By Steven Cole Smith
September 24, 2011
I'm a big fan of the Dodge Charger, and it would be on my short list of four-door sedans if I were in the market for one. But the model I recommend is the one that starts at $25,395, and comes with the excellent new 3.6-liter, 292-horsepower Pentastar V-6, Chrysler's best V-6 in — well, forever.
And even at that price, the Charger looks good, has plenty of power, and — with air conditioning, power windows, a six-speaker sound system, 17-inch Michelin radials on handsome wheels, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and all the safety features you'd expect — it's a good buy. Even before you add in the current $2,000 rebate.
I like the Charger R/T test car even better, but at a base price of $32,320, and a list price of $39,095, not that much better. Yes, it has a sure-footed, transparent all-wheel-drive system, especially nice in snowbelt states. It also has the wonderful 5.7-liter, 370-horsepower Hemi V-8 engine, which adds to the old-school appeal of the car. And I mean "old school" as a compliment. But the car doesn't look, drive or feel like a near-$40,000 car, despite its charms.
The biggest problem is the interior. The red leather seats in our "Bright White Clear Coat Metallic" test car are comfortable enough, but are surrounded by so much plastic and vinyl that the interior just doesn't have the upscale feel the price suggests. I'd expect a heck of an upgrade from the base SE model to this R/T model, and it just isn't there.
Yes, as part of a $5,000 "Max" option package, you are getting a navigation system, an upgraded sound system with nine speakers and a 506-watt amplifier; a Garmin navigation system with an 8.4-inch touch-screen display, as well as a backup camera, blind-spot sensing and adaptive cruise control that gauges the distance to the car in front of you and adjusts your speed, plus plenty of other features. Most I could do without, though the $950 sunroof is nice. But this is a car that works best as a reasonably-priced sedan, not a luxury car.
With all that out of the way, how does the car work? Very well, really. The five-speed automatic is adequate on both the V-6 and the V-8, but one of the handful of upgrades scheduled for the 2012 model is the availability of an eight-speed automatic transmission which will up the V-6's mileage from the current EPA-rated 18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, to 19/31. The eight-speed won't be available on the Hemi V-8, at least at first. The 2011 test car gets 15 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, not bad for a 370-horse engine.
The Hemi pulls strongly from a standing start to beyond-legal speeds, and handling is very good for a car that weighs 4,450 pounds. The ride is smooth and quiet, and the R/T is a good choice for long-distance travel. The electric power steering has a nice feel, but could use more fine-tuning.
Inside, apart from the fact that the appointments look and feel a generation behind the competition, everything works well. Rear seat room is good for two adults, but anyone stuck in the middle will have to contend with a front center console that extends far back into rear-seat space. Truck capacity is an easily-accessed 15.4 cubic feet. Beneath the trunk floor you'll find a temporary spare tire and, interestingly, the battery.
Outside, Dodge stylists have done a commendable job of updating the looks, with scalloped side panels, a new nose and a new rear, characterized by extremely bright — too bright, maybe, if you are following it up close — full-width taillights that use 164 LED bulbs. It almost looks like the brake lights are on all the time, but the upside is that following drivers can't miss those lights even in lousy weather conditions.
The 2011 Charger is an undeniable improvement from the 2010, and the few changes planned for 2012 will make it just a bit better. It's a very good car for the money — at a certain point, anyway.
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