The year was 1966. The muscle car era, which arguably began two years earlier with the introduction of the Pontiac GTO, was in full swing. In order to have a chance at attracting the young, affluent buyers so craved by American automakers of the day, a car needed to offer equal doses of style and horsepower. Dodge, with its brand new Charger fastback, offered plenty of both.
But it wasn't until 1968 that the Dodge Charger truly hit its stride, earning it legendary status in the annals of automotive history. Coke-bottle styling, a full suite of powerful V8 engines – including the 440 Six Pack and 426 Hemi – and plenty of success on the NASCAR circuit meant that the Dodge Boys had a winner on their hands.
Sadly, the heyday of American muscle was nearly over by the time Dodge figured out the formula, and the car was just a shell of its former muscular self by the end of 1974.
The rest of the 1970s were not kind to the Charger, and sales slowly faded away until the model name was canceled altogether after the 1978 model year. We'll gracefully skip over the front-wheel-drive years from 1983 through 1987 and move straight to the nameplate's reintroduction in 2006. The Hemi was back in action, the new car's styling was aggressive and generally well received and sales took off. But by 2010, yet again the reborn Charger was seriously showing its age, having received nothing in the way of significant interior or exterior updates during its five years back on the market and being saddled with a fully uncompetitive line of V6 engines and even an ancient four-speed automatic transmission in base models.
Dodge has finally given the "new" Charger some attention with an update for 2011 that includes new looks, new engines and the complete absence of a four-speed transmission. Does this mean that Dodge is done letting the Charger nameplate wither on the vine? Without spoiling the rest of the review, let's just say we have some good news to share.
The first bit of evidence that Dodge is serious about reinvigorating the Charger comes the first time you lay eyes on it. Sheetmetal is much more sculpted than before, with flowing, feminine lines that instantly recall those of the much-loved 1970 model. This is purely intentional. The large scallops that indent the front doors and aluminum hood, and the subtle double-diamond effect in profile (not nearly as pronounced a 'Coke-bottle' curve as the Chargers of yore, but still welcome in today's era of me-too organic wedge-shaped cars) are clearly meant to evoke warm and fuzzy memories of a bygone era. And for the most part, it works, even for those of us only old enough to witness such bold styling motifs while watching Barrett-Jackson on SPEED.
It's not until you begin to dissect the details that you remember this is a fully modern automobile. Panel gaps are tight and the wheels tuck up nicely into the wells cut out of the fenders. Nothing sticks outside the tight confines of the bodywork, an obvious concession to airflow management, resulting in as quiet a ride as possible and improved fuel efficiency at speed. Chrysler claims that, with a coefficient of drag that measures just 0.29, the 2011 Charger is eight-percent more aerodynamic than the car it replaces.
Another welcome styling touch worth mentioning are the rear taillamps, which are made up of 164 individual LED lights. Dodge says the design is meant to mimic the look of a racetrack. If that's the case, it's sort of an oval track with one really long sweeping chicane. Whatever the case, we like the implementation and you certainly won't mistake the rear of a 2011 Charger for anything else on the road when the sun goes down.
Where we find chrome or other brightwork, it's strategically placed in areas like the grille (a refined version of the macho Ram-bred crosshair design), dual exhaust tips and jewel-like headlamps. Although the glass-to-sheetmetal ratio is similar to the Charger it replaces, the 2011 model's engineers went to great lengths to improve the sightlines from the driver's seat. Unlike the gangsta-style 2010 machine, this new Charger is blessed with actual airiness in the cabin, due mostly to a larger, more aggressively sloped windshield and thinner pillars all the way around.
Speaking of the cabin, this is where all memories of past Chrysler interior sins are banished for good. According to the men and women behind the transformation, Lexus was the benchmark that Chrysler set out to match in interior fit, finish and materials. The majority of the dash is made of one single piece of high-grade plastic with a rubbery finish, which helps banish the kinds of squeaks and rattles synonymous with haphazard assembly and bargain-bin materials.
The gauge cluster is rather shallowly inset into its own binnacle that brings to mind the design of the aforementioned taillamp treatment. Inside that cluster are two LCD screens, one of which is a monochrome affair situated between the two circular gauges. Plenty of useful information can be found here, directly in front of the driver's prying eyes; things like miles to empty, current and average fuel efficiency, distance traveled, compass and outside temperature.
And then there's the 8.4-inch high-resolution touchscreen that sits atop the center stack. This latest Uconnect infotainment system, which is appearing in all of the most recent models under the Chrysler umbrella, is a huge step forward from anything Dodge has offered in the past. There are the obvious things you've come to expect from modern technology packages, such as touch-sensitive dual-zone climate controls and the ability to control audio with MP3 player capabilities and satellite radio (complete with a hard drive so you can record and play back songs).
Buyers also control the optional integrated Garmin navigation system from this screen, and helpful bits of information like local gas prices, weather forecasts and traffic information are welcome additions.
If the system is paired with a capable Bluetooth phone, Uconnect can send and receive calls as well as read back text messages for you and respond with one of a slew of preset messages of your own. As you might expect, images from the available backup camera show up on this screen too. There's also technology packed in the Charger's infotainment system that you might not expect in a car in this class. Check out the Autoblog Short Cut below for a brief rundown of the customizable options available.
