Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
Frankly, we're glad Dodge didn't hold its Charger press introduction in Hazzard County. The roads outside San Francisco are better, there aren't any creeks we'd have to cross without a bridge, and the police are scarcer than Boss Hogg. This gave us a fine opportunity get a good first experience with the 2011 Dodge Charger.
First things first: There will always be Mopar fanatics (this author included) who still cringe that the 2006-10 Charger has four doors. To our great satisfaction, an after-hours conversation with an unnamed Chrysler official at the new Charger's launch yielded this insight: "It was a car we designed first and named later. It was never meant to be called a Charger, but that's how it ended up." Damn the marketing people. They screw up everything.
But we'll let bygones be bygones, and snag another bone to pick with the Dodge Boys: The automaker refers to the 2011 model as all-new. It's not. The basic chassis architecture is carried over, as is the 5.7-liter Hemi V8. What's different? Everything else.
Park a 2010 Charger next to a 2011 model and the transformation is clear. All the body panels are new and pay homage to 1968-70 Chargers with their strong character lines and 3D scallops. The new model looks sportier with a more steeply raked windshield and an extended fastback roofline, much of it glass. The car takes a good stance, thanks in part to the roofline being inset from the perimeter of the undulating 'Coke bottle' fenders.
The look is particularly striking from the rear thanks to an outline of 164 LEDs. At night, you can ID a Charger from a block away. One can only imagine how those might look disappearing from Sheriff Coltrane's view. Overall, the new exterior is eight-percent more aerodynamically efficient and has a Cd of 0.29.
Across the board for 2011, Chrysler has improved its interiors more than anywhere else. They needed it. For those familiar with the second- and third-generation Chargers, the scooped shape of the dash is a modern twist on the old style. Twin gauge pods flank a center LCD readout, the three-spoke wheel is new and the center stack can be optionally equipped with a bright, crisp 8.4-inch LCD. (We didn't get a chance to sample a base Charger SE with the standard 4.3-inch LCD.)
The big LCD works as a clearinghouse for the Uconnect infotainment system. From this central location you can operate the navigation, audio system and your Bluetooth-equipped phone. The graphics are razor sharp and the human/machine interface proved intuitive. For example, when GPS route guidance is active but you want to seek through satellite radio stations, the map shrinks into an area within the larger audio screen.
Chrysler designers stressed the use of high-quality soft-touch materials throughout the new interior. The dash panel was seamless and panel gaps were tight. Looking out from the driver's seat, the new greenhouse also offers improved visibility. Since the Charger is classified as a full-size sedan, this less encumbered view is especially helpful.
Seating in back provides ample room for sub-six footers. Headroom, however, is compromised compared to sedans with squarer profiles, and rear seat riders will find their skulls directly under the back glass. On the plus side, there's enough width for three-across seating.
Outside and in, the reality that the Charger SE and R/T can look nearly identical is purely intentional. Dodge made sure that SE V6 drivers could enjoy the same street presence and comfort as R/T Hemi pilots.
The fact that the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine produces 292 horsepower is behind this last point. Amplified by 260 pound-feet of torque, Chrysler's new corporate six-cylinder produces the horsepower of a V8 from just a few years ago. Compared to the 2010 Charger SE's 3.5-liter V6, the new engine produces 42 more hp and 33 more lb-ft. Even in a car that weighs two tons, you can feel the difference.
Power runs through a transmission we'd hoped would have been left at the curb with last year's 3.5-liter engine; a five-speed automatic. Fuel economy figures have yet to be finalized, but based on the performance of the 3.6-liter in other Chrysler and Dodge models, look for an improvement over the 3.5-liter's 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway. Perhaps the numbers will even eclipse 2010's 2.7-liter V6's 18 mpg city, 26 mph highway.
A modern six-speed, seven-speed (eight-speed
?) or dual-clutch transmission is badly needed here. A new gearbox would be the next logical powertrain improvement for the Charger (and other RWD Chrysler cars, trucks and SUVs). Let's hope the company's profitable quarters continue and that some of those profits are directed toward a major transmission program.
