If you're the type of person who looks at the day's news and forecasts nothing but doom, gloom and societal collapse for the future, the Dodge Charger SRT8 simply isn't the car for you. Not because you won't appreciate its surplus of power or the composure of its chassis but because this car is hopelessly optimistic. This car spits in the eye of "peak oil" theorists, global warming doomsayers, and every member of the Sierra Club and slurps down fuel in giddy gulps with the sort of confidence that only comes from certain knowledge that tomorrow will be better than today.
It's the sheetmetal manifestation of everything the rest of the world hates about Americans. And precisely why so much of the rest of world wants to come here.
The SRT-ness formula
The essential element in the transmutation of the Charger R/T into the Charger SRT8 is the 6.1-liter version of the current (at some point it stops being "new") HEMI V-8. That's no surprise since the upsized HEMI is also part of what turns the Chrysler 300C into the 300 SRT8, the Magnum R/T into the Magnum SRT8 and Jeep's Grand Cherokee into the Grand Cherokee SRT8.
As in the Magnum and 300 SRT8s, the 6.1-liter HEMI is rated at 425 horsepower in the Charger SRT8. And, surely no coincidence, it's the same rating that the classic street-bound 426 HEMI carried throughout its production run between 1966 and 1971. And it's up 85 horsepower over the 5.7-liter HEMI used in the Charger R/T.
Here's another way to put this engine's output in perspective: After a four-year absence, Dodge brought back the Charger name in 1982 on a version of the Omni 024 front-drive coupe. With a "big" 2.2-liter four under its nose it was the most powerful Charger (or Omni) then offered to the public. That engine made 84 horsepower. So you could buy a 2006 Charger R/T (a powerful car in its own right) and a 1982 Charger (no slouch back then) and add their horsepower ratings together and you'd still be a horsepower behind the SRT8. So the SRT8 literally has the power of two Chargers under its hood. Or, to take this to the absurd extreme, since the 1983 Charger's standard 1.7-liter four pooped along with only 62 horsepower, the SRT8 has the power of 6.85 old Chargers on tap.
The HEMI's additional displacement comes from bore diameters 3.5 millimeters larger than that of the 5.7-liter version. But the makeover moves well beyond that with new flat-top pistons that bump the compression ratio from 9.6:1 to 10.3:1, cylinder heads that flow more efficiently, and oversize intake valves with hollow stems. The block itself is reinforced and there are oil squirters aimed at the butt-end of the pistons to cool them during high-speed operation. Of course the intake, exhaust, and engine management systems have all been optimized to work with increased output as well.
Putting aside the engine's thirst for premium-grade fuel another moment, this is a simply glorious engine with which to romp. The 420 pound-feet of peak torque is produced at 4800 rpm and there seems to be enough torque just off idle to pull the truth out of Scooter Libby. It's not particularly loud but the sounds it does make have the driver feeling like Don Garlits when the road is straight and like Richard Petty when it turns to the left. And when the road turns to the right um er you feel like uh some other famous HEMI-borne race driver from the late Sixties. The engine revs quickly, there are no hiccups in the power curve, and the throttle is linearly progressive. Clearly this is the best high-performance V-8 ever installed on a Dodge production line - better than any old 340 or 440 Six-Pack and, yes, better than the old 426 Hemi. A lot better.
The only transmission offered with this engine is a five-speed automatic featuring the "AutoStick" manual control system. The shifts are noticeably firmer than in the R/T, but not so firm as to be annoying and the AutoStick works okay enough. Still, at some point this engine deserves to be lashed to a good six-speed manual in some vehicle so that the driver can stir in its mechanical glory more directly.
Now, about the fuel economy. To use the word "economy" while describing it is to be ironic. Maybe even a little arch. The EPA rates the 4180-pound Charger SRT8 at 14 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway, but drive the car the way it begs to be driven and single-digit numbers in the city aren't just possible but likely and maybe unavoidable. In an era of dang-near or more-than $3 per gallon gas, that demands a significant financial commitment on the part of the owner. And not just at the pump, because this car gets a gas-guzzler tax slapped on it to the tune of $2100. Ouch.
