The first car I bought new was a 2000 Chrysler LHS. (I single handedly lowered the model’s average age demographic.) It was the very pinnacle of Chrysler’s Iacocca turn-around. It was large, competitive and made from Chrysler’s universal parts bin. Then Mercedes came on the scene promising to “synergize” product development with their luxury brand. The plan had a promising start with the 300 HEMI C concept, but the production reality was a big sedan with a plastacular interior and Mercedes hand-me-down parts.
Now that Mercedes and Chrysler have divorced, we’re starting to see what a real German-American synergy looks like. For 2015, the Dodge Charger has gone under the knife to look leaner and meaner with a new German transmission. Like my 2000 LHS, this may just be the pinnacle of the Marchionne turn around. It’s big, it’s bold and it’ll make you forget why you stopped to look at that Toyota Avalon last week.
Identify the Competition
The Charger is a segment oddity because it’ll be the only four-door muscle car after the Chevrolet SS drives into the sunset. No, the Hyundai Genesis doesn’t really count – that’s a luxury entry and it’s American cross-shop would be the Chrysler 300. That leaves the Charger to battle the Avalon, Taurus, Impala, Cadenza, Maxima and Azera. (Or, if you buy the Hellcat, a ballistic missile.) Sure, you can compare anything to anything, but the Charger is tough to categorize, so I’ll just focus on this main segment.
As the only RWD entry in this segment, the Charger has very different proportions than the rest of the crowd with its ever-so-long hood. Since 2015 is a refresh rather than a redesign, the hard points remain the same as before but the style has been significantly altered and essentially every panel has been changed. I’m not entirely sure that the “Daddy Dart” look up front is the style I would have chosen, but it looks far more grown up than the 2014 model. Out back we get better integrated exhaust tips and a refinement of the Dodge “race track” light strip.
While the engineers touched every panel on the outside, interior changes are minor. The same 8.4-inch uConnect touchscreen is still nestled in the dash (SE models get a 5-inch screen) and the style is still decidedly retro. On the driver’s side we get a new 7-inch color LCD between the speedometer and tachometer in all models. There are still some hard plastics to be found and the dashboard is a little rubbery, but that places the Charger on equal footing with the Impala while the Avalon and Cadenza have slightly nicer interiors.
FCA reps said that no changes were made to the seat cushion design for 2015, but our tester lacked the pronounced hump found in the 2012 model we last tested, an issue that make me feel like I was sitting on a very large gumdrop.
In a car this big, you’d expect a big booty, but the smallish trunk lid foreshadows the decidedly mid-size trunk at 15.4 cu-ft, 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) but the Taurus’ ginormous booty will schlep 25 percent more warehouse store bagels. 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.
SE and SXT models use the familiar 3.6L Pentastar V6 tuned to 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Adding the $1,495 Rallye Group on the SXT adds eight ponies and four lb-ft. This puts the Dodge right in line with the front wheel drive competition in terms of power.
Unlike the competition, the Charger offers some more powerful engines to choose from. Scroll down the spec sheet and you find not one, not two, but three different V8s on offer. R/T and R/T Road and Track trims get the popular 5.7L V8 good for 370 hp / 395 lb-ft, R/T Scat Pack and SRT 392 models make do with a 485 hp / 475 lb-ft 6.4L V8, and if you want to throw caution to the wind there’s a 6.2L supercharged V8 making a whopping 707 horsepower.
Last year most models had the old Mercedes 5-speed automatic with just some trims getting the new ZF-sourced 8-speed. This year every Charger gets the 8-speed and the difference is eye-opening.
For those of you unfamiliar with the transmission world, ZF is a German company that makes transmissions and licenses transmission designs for a wide variety of performance and luxury cars. You’ll find ZF transmissions lurking under the hoods of twin-turbo V12 Rolls Royces, inline-6 BMWs and AWD Audis, so the Charger is rubbing elbows with some classy company.
Not only does the new 8-speed have a lower first gear for improved acceleration, it also has a taller top gear for improved highway economy. If you ever wondered how much difference a transmission alone can make, the Charger is a perfect test case. Last year, the V6 with the 5-speed needed 8.5 seconds to run to 60, this year it’s 7.0 flat, making the V6 Charger competitive with the pack. The 5.7L V8 model was about as fast as the last Maxima at 6.1 seconds. This year, the same engine will do it in 5.0 seconds with the Road and Track rear axle ratio and 5.1 seconds without it. That means the Taurus SHO competitor is no longer the 6.4L V8 but the 5.7L model we’re testing.
