the most horsepower and torque of any powertrain Chrysler Group has ever mass produced, it also achieves better fuel economy than most fire-breathing monsters of its size.
The 2012 SRT8 engine is equipped with a so-called active exhaust and a new cylinder deactivation system that can shut down four of the car's eight cylinders -- both of which help increase fuel economy as much as 25% at highway speeds.
Starting at an estimated price of $46,660, the Charger SRT8 boasts a top speed of 175 mph, a might-just-outrun-the-cops 470 horsepower, a matching 470 pound-feet of torque and a combined fuel economy estimate of 17 miles per gallon, as measured by he Environmental Protection Agency.
Available only as a five-speed automatic, the transmission is equipped with paddle shifters that give more control to drivers who occasionally role play as Danica Patrick, allowing them to hold a gear at a higher rpm.
Its dashboard is inlaid with a touch screen that toggles between a sport mode with a new active damping system that stiffens the suspension to the point of discomfort on even moderately rough roads and a regular mode that's more relaxed and appealing to passengers.
The center console is outfitted with a large LED performance screen equipped with timers and G-force figures, as well as real-time horsepower and torque calculations, among other things.
One look at the cockpit, and it's clear the Charger SRT8 is a driver's car. All the displays -- both in front of the driver and in the center stack -- are lassoed together and curved toward the front left seat. But there is enough space and comfort throughout to appeal to those who tag along for the ride.
The rare American sport sedan to successfully fuse competing, stylistic ideas, the Charger is a pony car for the family man. The four-door sedan has just the right amount of exterior aggression, with its beefcake bonnet, big-mouthed grille and rear spoiler.
Yet there's also enough interior refinement to please the wife, especially if she's a meat eater. There's a real steakhouse vibe to the car's interior. My test car was finished in red leather and suede and outfitted with mood lighting and a 900-watt, 19-speaker audio.
Although the front seats could be more cupping in hard turns, they are, at least, ventilated -- a great comfort feature during a hot day at the track.
I spent a day on board the Charger SRT8, wheeling it through the parched canyons of Angeles Crest Highway up to the big track at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park in Rosamond and back to L.A. on the freeway.
What struck me most was not only its raw power but also the smoothness of its transmission, the quietude of its cabin, the responsiveness of its chassis in the canyons -- and its torque, which kicks in at lower rpm for better off-the-line acceleration than the 6.1-liter SRT engine it's replacing.
Upping the ante at the track with more aggressive acceleration, deceleration and cornering, I felt a bit more body roll, but the power under the hood was undeniable. So were the brakes.
What comes up must come down, and that's especially true of speed. The Charger SRT8 is equipped with four-caliper, 14.2-inch front disc brakes that help slow the car from 60 mph to a dead stop in 120 feet.
Included in the $46,660 sticker price of the Charger -- and all four vehicles in the 2012 SRT lineup -- is an SRT track experience. Buyers get a day at the track to help them better understand the cars' dynamics and controls.
On the street, the front air dam was so low it was prone to scraping in and out of parking lots, but that goes with the territory of a track-capable street vehicle.
On the freeway, the Charger is so smoothly powerful that it feels as if it's traveling much more slowly than it actually is. There was positively no heavy breathing, though there was quite a bit of slurping. My fuel economy averaged 14.8 mpg.
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