So I’m driving a $69,000 Cadillac CTS-V, and it makes me wonder—if you can only spend half as much, how much performance do you sacrifice? And if you can spend twice as much, how much can you gain? Today, the first question. If you’re seeking a V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive sedan, but have a budget in the mid-30s, the 2011 Dodge Charger R/T is your only option.
For 2011, Dodge has excised the aggressive chunkiness from the Charger’s exterior, substituting smoothly flowing curves. Scallops in the hood and bodysides provide a link to the classic 1968-70 car. The sedan’s face remains suitably menacing, with a large, protruding crosshairs grille. This face notwithstanding, the new Charger is prettier, and less distinctive. Though the 199.9×75.0x58.4-inch exterior dimensions remain about the same, the new car looks longer, with too much visual mass for $995 of bright red paint. The no-extra-charge metallic gray of the tested car much better suits the big body. Even so attired, the Charger lacks upscale aspirations—that’s the related Chrysler 300’s territory. Instead, the Charger’s achieved intent is “four-door muscle car.”
The same is the case inside the new Charger: more flowing lines, limited luxury. The silver patterned trim plate that spans two-thirds of the instrument panel has a retro vibe, though the materials and workmanship here and elsewhere in the interior are mostly up to 2011 standards. Some switches continue to look and feel cheap, and some elements lack finesse. For example, why is the hood over the instruments a couple inches thick? The entire instrument panel could be much more compact with no loss in functionality. The graphics on the 8.4” touchscreen are unusually large, good for usability but not so good for a refined appearance. The best part of the interior: the attractively styled, comfortably upholstered door panels. The most disappointing: the $3,000 Road & Track package no longer includes the aggressively bolstered seats from the SRT8. Instead, synthetic suede center panels have been added to the Charger’s minimally bolstered, less enticing standard seats.
The windshield has been laid back a few degrees, and the windows have been enlarged about 15 percent, so the view from the driver’s seat is considerably less gangsta than before. Given the size of the instrument panel, though, drivers under 6-2 will still want to raise the seat, and even then will feel like they’re wearing a car that’s a couple sizes too large. On the other hand, those who shop at the “big and tall” store might find the XXL interior they’ve been looking for. Room is similarly plentiful in the comfortably high back seat. Perhaps because of its encapsulated conventional hinges, the trunk isn’t as roomy as before (15.4 vs. 16.2 cubic feet). Some midsize sedans have more space for cargo. A split folding rear seat remains standard.
The Charger R/T’s standard 5.7-liter V8 kicks out 370 horsepower at an easily accessible 5,250 rpm, and sounds good while doing so. Torque: 395 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm. A far cry from the CTS-V’s 556 horsepower, but still about 100 more than in the typical V6-powered midsize sedan. Even though the curb weight is up over 200 pounds, to 4,253, this is a quick car, with a zero-to-sixty in the low fives. Impediments to visceral thrills lie elsewhere. Effective soundproofing reduces the sensation of acceleration and responses to the throttle lack immediacy. The ancient Mercedes-Benz five-speed automatic deserves much of the blame for the latter. A new eight-speed automatic, available with the V6 at the start of the 2012 model year and with the V8 at some point in the future, should improve responsiveness and acceleration. A six-speed manual would provide an even more direct, responsive connection, but this option is restricted to the related Challenger coupe.
The Charger’s chassis similarly feels distant and slow to respond. The Road & Track Package didn’t only lose the SRT’s seats this year. It also lost SRT-like suspension tuning. In standard Charger R/T tune the steering feels light and numb. In sharp contrast to the CTS-V and the late, lamented Pontiac G8, where progressive oversteer can be dialed in almost intuitively, with the Charger it’s necessary to dig deep into the throttle to affect the attitude of the chassis. Though lean in turns is moderate, the Charger always feels every bit as large and heavy as it is. Easy to control, certainly, and far from the floaty land yachts of yore, but a satisfying tight connection between man and machine proves elusive. A $400 Super Track Pak, which includes firmer suspension tuning, should help, but how much? Unless this package makes a huge difference, the Charger simply isn’t in the same league as the CTS-V dynamically. Instead, it’s a modern embodiment of the classic large American sedan, complete with a (mostly) smooth, quiet ride. More controlled and capable, but the spirit remains the same.
Ultimately, the Charger R/T isn’t remotely a half-price substitute for a CTS-V. Compared to the Cadillac, the Dodge feels large, soft, lethargic, and disconnected. Whatever was done to make the revised Grand Caravan ride and handle so well needs to be done here, and hopefully will be done for the upcoming SRT. As is, I didn’t much enjoy driving the big sedan. Nevertheless, the Charger does fill a gaping hole in the market. In every way save trunk space it’s a superior substitute for Ford’s Panthers, now in their final months of production. With ample V8 power, predictable handling, a quiet ride, and a roomy interior, the Charger should fill the Crown Vic’s shoes quite nicely. Watch your speed, or you’ll see a big crosshair grille (further enhanced with flashing lights) in your rearview mirror often.
Bryan Galczynski of Suburban Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep in Novi, MI, provided the car. Bryan can be reached at 248-427-7767.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data