"Did you know that it was never supposed to be called a Charger?"
The man posing the question is Ralph Gilles, President and CEO of Chrysler's SRT group. According to Gilles, the modern Charger was styled to have been branded differently, but the suits wanted a sporty full-size four-door. The design team delivered what was asked and the marketers went ahead and applied the name. Much to the chagrin of many a Mopar fanboy on the planet.
Thankfully, our time with the the affable Mr. Gilles wasn't spent pondering the last generation LX's branding issues. Or refinement issues. Or interior gaffes. Instead, Chrysler rounded up its newest factory-fettled performance superstars in Southern California so we could get some quality time with the latest generation of SRT machines, including the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8.
This updated model provides a welcome change compared to its predecessor. Some may still feel that the last-gen Charger may not have deserved to wear the badge, but Chrysler's latest is clearly closer to its B-Body brethren. To find out just how close, we strapped in and ran down some of California's finest roads on our way out to Willow Springs for some track time.
If the previous model's looks didn't hang enough of its hat on the Charger's stylistic trademarks, this updated version is out to rectify that. Deep side scallops run down the sides of the sedan and their connection to the past is instantly recognizable. We could argue back and forth about the number of doors present, but that discrepancy doesn't hamper the rest of the design.
Up front, the blacked-out cross hair grille is all Dodge, and with the SRT plaque fitted to the Charger, it's evident that is is more than an average sedan. That grille stood out nicely against our test car's Tungsten paintwork, but if that's not your favorite hue, Dodge will spray the SRT8 in Black, Bright Silver, Bright White or Redline Red.
From nose to tail, the SRT8 runs 200.3 inches, and if you pace off that distance, you'll arrive around back to find more classic Charger DNA. The lengthy taillamp array spreads across the rump like a wildfire burning with a total of 164 LEDs. Just above the flames sits a rear spoiler that's functional, just like every other vent or angle on the Charger's exterior. Aero engineers have worked hard to make sure the sedan stays stable at speed, all the way up to a 175 mph top end, but they still managed make a sinister-looking sedan.
Inside, however, is a bit of a different story. There's nothing evil about 12-way power-adjustable front seats that are both heated and ventilated. The front passenger space is downright pleasing to the back and bottom, and these aren't sloppy slip-and-slide thrones of yesteryear. Both front buckets are pleasantly bolstered and boast suede inserts that keep us in place during more than few backroad adventures. With our rear gripping the seats, our hands are free wrap around the large, meaty steering wheel, which features a design unique to the SRT family of vehicles.
Equally appealing was our view out over the hood, which was crystal clear, as was the rear three-quarter view. Looking directly rearward, however, was a bit trickier. The rear seats, while plenty cushy for passengers, seem to step upward like stadium seating, placing the headrests in front of the traffic that lays behind. The sharply angled rear glass, while cool from the outside, further cut down on the ability to see what's going on near the Charger's tail.
All of the appointments and features inside the cabin are supportive and comforting. One feature, however, literally shines brightly above the rest. Sitting in the center square position is a brand-new 8.4-inch touchscreen display that's home to a handful of beautifully displayed audio, climate, navigation, phone and driving options. We realize none of that sounds terribly exciting, but the audio system transforms cabin into an aural odyssey.
Dodge has partnered up with Harman Kardon, and their sound engineers have created an audio system that will have you contemplating ditching your home theater setup and lug your flatscreen TV out to the garage. The interior plays host to 900 watts, 19 speakers and a 12-channel amplifier. Harman Kardon has called its GreenEdge speakers into service for this application, which are tuned for maximum efficiency with minimum energy consumption. Working together, the seven 3.5-inch mid-range, seven integrated tweeters, four 6x9-inch subwoofers and one 10-inch subwoofer produce a completely balanced and crisp sound that fills the cabin floor to headliner. It's perfectly balanced whether you're running the stereo in "mother mode" or "private Metallica concert." It's the cleanest sounding stock audio system we've heard in some time, and it's just one item that SRT8 owners can boast over standard Charger owners.
But another item is even louder than the stereo.
The 6.1-liter Hemi has been pulled to make way for a larger version that's both more powerful and more efficient. Dodge has fitted the updated sedan with a 6.4-liter Hemi V8, which produces 470 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 470 pound-feet of torque at 4,300 rpm. That's 45 more horses and 50 more pound-feet of twist than the last SRT8. Still, the engineers at SRT have figured out ways to make the new thoroughbred a bit less thirsty at the pump. Fuel economy has been raised by around 25 percent, which means this new-and-improved muscle sedan should approach 24 miles per gallon on the highway and 19 mpg in combined driving.
The brainy crew at Chrysler employed a variety of tricks to achieve the efficiency and power upgrades. Larger ports have been used on both the intake and exhaust sides of the combustion equation, while a composite intake replaces an aluminum piece. Variable valve timing is in full effect, which means the cams operate independently under different throttle loads and can adjust as necessary for economy or power. Additionally, Chrysler's Fuel Saver Technology can turn the V8 into a four-cylinder when the need for power is low. That miserly tech pairs perfectly with the all-new active valve exhaust system to help allow the Charger SRT8 run on four cylinders over a greater range of engine speeds. When not trying to save the planet, however, the exhaust belches out beautiful noises that help remind you of the badge on the back.
