The Truth About Cars » Dodge The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 14 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Dodge Capsule Review: Dodge Challenger R/T Hemi Shaker Thu, 26 Jun 2014 14:00:04 +0000 ExteriorFront1


Among the TTAC staff, the consensus is clear: the Ford Mustang is the top choice in the pony car segment. For cheap thrills, the Mustang V6 with the Performance Package is the most comprehensive “performance per dollar” option on the market. The 5.0, Boss 302 and Shelby GT500 represent increasing levels of performance that rival the best of the sports car world, at prices accessible to the common (or, slightly better off) consumer. The Camaro is not as highly regarded, but of course, what would this site be without a dissenting voice.

So what about the Dodge Challenger?


Within days of picking up the model you see above (a Challenger R/T “Shaker”, a special edition with some extra Mopar goodies, the “Shaker” hood, a 5.7L Hemi and a 6-speed manual transmission), TTAC was invited to test out the heavily revised 2015 Challenger, including the highly anticipated Hellcat model. The Shaker fell under my jurisdiction, but with the Hellcat being introduced at a race track, those duties were assigned to our EIC pro tem. Frankly, that opportunity would be wasted on anybody else.


So what of the soon-to-be-obsolete 2014 Challenger? My only experience has been with an SRT8 model, equipped with the venerable 5-speed automatic. The 2015 model will get, among other upgrades, the wonderful new ZF 8-speed, as well as chassi tweaks and an all-new UConnect system. Chrysler PR cautioned not to get my hopes up for the Shaker, suggested it was less “track-focused” than the SRT model. I held out hope that it would be, at the very least, a loud, obnoxious, attention-getting special edition.


I was in for a disappointment. The “Competition Orange” (not Dodge’s name for the color, but one that’s been ingrained due to repeated viewings of Boogie Nights) Challenger is visually loud, with its orange paint, black hood scoop and alloy wheels. But the 5.7L Hemi could emit little more than a muted bellow. Having heard countless uncorked 5.7L engines in all manner of Rams, 300c’s and Charger R/Ts, I know that the standard Chrysler V8 has aural merit, even if it’s not as glorious as the big 6.1L and 6.4L SRT V8s. If you opt for one of these, make sure you get a Mopar exhaust system baked into the financing deal. It deserves no less.


On the other hand, the Tremec 6-speed was a pleasant surprise, with tight gates, short throws and a crisp action. The clutch was easy to modulate, and the V8′s torque made it nearly impossible to stall, even with the laziest applications of both clutch and throttle. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that the transmission is not the ideal choice for the Challenger.


No doubt, this is heresy for most readers, but hear me out. The Challenger is a big car. So are the Mustang and the Camaro, but the Mustang manages to disguise its bulk with a modern, high hood and a tall beltline, while the Camaro lets you forget it because you are too busy cursing how dreadful the overall package is.


The Challenger is a different beast. The hood is low and long, the beltline is low, the doors are large and forward visibility is excellent. You feel like you’re sitting in a car from a different era, a sensation that is congruent with the car’s styling, which is utterly faithful to the 1970′s version. When piloting something with such immense stature, I tend to prefer a more relaxed driving experience. The 6-speed manual, as nice as it is, feels out of place in a car like this. Rowing gears and pushing clutch pedals doesn’t quite fit with the “one hand on the wheel, one hand resting on the door sill” nature of this car, but that’s just me. Plenty of people have bought large cars with manual gearboxes, otherwise BMW wouldn’t have offered the E38 740iL with a manual, right?


The generous proportions carry over to the interior too. The  cabin feels large and airy, with lots of room for two up front to lean back, stretch their legs and enjoy the effortless torque of the V8. The long wheelbase and long travel suspension allow for serene highway cruising while the Hemi spins at less than 2,000 RPM in 6th gear, even at 75 mph. Handling is not its strongest suit. You can take corners in aggressive manner, but the Challenger R/T is clearly happier in a straight line, letting you enjoy the view out front, while epoch appropriate music belts out of the stereo (Live at Filmore East is absolutely glorious on this stereo).


