2009 Dodge Charger SX 3.5 – Click above for high-res image gallery

It's been almost a year since a Dodge Charger passed through the Autoblog Garage, and this go-around was very different from the last. Comparedto our last Charger, this one is positively subtle. Last time around, we sampled one of Dodge's police car demonstrators decked out in full law enforcement regalia including a roof-top light bar and traditional black-and-white paint job. Driving the cop Charger was a mix of euphoria and paranoia. This time, Chrysler sent over a civilian SXT model powered by the company's 3.5-liter V6.

While the name hearkens back to coupes of the '60s and '70s (we'll ignore the forgettable badge job Omni edition of the '80s, thank you very much!) this is a full-sized sedan in the great American tradition. Given the current economic environment, future fuel economy regulations and the likely trajectory of gas prices, this is also a tradition that may be on its last legs. Read on after the jump to find out if this is a tradition worth preserving.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

While the Charger's looks are all-American, some of the underpinnings actually descend from the previous generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The Charger and its LX platform stablemates – the late Magnum, the Chrysler 300 and, of course, the Challenger – were developed under the management of former owner Daimler. This is one of two platforms with which the Germans begrudgingly agreed to share their hardware, the other being the ill-fated Crossfire. Fortunately for Chrysler, the LX was and is far more successful. The LX architecture actually underpins one of Chrysler's truly distinct products in the U.S. market, and in spite of using older German bits underneath, the Charger remains a relatively modern piece of kit.

The primary bits that came from Germany are those that manage the motion of the wheels relative to the body. The all-independent suspension demonstrated that a rear-wheel-drive car could still be viable in the 21st century and likely prodded General Motors to develop its own rear-wheel-drive Zeta platform. Unfortunately for GM, by the time the Zeta arrived for the Pontiac G8 and Chevrolet Camaro, the market was already turning and Ford's own similar effort had been canceled before even yielding a product.

The Charger became the third LX model following the 300 and Magnum when it debuted in early 2005. In 1999, Chrysler showed off a rear-drive Charger R/T concept that previewed the coming wave of four-door coupe body styles that we've seen in recent years. Unfortunately, many observers who had seen the sleek concept were disappointed that its looks had been abandoned in favor of a chunkier design that shared the front part of its greenhouse with its platform mates. The look has grown on people over the years and remains fairly unique in the marketplace. At least no one can claim that Chrysler's designers have cloned any other car to produce the Charger.

For the first several years of the LX's run, the interiors unfortunately lived up to the reputation that Chrysler had earned for shoddy driving environments. The problem wasn't so much the design and control layout, which was straightforward and functional, just the materials, switchgear quality, and fit-and-finish. For the 2008 model year, Chrysler produced a vastly improved interior for the Charger and its siblings. The materials on the dashboard are now soft touch with a more appealing texture. There are no more visible edges with unfinished parting lines from the molds. We're still not talking Lexus or Infiniti here, but this is a Dodge at a Dodge price point. In fact, the Charger's closest real competition is probably the Pontiac G8, and by comparison, the Charger interior actually looks and feels pretty good.

The seats in our SXT tester were covered in leather front and rear and clearly contoured for the increasingly broad average American backside. Following a relatively straight trajectory, the front seats were comfortable with a manually adjustable lumbar support and power adjustments for angles of both the seat back and lower cushion as well as fore-aft location. For those whose proportions of leg-to-arm length might not match whatever standard size the interior designers selected, there is also switch on the side of the driver's seat that allows the entire pedal cluster to be adjusted for distance from the seat.

The leather on the seats is smooth and relatively stiff, but won't ever be confused with vinyl. Unfortunately, the smooth finish, broad dimensions and minimal side bolsters mean that a SXT driver will have to brace themself if they intend to do any comparatively aggressive cornering. The Charger's long 120-inch wheelbase means that back seat passengers have ample leg room and can stretch out in comfort. The only downside is that the sloping roofline may cut into some occupants head room compared to a 300. Six footers should have no problem back there. There is one other downside to the Charger's roofline. The relatively upright windshield means the leading edge of the roof extends forward quite a bit. If you are at an intersection where the stoplights hang over the center, you may need to lean forward to see them.

Unlike the HEMI-equipped cop car that we drove last year, this SXT was powered by the increasingly long-in-the-tooth 3.5-liter V6. From a power standpoint, the engine is reasonably class competitive with 250 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque at an acceptable 3,800 rpm. The Charger is certainly no flyweight at 3,783 pounds, but the 3.5L provided perfectly adequate acceleration. You won't be drag racing an SRT-8, but 0-60 miles-per-hour in the mid-7s should be more than enough in day-to-day driving. Where the 3.5L is somewhat lacking is in refinement. The balanced 60-degree block means smooth operation, but the engine is a bit noisy when working hard. The V6 only comes paired with a four-speed automatic transmission, so the engine often revs higher and has a more pronounced drop between gears than you will experience with other cars that have 5-,6- or 7-speed units. Having said that, the powertrain is fully acceptable when driven sedately.

The LX's double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspensions have always been very capable. This test unit was equipped with a preferred option package that included a touring suspension setup, which provided a very nice balance of ride and control. Unlike a V6 Challenger we drove a few months ago that felt decidedly soft, this Charger felt tied down with excellent damping that never felt floaty. The only real complaint would be the no-feedback steering. There is just the right amount of resistance when turning the steering wheel so that it doesn't feel light, but the weighting seems entirely relative to the steering angle and not the cornering force. At least there is no dead spot in the center; turning the wheel brings an immediate change of direction.

The Charger came to the Autoblog Garage at the end of the week following the Detroit Auto Show previews, which also happened to coincide with some extremely cold sub-zero temperatures and still more snow. On a trek from my Ypsilanti home to Detroit for Hyundai's annual post show pool, bowling and live music decompression session, the electric stability control got a thorough workout on I-94. While many other drivers found themselves stranded in the ditch along the route, the Charger felt in control even on its 18-inch Continental all-season tires and despite its rear-wheel-drive setup. For those who like to have a little fun with their winter time driving, the ESC is actually quite cooperative. Rather than the totally nailed down, over-aggressive control that some systems provide, the Charger actually lets the rear end slide out just a bit around corners before gently nudging it back without ever jerking the chassis around.

The navigation system in the Charger was also equipped with SIRIUS traffic information, which came in handy during our mid-snow-storm run to Detroit. With so many cars off the road, the system automatically re-routed us along surface streets for a while before sending us back to the freeway.

For those so-inclined, Chrysler also offers an all-wheel-drive option, but we would suggest just buying a second set of wheels with snow-tires instead if you live somewhere with nastier winters. That, combined with the electronic stability control, will probably nearly match the traction capabilities of the AWD without the somewhat ungainly looking extra inch of ride height.

Those cold temperatures did take their toll on fuel economy. We achieved about 18 mpg with a mix of city and highway snow driving while the EPA rates the 3.5L SXT at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. The Charger SXT has an entry price point of $26,150 but our tester had a healthy options list that drove the bottom line, including delivery, to a more substantial $32,335. It's not inexpensive, but for a large rear-drive sedan with capable dynamics and a uniquely American look, it's worth considering. Chrysler has promised a redesigned 300 and Charger for 2011 that the few who have seen say looks gorgeous. If Chrysler is still with us in 2011, it may well have this segment back to itself again. The Charger actually gives some reason to hope they do make it.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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