Let’s tally this up so we keep this in perspective. The V6 is now competitive with the competition and the 5.7L V8 is now a hair faster than the SHO. What makes the Charger crazy is we still have two engines left. Add the Scat Pack to the R/T, or choose the SRT 392 and acceleration drops to 4.2-4.3 seconds as long as the tires can find grip. The Hellcat, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is the fastest production sedan with a blistering 2.9 seconds to 60 if you are willing to wear racing slicks and put your life on the line.
An interesting note of trivia is that Charger Pursuit police cars still get ye olde 5-speed with both the 3.6L and 5.7L engines. The reason likely has more to do with the 5-speed automatic’s column mounted shifter in Pursuit guise than any durability benefit.
In many of the trims the Charger comes across as “under-tired.” Before you get your flamethrowers out, allow me to explain. The Charger SE is a 4,000lb vehicle riding on low rolling resistance 215/65R17 tires; handling isn’t its forte. The SXT gets 235/55R18 all-season performance tires with a 245-width option. Handling is easily equal to the Avalon despite weighing 500lbs more due to the Charger’s near perfect weight balance. The R/T gets 245/45R20 rubber, which honestly feels a little skinny for 370 hp, especially if you get the Road and Track. On the flip side, it’s easy to smoke your tires if you’re into that. The Scat Pack feels as under-tired as the SE because it adds 115 horsepower, some curb weight and changes essentially nothing else. If you like a car that has a very lively rear end, this is your car. The SRT 392 significantly upgrades the brakes, tires (275/40R20), and suspension and I found it to be well balanced in terms of power vs grip. Then the Hellcat comes along with 222 extra horses and no extra grip. You get the picture.
Under-tired doesn’t translate to less fun – quite the opposite in my book. In fact, the Charger reminded me of the base Mustang and FR-S. Confused? Toyota’s mission with the FR-S was supposed to be a car to explore RWD dynamics without breaking the bank. Know what? That’s actually the Charger. Starting at $27,995, it’s only $1,000 more than an automatic FR-S and $2,000 more than a V6 Mustang with the auto. Unlike the FR-S, you get a power seat, dual-zone climate control, the 7-inch LCD in the gauge cluster, a much snazzier radio, three extra gears in your transmission and usable back seats. Will it dance around an autocross track like an FR-S? No, but you have almost as much fun and still use the car on the school run. Our R/T Road and Track tester was the same sort of thing taken to the next level.
All versions of the Charger deliver a civilized ride thanks to the well designed suspension and a long wheelbase as much as the size and weight of the vehicle. As with all modern cars, electric power steering sucks some of the fun out of the RWD platform, but the boost is adjustable. And because the front wheels are only responsible for steering, you get considerably more feedback than in the FWD or AWD competition. Despite the heft, braking fade was well controlled, although distances are a little longer than I’d like due mostly to the tire sizes involved.
Compared to the SHO, the Charger has a more polished ride. The SHO has an enormous trunk and a more accommodating back seat. The SHO is all-wheel-drive which gives you better traction, but the Charger has better weight balance and more accurate feel on the road. Compared to the FWD competition, the Charger feels more substantial out on the road, more precise and certainly handles the corners with less drama. There’s no torque steer and surprisingly neutral handling even in the heavier 6.4L models.
At $42,265, our model as tested managed to be $1,000 less than a comparable Avalon Limited, $2,000 less than a Cadenza Limited and, although it was slightly more expensive than the Taurus SHO, it had about $1,800 more equipment. The Charger’s discount price tag honestly surprised me. I had expected our tester to be a few grand more than the SHO.
What should you buy?
I’m glad you asked. Skip the V6. What’s the point of going RWD if you’re going to get the V6? I wouldn’t get the 5.7L V8 either. If you like the 5.7, buy the Chrysler 300. It has a nicer interior, a few extra available features and I think the front end is more attractive. I wouldn’t buy the Hellcat either, because I know I’d be “that guy” who wrapped it around a tree 5 minutes after driving it off the dealer lot. I am, however, eternally grateful the engineers created the bat-shit-crazy 6.2L engine because it makes the 485 hp 6.4L HEMI seem like a rational and practical engine choice. When driven very gently on level highway at 65 mph, the 6.4L V8 can deliver 28 mpg thanks to cylinder deactivation. My fuel economy in the 6.4L engine hovered around 18, just 2 mpg shy of the last Avalon I tested (the 5.7L scored 19.5 over almost 700 miles). When driven like you stole it, massive wheel spin, effortless donuts and 4.1 second runs to 60 with one of the best soundtracks money can buy are the order of the day. When your maiden aunt asks why you needed nearly 500 horsepower, you can safely say you didn’t get the most powerful one. With logic like that, how can you go wrong?
FCA provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of fuel for this review.
Specifications as tested
0-30: 2.05 Seconds
0-60: 5.0 Seconds
1/4 mile: 13.3 @ 114
Average fuel economy: 19.5 MPH over 678 miles