The 2015 model will get the updated UConnect system with the 8.4 inch touch screen, but even the “old” system is pretty damn good, even if the UI is a bit dated. The trunk is enormous for a two door car .A weekend roadtrip for two allowed for one full-size suitcase and one overnight bag with plenty of room to spare. Small wonder that they are so popular with rental fleets.


Aesthetically, the Challenger isn’t a pastiche of retro cues like the other two cars. But it’s not a pony car like the old Challenger. With a 116 inch wheelbase, it’s a full six inches longer than the original Challenger, and nearly 10 inches longer than the Mustang. Even though it looks like a very faithful modern iteration of an old pony car, I’d argue that it’s more of a modern version of the personal luxury coupe.


Rather than emphasize outright performance, the Challenger emphasizes style, comfort and cross-country pace rather than road course times or skipad numbers like the hotter Mustangs and Camaros do in their marketing messages. Even the Hellcat’s press photos show emphasize drag strip runs and smoky burnouts over images of Laguna Seca and the Nurburgring.


And for me, that’s just fine. Not every American car needs to bring the fight to the Europeans. Globalization and changing tastes are forcing American cars to become globalized to the point where body-on-frame trucks are the last truly American vehicles. It’s very likely that the next Camaro will follow the Mustang in adapting for European tastes. Chrysler took the other route, using old Mercedes bones to create something truly American: a big, no-excuses coupe with big V6 and V8 powertrains and the kind of styling that has no hope of meeting European safety and fuel economy standards.

Bring on the Hellcat.

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Car Review: A Tale of Two Darts, Part the Second, 2014 Dodge Dart GT 2.4L Fri, 20 Jun 2014 12:00:51 +0000 IMG_0335

Full gallery here

Four hundred cubic centimeters. That’s not a whole lot of volume. A cylinder that’s about 3 inches in diameter and 4 inches tall. It’s rather amazing what a difference that about a coffee cup’s worth of displacement will make in the character of an automobile. In my first look at the Dodge Dart, I felt that the Dart is a nice compact car, but that it was deeply compromised by a powertrain that combined the 2.0 liter four cylinder with a six speed automatic transmission. In a quest for a calibration that yields impressive EPA fuel economy numbers, Chrysler produced a car that’s a chore to drive. Now that I’ve had a chance to drive the Dart with the 2.4 liter MultiAir Tigershark engine, I’m happy to report that those 400 ccs of displacement make a night and day difference, changing “chore to drive” to “fun to drive”. While it’s not a direct comparison, the 2013 Dart that I reviewed was in Limited trim, pretty much loaded, while the 2014 model that I tested was a Dart GT, with less equipment but with the GT package and the 2.4 liter engine that’s now standard in all Darts but the Aero and base SE models.

While I wouldn’t say that the car is fast, the 184 horsepower four moves it along quickly enough that the GT badge isn’t a joke. Actually, the development team in Auburn Hills seems to have taken their design brief seriously at least in terms of the chassis. While not a continental “grand tourer” in the classic sense, the Dart GT is definitely aimed at an enthusiast crowd. If not the direct spiritual heir to the Neon ACR of lore, it’s certainly in the same lineage.

Most of the differences between the Limited and GT models have to do with the way the cars handle. In my review of the Limited, I said that the Dart wants to handle but that the powertrain’s mapping gets in the way of enthusiastic driving. The Dart GT fulfills that promise, and then some. The chassis is most decidedly tuned towards the handling side of the ride quality / handling trade-off. The GT has a more aggressive stance, more aggressive rubber, trick shock absorbers and much stiffer springs.

How much stiffer? Though I didn’t find the ride as objectionable as some reviewers have, the chassis is stiff enough that once, when I hit the driveway apron as I pulled into a gas station, the tuning knob for the radio was jarred from the Grateful Dead channel to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. While I didn’t personally find the stiff suspension objectionable, I did start getting a bit tired of the rear body structure drumming when the back tires hit irregular pavement.

With Michigan roads in the sorry state they are in, there was ample opportunity to test the ride quality and it was uniformly firm. Though it’s very firm, I didn’t find it harsh. I do think that most American consumers would find it too firm and would probably be happier with the less sporting trim lines.

All that stiffness results in a car that you can hustle through the corners at a rapid pace. There’s a ton of grip and while there’s the modern problem of not a huge amount of steering feel, the Dart’s steering is weighted nicely at all driving speeds. The steering is very quick, 2.5 turns lock-to-lock or maybe even a bit less than that, with a sharp turn in.

The car I tested came with leather seating surfaces, some solid, some perforated with a red tint in the perforations, a bit less fancy than the Limited’s full leather. While the Limited came with more “luxury” features, the final sticker price of both cars was pretty much the same ($25,125 for the GT and $25,180 for the Limited, destination charges included, Monroney sheet here) and I didn’t miss what the GT didn’t have. As long as it has A/C (Chrysler’s very good automatic climate controls are usually “set it at 68 and forget it” for me) and a decent sound system I’m good to go, though this car did have the 8.4 inch UConnect infotainment system, which is nice to have. Like I said, everything I’d need or want, without anything superfluous.

The 2.4 liter engine was backed by the same 6 speed automatic and while the combination wasn’t flawless, it is a solid improvement over the two liter motor with the same gearbox. Unlike with the smaller motor, I didn’t feel the need to autostick it because there was sufficient acceleration letting the car shift itself. Some reviewers have said that the gearbox is busy, but I didn’t notice it. I did notice that when slowing down, the 5 -> 4 downshift is rather dramatic, perhaps because of a big jump in gear ratios. Fuel economy was improved over the two liter Dart. I averaged 28.2 mpg over a tank’s worth of suburban driving, which was better than the ~26 mpg real world mileage I was getting when having to autostick the 2.0L/6AT Dart. The engine does run a bit roughly at startup, but though it’s not the most sophisticated four banger in the world, it does have a pleasant growl when you get on it.

While the Dart GT seems aimed at enthusiasts, at first it’s a bit surprising that there’s no sport mode to electronically activate. Perhaps that’s because someone in Auburn Hills may think that it’s superfluous to give a car with a fair amount of sporting character such a mode. The engine is peppy enough that Car & Driver’s reviewer thought the throttle tip-in off of idle is a bit quick (something that didn’t bother me), the chassis is competent and the car can handle, and the seats have good side bolsters that hold you in front of the wheel as you’re hustling around curves. About the only thing that isn’t sporting about the Dart GT is the braking system. The brakes are perfectly adequate around town and on the highway, but I wouldn’t take the Dart GT out on a track without some attention to improving how the car stops.

Fit and finish was fine and the only quality problem that I noticed was that with a bit more than 5,000 miles on the odometer, the driver’s side power window was making a bit of a rattling noise at the upper end of its travel. One problem that I had with the first Dart, almost burning my hand on the prop rod for the hood, which is stored right above the radiator and gets very hot, was apparently remedied with a small rubber insulating grip. I don’t know if that grip was added for the 2014 model year or if the first example of the Dart that I drove was simply missing it, but I was glad to see it.

My tester came in bright white and with the blacked out grille elements that come with the GT package (and Rallye and Blackout appearance groups too), it looked pretty sharp. While driving both Darts people complimented how they look. While the GT did not have the upgraded sound system that came in the Limited, it sounded perfectly serviceable.

Perhaps as a weight saving effort, the Dart GT, unlike the 2013 Limited, doesn’t come with a spare tire. Instead, nestled in a expanded polystyrene foam carrier that fits in the spare tire well, is an electric pump with a (hopefully replaceable) canister of tire sealant.

My drives of the two Darts sandwiched a ride and drive event for the new 2014 Toyota Corolla. While the Dart, based on Fiat Chrysler’s Compact U.S. Wide platform, is a bit larger than the typical compact car sold in America, and heavier by a few hundred pounds, it’s priced to play in the Corolla’s segment. How does it stack up against the Corolla, which dominates that segment along with the Honda Civic? Combining the two Darts that I drove, I think that a Dart in one of the mid-level trim lines, with the 2.4 L engine and the features most people would want, would make a reasonable alternative for someone not zealous with the Toyonda reliability faith. Is the Corolla more refined than the Dart? Maybe by a little bit, though the Dart handles better, feels quicker, and  is roomier, at least up front. At the very least, if you’re shopping for a new compact car, it’s worth it to at least cross-shop the Dart and talk to owners about their experiences.

