I have had a love affair with Chrysler that defies logic for years. Back in 1988 my parents had one of the [then] new Chrysler minivans. (Yes, I know a love affair that starts with a minivan has to be unhealthy.) When it came time for me to buy my first car, I had my eye on a very lightly used 1997 Eagle Vision TSi, then came a brand new 2000 Chrysler LHS, the very pinnacle of the Iacocca years in many ways.Large, FWD, competitive. Then Mercedes came on the scene promising to “synergize” the product development and lineup. The plan sounded good and had a promising start with the Chrysler Pacifica and the Chrysler 300 HEMI C convertible concept which looked so hot I wanted to have ovaries implanted so I could carry its children. Ultimately however the production 300 turned out to be one of the bigger disappointments due to its plastactular interior. Since then, Chrysler had been trying to see how many vehicles can be built from the Chrysler 300. Chrysler soon created the EU-only Chrysler 300 wagon, Dodge Magnum, Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger to join the 300 sedan. Problem was; there was only enough cash around for a few nice interiors or half a dozen chintzy boxes. Guess which Chrysler chose?
When the Dodge Charger became available in the press fleet, Michael Karesh and I decided to try one out, read his take here. Prior to its arrival I told myself I needed to keep my expectations suitably low, the last rental Dodge Magnum I drove made me want to put my eyes out. Every car buff has heard about the dreadful interiors coming out of Auburn Hills for the past few years, so I won’t dwell on them. Suffice it to say when the Dodge arrived I told myself as I was signing the paperwork “as long as the interior doesn’t look like a Rubbermaid tub I’ll be happy.” Not only were my expectations exceeded, but they were exceeded by a margin I didn’t think Chrysler was capable of anymore. One slip behind the wheel and I was greeted by squishy plastics, suitably retro gauges, a leather wrapped steering wheel and a ginormous nav screen.
The only negative I found upon first inspection of the new interior was the large metallic/plastic/what-the-heck-is-that?? trim that dominates the driver’s side of the dash. I appreciate the retro vibe, but the fit and finish just didn’t seem up to the rest of the interior, which is a pity as other than that the interior is finally, and firmly, class competitive. With every step forward must come a bean counter, and that guy was allowed to ditch the Mercedes style keyfob for something that likely comes with a $2,500 Tata Nano. For shame. At least if you opt for keyless go, nobody ever has to see it except you and the lining in your pocket.
Back on the outside, the familiar brash form of the previous Charger is still there but a tad softer. The Charger still screams “American performance”. The grill is suitably brash and the “Toxic Orange” paint our press loaner arrived in would be perfect in a modern day remake of the Dukes of Hazard. The result is a polarizing one; passengers either loved or hated the look, and that’s important for Dodge’s future: many of their best products in the past have elicited similar reactions from shoppers and I hope that never changes.
One push of the start button and the Charger R/T’s main selling point roars to life: the 5.7L HEMI. This V8 beast cranks out 370 ponies and 395 ft-lbs of twist in a segment where a 268 HP Toyota Avalon is considered near the top of the pack. This feature alone sets the tone for the Charger experience like no other. Balancing out those extra ponies is about 700 extra pounds vs the Avalon. Despite the weight difference, our 4,319lb bright orange tester ran to 60 in 5.4 seconds, considerably faster than the 6.2 seconds we managed in the Toyota Avalon we tested last year. Since Chrysler has not fitted the Charger with a fun-sapping brake/accelerator interlock, burnouts are both easy and deliciously fun.
Balancing out the Delta-rocket style thrust the 5.7V Hemi produces are lackluster seats, hard and narrow rubber on the stock wheels and some unexciting fuel economy. The front seats offer no lateral support what-so-ever as the 2011 R/T’s “Road & Track” package no longer includes the SRT seats like the 2010 package did. The stock tires and wheels which are both narrow and lack grip add insult to the slip-and-slide. Luckily the aftermarket has many a solution for the rubber/wheel issue but the seat upgrade will set you back some serious cash, and keep in mind that modern seats have occupant sensors for the airbag system. It’s a shame there is seemingly no factory solution for this problem. Perhaps less of an issue for buyers is the 5.7L HEMI’s fuel economy. Rated at 16/25, our real world economy varied a great deal more than the Avalon. On a flat highway we averaged 27MPG for a 40 mile journey at 65MPH, but my daily commute up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains pushed our 750-mile average down to 18.9MPG, a commute on which the Avalon had scored a 22MPG average.
As you can imagine with such a larger car, headroom is excellent both front and rear. A lunch time trip with five healthy Americans proved as easy and as comfortable as you can find this side of a Mercedes S-Class. In a car this big, you’d expect a big booty, but the smallish trunk lid foreshadows the decidedly mid-size trunk which at 15.4 cu-ft is 7 percent smaller than a Ford Fusion’s cargo spot and only 15 percent bigger than that of the compact Ford Focus. In general, the full-size car label no longer guarantees large luggage capacity. So on paper, the Charger’s smallish trunk is fairly competitive with the likes of the Toyota Avalon (14.4) and Hyundai Genesis (15.9). Compared to the other ‘mericans, the Buick Lucerne boasts 17 cu-ft, and the Ford Taurus’s ginormous booty will schlep 25 percent more warehouse store bagels in a 20.1 cu-ft trunk. On the flip side, the rear seats fold down to reveal a large pass-thru and the wide and fairly flat rear seats make three baby seats across a tight but entirely doable adventure.