One last interior feature we'd like to zero in on are the good ol' fashioned buttons, dials and knobs that operate the climate control system and stereo. It may seem redundant to offer control over such features both from the touchscreen and the center stack, but in practice the two sets work in perfect harmony and are extremely simple to commit to memory. Much appreciated, Dodge.
We're happy to report that the Charger's newfound modernity is much more than skin deep. Every bit of the suspension has been reworked – from the stiffer suspension cradles, bushings and shocks to the revised geometry that specifies aggressive camber settings of -1.0 degrees up front and -1.75 degrees out back. All that results in a quick handling car that still manages to feel very refined from behind the wheel with a ride that is at the same time well-controlled and firm enough to inspire confidence.
Steering is precise and direct, a reminder that the front wheels of the Dodge Charger are left for directional guidance while the rears provide all your motive force... assuming you didn't opt for all-wheel drive, of course. But even then, Dodge has implemented a system that allows the front wheels to freewheel unless excessive slip is detected out back. Although many electronic power steering setups are plagued by vague or artificial feel, no such issues are found with the Charger. We felt plenty of feedback from the front tires, though at some speeds there may be a little more power assistance than we'd like.
Underhood is the buyer's choice of either the brand spankin' new Pentastar V6 engine or one of two Hemi V8s. Starting from the top, there's the incredible SRT8 monstrosity that kicks out 470 horsepower and a matching 470 pound-feet of torque. It's almost unbelievable how much power is available from that 392-cubic-inch powerplant, and it's certainly a massive case of overkill for... well, everyone.
The middle engine is the familiar 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with 370 hp at 5,250 rpm and 395 lb-ft torque at 4,200 rpm. All but the maddest of power junkies will find plenty of horses to satiate their need for highway dominance from the regular-grade Hemi, and, with an EPA estimated 16 city and 25 highway, at least somewhat passable fuel economy. Plus, your wallet will thank you for not needing new tires every thousand miles.
As much as we love ludicrous amounts of horsepower, we have absolutely no qualms in recommending the standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine of our tester. Its 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque leave little to be desired when the right foot hits the floor, plus it's commendably quiet and smooth from idle to redline.
Sadly, there is one major fly in the 2011 Charger's ointment: the age-old five-speed automatic transmission. Though it shifts through its gears without complaint and offers manual gearchanges via the lever poking through the console, it's a few ratios short of a full deck in today's marketplace. The good news is that Chrysler is just now getting around to bolting a new eight-speed automatic behind its Pentastar V6, which will undoubtedly eke a few more miles from each gallon of gasoline pumped into the Charger's 19.1-gallon tank. As it is, the EPA rates the six-cylinder 2011 Charger at 18 mpg city and 27 highway.
Our observed fuel economy fluctuated quite a bit during the car's week-long stint in our garage. The first tank of gas, which was consumed almost entirely on surface streets with plenty of stops and starts, netted us just over 19 miles per gallon. On the flipside, a several-hundred-mile roundtrip journey from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon with four passengers, luggage and the air conditioning on full blast yielded a surprising and highly respectable 30.1 miles per gallon. We're eager to see what kind of efficiency improvement the 2012 model's three extra gears will provide.
Whether or not you should pass on the 2011 model year and go straight for a 2012 Charger is a matter of dollars and sense. Considering how good the rest of the package is, we doubt buyers of the five-speed-equipped version will regret their purchase. That said, we'd be hard pressed to plunk down our own money now that the eight-speed gearbox is right around the corner.
While on the subject of money, the 2011 Charger starts at $25,395 in the SE trim, while the Charger Rallye, which includes the beautiful 8.4-inch touchscreen, begins at $27,645. Hemi-powered R/T models start at $30,395.
Our tester, a Pentastar-equipped Rallye Plus optioned to the hilt with such luxuries as heated and cooled front leather seats, heated rear seats, heated and cooled cupholders, adaptive cruise control, power-everything (including the gas and brake pedals), blind spot monitoring and just about anything else you could imagine tallied a still reasonable $35,585.
Is the 2011 Dodge Charger a good deal? That's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Considering how well the car drives and the massive amount of room for passengers and luggage, the performance-per-dollar equation is rather favorable. Trouble is, the Charger doesn't really have any obviously direct competitors in today's marketplace.
There are other full-size sedans that would seemingly stack up against Dodge's latest sedan, but we have a hard time putting machines like the Buick LaCrosse, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Hyundai Azera or Toyota Avalon in the same class as the Charger. It's not that any of those options are worse choices, it's that none of them are geared towards the enthusiast driver in quite the same way, and, for better or for worse, none of them are rear-wheel drive. The last truly direct competitor of the Charger's was the much-missed Pontiac G8, and while the Taurus SHO is certainly sport-oriented, its AWD configuration makes it more an executive missile than modern muscle sedan.
The 2011 Dodge Charger clearly isn't for everyone, and for that, we're thankful. It is unabashedly American and offers a unique blend of style, comfort, practicality and performance in this segment of big, boring sedans. Let's hope this latest iteration continues to get the attention it deserves; we'd hate to see the big American sedan become irrelevant as it already has several times since the original Charger hit the ground running way back in 1966.