The feature that distinguishes the Charger R/T from the SE is its 5.7-liter Hemi V8. The motor makes 370 hp at a relaxed 5,250 rpm and a hefty 395 lb-ft torque at 4,200 rpm. The Hemi runs through the same five-speed as the V6, which one Chrysler engineers described as "Incredibly stout." Incidentally, this gearbox is essentially the same as the unit used in the new 470-hp Challenger SRT8 392. All-wheel drive is also an option for the R/T, with the unit delivering a variable torque split that starts at 50/50 and goes from there.
All of the 2011 Charger's hardware rides on Chrysler LLC's second-generation E-segment chassis and suspension. The unibody features added structure that improves torsional stiffness in an effort to hit ride and handling targets. What target? The previous-generation BMW 5 Series
. Not a bad goal. But did they hit it?
Dodge claims maximum lateral acceleration of 0.90 g. Aggressive front and rear camber settings of -1.0 and -1.75 degrees give the car a fighting chance to stay planted. The front suspension is a short/long-arm configuration while the independent rear suspension is a five-link/coil spring arrangement originally sourced from a previous-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class
A rack-and-pinion power steering gear directs the front wheels. What's unusual about the system is that instead of a conventional hydraulic pump driven off the crankshaft, the Charger's steering uses an electric pump. The electric pump increases fuel economy by 0.3 percent and adds three horsepower to the bottom line.
We had two chances to experience the 2011 Charger, and the experiences couldn't have been more different.
Our time in the R/T was at Infineon Raceway, known by the old guys as Sears Point. Three five-lap sessions gave us time to figure out how the R/T performed when fitted with three-season high-performance 20-inch tires.
Taking it slow, the first few laps gave us a chance to feel out the R/T. Turn-in is crisp and the steering is alive with feedback. With the electronic stability control fully functional, the Charger tracked true. In most cases, the ESP intervened transparently, keeping the car in line. Running hard going uphill through Turn 2 was the only time we felt the ESP seriously dial back the power.
During these easy laps, body roll wasn't pronounced. Once we toggled the ESP into Track mode and the Charger was cornering harder, body roll increased considerably. In Track mode, the ESP only cut into the fun when we really hung out the rear-end in adolescent power slides that would make Uncle Jesse proud.
As with any production car, we were mindful of the brakes. The four-wheel discs weren't up to track duty. However, this fact isn't particularly relevant because only a handful of drivers will track their Charger. As we would quickly find out, the brakes worked just fine on the street.
Overall, the Hemi-powered Charger R/T was comfortable at Infineon, especially for such a large car. Hauling through the high-speed esses (corners 7, 8 and 8A), the car showed what it was made of, handling transient movements deftly.
These track manners made themselves clear on the twisty roads south of Half Moon Bay. For this duty, we had a Charger SE equipped with the Rallye Package, Rallye Appearance Package, and the Rallye Plus Package. These packages of packages made the SE look like an R/T – complete with leather seats, 20-inch wheels, dual exhausts and rear spoiler – minus the Hemi fender badges.
The narrow roads should have made the Charger SE feel big, but the Dodge shrunk with every corner. The direct steering that we enjoyed at Sears Point worked just as well on public roads. The new Pentastar V6 was also a pleasant surprise. Its 292 horsepower felt strong and gave the Charger everything it needed to hustle from corner to corner. On the street, body roll wasn't an issue, and the car felt flat as the suspension managed every combination of roads we could find.
On the freeway stretch back to San Francisco, the efforts engineers explained regarding improving noise, vibration and harshness snapped into focus. The heavier traffic gave us the opportunity to listen to the Charger's enhanced quietness and appreciate the car's smoother ride. While we didn't have a previous-gen. BMW 5 to do a back-to-back comparison, our kinesthetic memory believes the Dodge Boys have come awfully close to hitting their bogey.
Considering the present automotive landscape, the 2011 Charger is something of a stand-alone offering (Chrysler's own 300
not withstanding). With the demise of the Pontiac G8
, there are no direct domestic competitors for the money. Practically, buyers are likely to cross shop the Ford Taurus
even though it's front-wheel drive and doesn't offer a V8. Due to the cost premium, imports aren't likely candidates given the MSRPs of the 2011 Charger; $25,170 for the SE, $30,170 for the R/T, and $32,320 for the R/T AWD.
This reality demonstrates the uniqueness of the Charger. Even with four doors, it remains a singularly American automotive manifestation. If Bo and Luke were looking to do another series, the 2011 Charger is definitely a car they'd do well to consider. Yee-haw.