Decorated for SRTness
Of the vehicles coming from Street and Racing Technology division, if the Charger SRT8 isn't the best-looking it's at least in the top three (the Grand Cherokee SRT8 and Viper SRT10 join it on the aesthetic success short list). Styling elements that seem like half-thoughts on the regular Chargers find full expression on the SRT8. The 20-inch wheels inside P245/45R-20 Goodyear F1 tires athletically fill out the hunky fenders, the deeper front air dam seems to make the gunsight grille seem more serious and the hood scoop gives the car a scowling countenance that flat screams "bad ass." So what if the scoop has no mechanical function? Isn't its appearance function enough?
The rear end of the Charger, even with the SRT8's trunk spoiler, is still too indistinct to make much of an impression. But generally speaking it's easier to see what the designers were getting at with the Charger design in first place than in any other Charger version.
The re-decoration inside is similar to the outside with more aggressively bolstered seats, "carbon fiber technical leather" trim on the steering wheel and satin silver colored trim. Otherwise it's pretty much standard Charger and that's no bad thing.
No one is going to buy this car because of the seats.
Running into SRTness
With a suspension lowered a half-inch from other Chargers, and special spring rates and anti-sway bars and an electronic stability program geared to allow more thrilling antics before halting the fun, the SRT8 makes good use of those oversize tires. This isn't a car that handles flat like a MINI or squirts between corners like a Miata, but a bruiserweight pounder that growls along consuming road. The steering is actually quite good with very quick reflexes and the turn in is rapid thanks to the relatively sticky Goodyears. The driver never will never forget he's piloting more than two tons of car stretching out nearly 17 feet long, but this is one sharp-handling sedan. And whenever it starts to understeer, adding some throttle will balance the car back to neutral. This car is fun to toss around. It just needs room to maneuver.
And it would be better with a manual transmission. There's nothing wrong with the SRT8's automatic gearbox, but there's nothing particularly right with it either. Compared to a manual its shifts are slow and skipping gears just isn't an option. It's the laggardness of the shifting that mutes the entire car's personality. And that's too bad, because otherwise this is a very loud and unmuted car.
The brakes deserve particular praise. On the big track at California 's Willow Springs Raceway, the Charger SRT8 did lap after lap and Brembo brakes never even hinted at fade. That's particularly impressive in light of the car's heft.
Best of all, however, is that despite this car's obvious ability, it still rides well and is otherwise perfectly comfortable. Dodge owes Mercedes a big debt for loaning it those suspension components.
The value of SRTness
Dodge claims the Charger SRT8 will rip from 0 to 60 mph in just about five seconds with quarter-mile times under 14 seconds. Those numbers may not put a lot of fear into the hearts of Ferrari owners, but they're seriously quick. Of course Ferraris don't have four doors, room for five or $35,320 base prices. But like the SRT8, the base price of a Ferrari doesn't include the gas-guzzler tax.
In many ways the Charger SRT8 isn't much different from its brother the 300C SRT8 and Magnum SRT8, but this car seems to embody the spirit of SRT more fully and more joyously. It's a little bolder, a little less circumspect, and maybe a bit cooler. It's a muscle car with four doors and it wants the world to know it.
That's whether the world likes it or not.
2006 Dodge Charger SRT8
Base price: $35,320
Engines: 6.1-liter V-8, 425 hp/420 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 200.1 x 74.5 x 58.2 in
Wheelbase: 120.0 in
Curb weight: 4180 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 14/20 mpg
Safety equipment: Anti-lock Brembo disc brakes; dual front, side, and curtain airbags; traction and stability control
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; power adjustable pedals; AM/FM/CD stereo
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles