My remedy for advanced bailout fatigue (and looming cold December): two weeks in Hawaii. I decided to leave the choice of rental cars in the hands of the island gods. And they spoke, with more wisdom and prescience than I might have imagined. Turns out that escape from the bitter truth about The Big 2.8’s death rattles is impossible, even on the most remote islands on the globe. How else could I be comparing a Dodge Charger with a fifteen-year old Toyota Camry?
For our first week on the Big Island, I made a reservation with Thrifty for the “wild car” option. My teenage son’s imagination ran wild; I harbored dread. The outcome fulfilled both of our expectations: he imagined our Charger to be a snorting, bitchin’ beast. I didn’t. Despite my relief at having escaped the Sebring bullet.
Our “wild car” was anything but. The 190hp 2.7-liter V6 and four-speed automatic was completely overwhelmed by the Charger’s 4,000lbs of pretense. Rarely has a car suffered from such a profound personality disorder: all show and no go. Under the hood of this vehicular version of “The Hulk”: the same sort of crude engine and spastic transmission as my former 1992 Grand Caravan. But nothing to show for all the noise and fuss.
Whereas the minivan and the Charger have the same horsepower-to-weight ratio, the 3.3-liter Caravan had a much better torque-to-weight ratio. It felt a lot quicker than the Charger, and didn’t need to grab two gears on every downshift.
It’s utterly inconceivable that Chrysler would build a 2.7 equipped Charger– let alone that anyone would actually buy one. Apparently rental companies are the obvious exception. Chrysler’s torquey 3.8 pushrod V6 would have been a much better choice for an entry/rental-level Charger, and undoubtedly cheaper to build than the DOHC 2.7.
The stalactite-hard, all-black cave of an interior and the gun-slit windows soon had me wishing I had scored a PT Cruiser. After all, we were here for the sight-seeing, not spelunking. The jail-cell windowed back seat is undoubtedly perfect for a police cruiser, right down to the already-broken kiddie-door lock that had my family banging on the window at every stop for release from the Charger’s clutches.
On the slow and narrow island roads populated with the locals’ Toyota 4×4 pickups and Corollas, the beamy Charger felt as out of place (and welcome) as Captain Cook’s three-masted brig, The Endeavor. Only at the big resort parking lots did the Charger feel at home, among the other Chrysler rental jetsam that had washed upon the islands.
The Charger is emblematic of everything that went wrong at Chrysler. Sure, a HEMI Charger RT is a trifling amusement. But a V6 Charger is essentially useless as a practical every-day car. I desperately searched for some remnant of the DNA that made the W-124 Benz such a perfect sedan, but to no avail. The Charger merely is a pathetic mutation, a gutless Frankenstein.
Since rental rates on the small island of Kauai were three times higher than on the Big Island, a web search led me to Island Rentals. The tiny operation’s motto is “don’t look like a tourist.” I was more than ready for that. Our serendipitous ride for $28/day (cash or check only): a somewhat clapped-out 1993 Camry V6 with 174k miles. The radio was MIA, and one door panel was attached with dry-wall screws. We were definitely going to fit in with the locals.
The Camry instantly impressed us with its laid-back island personality. The ride was as smooth as a well-made Mai Tai, the seats as comfy and relaxing as a hammock, and the silky engine inaudible over the warm breezes and crashing surf. But the 185hp 3.0-liter V6 was deceptively quick; the svelte 2900lb. Camry could easily have run rings around the (non) Charger.
The exquisite refinement of the Toyota’s engine and transmission, the brick-shithouse solidity of the aged and abused body structure, and the quality of the interior materials (no hard plastics) were still enhancing the reputation for this particular generation of Camry as the “Lexus of mid-size cars.” No wonder they’re such sought-after used cars, and still earning their keep as rentals on distant tropical islands.
And where will our rental V6 Charger be in fifteen years? On the ash heap of history, along with the (once proud) company that made it. To pawn off this larger-than-life sized Hot Wheels toy with a feeble old K-car drive train and a taxi-cab interior on today’s hotly-contested mid-large sized sedan market is (was?) utter suicide.
Exploring Hawaii was an exquisite escape from winter’s dismal grip and the relentless rattling of The Big 2.8’s begging bowls. But unless you’re among the few remaining naked hippie cave dwellers in remote Waipi’o Valley, the truth about cars is inescapable.