As great as the 392 cubic-inch engine can be, it still has to work with a partner, and in this cop drama, the transmission plays the Bad Lieutenant. There's nothing inherently wrong with the five-speed automatic. The gearbox works just fine on its own, and it allows you the option to change gears as you see fit. Still, it's sluggish to shift, and the delays felt like a century regardless of whether the shift was performed by the auto stick or steering-wheel mounted paddles. This isn't glaring on the road, but when coming out of Turn One at Willow Springs we would've liked a bit more urgency from the cogswapper. After a few laps, we found it less frustrating to simply let the car figure it out on its own.
We know that Chrysler is hard at work on its next generation of transmissions. An eight-speed ZF unit is scheduled to arrive sometime in the very near future, and it's presently slated for duty in the lower-spec Charger models. Will it wind up in the SRT8 king of the hill? Like us, you'll have to stay tuned for more on that one.
It wasn't all bad news for the transmission, however, as Dodge offers drivers the chance to change the way it behaves with the push of a button. Buried next to the climate controls, beneath the touchscreen (a rather confusing decision that will most likely be rectified before launch), you'll find a button labeled "SPORT." Press it, grab a gear and the transmission will now hold that position until you tell it otherwise. In sport mode, the Charger SRT8 also firms up the suspension damping.
But the minor transmission woes weren't enough to sully our time with the car. The 2012 Charger SRT8 is equally happy to blast down canyon roads as it is to chuck its oversize body into Willow's high-speed bends. Out on the street, the stiff chassis made the Los Angeles-area backroads a joy, yet the active damping suspension allowed for comfortable cruising when back on the highway or at slower around-town speeds. We were shocked that the 4,336-pound porker possessed this level of agility. It's one of those rare occasions where the chiseled shotputter also happens to be a lightning quick member of the 4x100 relay team.
Curious to know how well you're running? Click on the touchscreen and head over to the SRT Performance Pages. Besides displaying a variety of digital gauges and fore, aft and lateral handling figures, the system also displays a time slip for 0-60 runs, along with eight-mile, quarter-mile and 60-0 mph braking distance. Once you make a few runs, the system will store your best, current and last time slips (which are displayed as actual time slips). That might get boring after awhile, but the SRT8 isn't just about straight-line blasts.
The SRT8's invisible musculature and bone work keeps it stable and safe, which also helps keep us flat (and mentally calm) pushing through both slow speed switchbacks and the high-speed bends. Composure at that far end of the speedo is a result of the well thought-out aerodynamic enhancements, SRT-tuned independent front and rear suspension with active damping and rolling stock comprised of 20x9-inch forged aluminum wheels.
Those rollers come wrapped with 245/45R20 Goodyear Eagle RS-A 2 all-season rubber. Our test car was wearing optional three-season Goodyear F1 Supercar tires, and we highly recommend checking that box while ordering. After a full day of running down Willow Springs, the tires proved no worse for the wear. We expected to be dancing around Turn Nine taillamps-first on bald tires, but the rubber held up and we avoided the rapidly approaching green wall.
If things really start to get out of hand, however, you're armed and ready. Slotted behind the aluminum wheels is a set of Brembo brakes, with four piston calipers squeezing 14.2-inch slotted and vented front rotors in front and joining forces with 13.8-inch, four-piston rears to haul in the any unwanted speed.
The combination of the chassis, suspension, engine, tires and braking systems are a perfect fit for the Charger SRT8. One more piece of the handling puzzle is still in the box, but thankfully, it fits like a glove. That thick-rimmed steering wheel looks tough, yet it's also a good communicator. Because this is no lightweight prizefighter, we we're worried that Dodge would employ an overboosted, artificial lightweight steering feel. However, the SRT crew has rewarded us with a wheel that provides adequate direct feedback while retaining enough heft to keep us happy. Mid-corner corrections could be applied with a gentle touch of the wheel, even though it was still more fun to do so with the throttle.
Automotive dexterity is something owners of the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 will be able to learn for themselves, and they can do so in a controlled environment. SRT doesn't want to send an army of 470-horsepower sedans out into the streets without providing a bit of training for the Hemi pilots. A one-day SRT Track Experience is included in the starting MSRP of $46,660 (including destination and handling). Here's your first lesson courtesy of Autoblog: Unless you're skilled and on a track, keep traction control set to "shiny side up." When set in Sport, the system is smart enough to allow for a bit of wheelspin during a hard launch, yet it'll help keep things moving safely forward instead of suicidally sideways.
That mid-$40,000 price point plants the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 in a rather unique section of the market. Powerful super sedans typically command serious coin. Forty-six large is no small sum, but if you consider the SRT8's high-end competition, the Charger is only marginally less powerful, yet in the right hands, it ought to do a remarkably good job of keeping up with pricier four-door rocketships.
In truth, it seems the closest competitor to the Charger lies right in the same SRT family. The 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8 starts at $47,995, has the same power output and infotainment setup, yet wears a slightly softer suit. SRT has created two monsters here; one designed to scare your grandmother and another to drop her off when she's running late to the salon. These are two powerful sedans that offer customers the choice to show who they are. The 300 SRT8 is the slightly introverted yin to the Charger SRT8 and its extroverted yang. In this particular instance, you can't make a wrong choice, and the Charger SRT8 is proof that Chrysler can create a modern muscle sedan properly.
Ralph Gilles is now the man in charge of keeping Street and Racing Technology vehicles moving forward. He leads a team of self-described "well-intended enthusiast engineers" whose work is the "result of passion." Starting with the base models, the cars themselves have been improved, which makes the SRT transformation an easier feat. That's a good thing, because a healthy SRT lineup ought to keep the enthusiast crowd on its toes. The brand is stable with Gilles at the helm, and the president and CEO "vows to protect SRT."
He gets it. And that means enthusiasts will finally get a car that deserves to be called a Charger.