For the last decade or so, Chrysler had been well behind the pack when it came to electronic gadgets and decent navigation systems. Fortunately as we have seen in the new Journey, the tide has finally changed. Even the base Charger SE receives Chrysler’s new uConnect 4.3 system which grafts a 4.3-inch touch-screen LCD to the basic radio features.
The base system allows easier browsing of iPods and USB devices than competitor’s systems without a full featured LCD like Lucerne and Avalon. Anyone stepping up from the SE model (which will be most buyers) will be treated to the uConnect 8.4 system (with an 8.4-inch touch-screen LCD) with or without navigation. Chrysler decided to eschew button proliferation making functions like heated seat and steering wheel controls available only within the uConnect interface. The result is a clean dash that is easy to navigate.
Speaking of that 8.4-inch screen, it’s another completely unexpected feature of the new Charger. At 8.4-inches, the screen is large by any measure and includes nice touches like an oleophobic coating so your fingerprints aren’t visible and a strong backlight making the system very readable even in bright sunlight. The system’s graphics are far more visually pleasing to my eye than the new Ford My Touch system, and unlike MyTouch, the system was incredibly responsive and it never crashed. Menus are laid out fairly logically and the available nav system is as easy to use as any hand-held Garmin. This is entirely because uConnect uses an integrated Garmin system for navigation. Unfortunately, neither Chrysler nor Garmin seems to have made voice commands available for entering a destination, leaving you to risk distraction while manually entering the address on-screen. Also missing in uConnect is voice command of your USB music device or iPod ala Ford Sync and My Touch. Ford’s My Touch may be slow and crash frequently, but its functionality has become the bar by which other systems are measured. In this light, uConnect falls short. To be fair, BMW’s iDrive, Audi’s MMI, and Mercedes’ COMMAND (which cost significantly more) also fall short of the MyTouch system in terms of access to your tunes. My local dealer hasn’t been told what map updates will be like, hopefully they will be easy and cheap like the rest of the Garmin lineup. Checkout our YouTube overview to see uConnect in action:
Speaking of that iPod integration, the system refused to recognize playlists on my iPhone 4, albums on my iPod classic, and it occasionally refused to connect to my 1st generation USB iPod. I am told that Chrysler is working on the software bug but I haven’t heard of any final fixes as of June 2011.
Let’s talk value. With a starting MSRP of $30,395 for the Charger R/T (minus the inevitable cash on the hood), the Charger is the cheapest V8 sedan in America. With the Mustang GT starting only a grand less, depending on the deal you work, the Charger could just be the cheapest new car in America with a V8, period. The green in the crowd will of course deride the gas guzzling nature of high cylinder counts, but I think the cheap V8 theme is something Chrysler should hang onto.
How does the competition stack up? Well, if this was 1971 instead of 2011, there would be more competition in the full-size RWD non-luxury sedan segment. With the demise of Pontiac and the Holden derived G8, the Hyundai Genesis is the only non-Chrysler RWD product in this price range and I’m not sure Charger shoppers are cross-shopping that wannabe-Lexus. Our R/T tester rang in at $38,110 essentially fully loaded with radar cruise control, heated steering wheel, navigation and backup camera. This is about $5,000 off the Genesis’ $43,000 single flavor pricing. Admittedly, the Genesis delivers the promise of greater reliability and a more luxurious interior, but I’d still call the Charger a name-defying good deal.
On the FWD front, we have the V8 Lucerne Super for $42,220. I need say nothing more about the Buick other than: yes, it is your father’s FWD V8 Buick. From the land of the rising sun we have the Toyota Avalon with an interior that is more inviting and an exterior style that is far from polarizing. If you want the car that checks all your boxes but elicits little passion, the Avalon is the perfect $38,645 driveway accessory.
Perhaps the most appropriate competition for the Charger, and the biggest impediment to its success can be found in the Ford Taurus and the Charger’s own cousin, the Chrysler 300C. The 300C is to my eye the better looking vehicle inside and out and in my informal cost comparison is essentially the same price at $38,170 (so much for Chrysler clawing their way up-market). Compared to the Taurus SHO however (starting price of $38,155 and $43,900 when equipped comparably to the AWD version of our Charger R/T tester at $39,328), the Charger lacks the full-size cargo capacity, bevy of electronic doo-dads like massaging seats, voice command of most features and the more luxurious interior of the Ford. Ford’s EcoBoost V6 may also be the superior engine with its broad power band capable of matching our observed 5.5 second run to 60 in the Charger, but it lacks that sultry V8 burble. At the end of the day, while I would probably pay the extra five-grand to step into the SHO, I have to admit a large, soft, RWD sedan is all kinds of fun, and for that reason alone the Charger might finally make sense.