In my review of the Dart Limited I mentioned how the Dodge Neon showed promise but that Chrysler let it die on the vine by not giving it continuous upgrades. The fact that Sergio Marchionne and his team acknowledge that they screwed up the initial Dart launch by not getting the powertrain mix correctly and that they’ve remedied it by putting the bigger motor in most Darts bode well. Unfortunately that botched launch may have permanently harmed the Dart’s market chances. The Civic and Corolla both sell 300,000+ units a year. In 2013, Chrysler sold about 83,000 Darts, and halfway through this year they’ve sold fewer than 31,000 units.


In November of 2014, John and Horace Dodge had this publicity photo taken of them sitting in the first Dodge Brothers automobile in front of John Dodge’s mansion on Detroit’s Boston Blvd. (the same location as used in my photos of the Dart GT). The Dodges started selling cars under their own brand after a decade of being Henry Ford’s primary supplier.

As far as enthusiasts are concerned, if you’re looking for something that’s moderately sporting and can still carry a small family, a Dart GT isn’t a bad idea, providing your spouse doesn’t object to the stiff ride. Still, considering that the new Chrysler 200 and Jeep Cherokee are also based on the CUSW platform and that those two vehicles are offered with Chrysler’s outstanding ~300 hp Pentastar V6, it’s easy to guess that a SRT version of the Dart with that engine (and, I was going to say, the bigger brakes from the 200 but I see that it shares the Dart’s 12″ front rotors) would be even more fun to drive than the GT.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click on the settings icon to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats.

Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and a tank of gasoline.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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JD Power Initial Quality Study Shows GM, Hyundai, Porsche Leading The Pack Thu, 19 Jun 2014 12:00:29 +0000 2013 Buick Encore, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

J.D. Power has released their U.S. Initial Quality Study for 2014, where General Motors, Hyundai and Porsche earned top marks despite consumers still struggling with the gizmology taking over their vehicles.

Autoblog reports GM’s Buick, Chevrolet and GMC captured more awards than anyone else in the 2014 IQS, with six vehicles winning in their segments. Meanwhile, Hyundai and Porsche were ranked best overall mass-market and premium brand, respectively, where the former reported 94 issues per 100 vehicles reported in the first 90 days, 74/100 for the latter. Porsche also dominated the IQS, having the best score of all brands surveyed.

On the other end of the scale, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles ranked poorly in the study, with Fiat holding dead last at 206 problems per 100 vehicles reported in the survey period. Jeep came second-to-last with 146/100, while Dodge was just below the industry average at 124/100. Only Ram and Chrysler fared the best, matching or just exceeding the average of 116/100.

Part of the results may be due to automakers pushing the envelope on technology and new features to make consumers’ lives easier. J.D. Power Vice President of Global Automotive David Sargent says “almost all automakers are struggling” to introduce these pieces “without introducing additional quality problems.” In turn, some consumers are noting the technologies involved are “hard to understand, difficult to use, or [do] not always work as designed.”

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NHTSA Investigates Chrysler Group Air Bag, Ignition Issues Thu, 19 Jun 2014 11:00:10 +0000 2010-dodge-grand-caravan

General Motors no longer has the monopoly on ignition and air bag problems, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Chrysler Group over those very issues.

Detroit Free Press reports the agency has opened two investigations into 1.2 million vehicles as follows:

  • 2005 – 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee; 2006 – 2007 Jeep Commander: Faulty air bags; 700,000 under preliminary investigation
  • 2008 – 2010 Dodge Journey; 2010 Chrysler Town & Country; 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan: Ignition switches shifting out of “on” position; 525,000 under recall query

The NHTSA received 23 complaints over air bags problems, though none involved non-deployment, and 32 complaints about the ignition switch. Both parties are working to find any links to the problems, though no more information has been made available thus far.

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Car Review: A Tale of Two Darts, Part the First – 2013 Dodge Dart Limited 2.0 L Tue, 10 Jun 2014 20:02:16 +0000 IMG_0092

Full gallery here.

A while back Chrysler loaned me a Dodge Dart Limited with the 2.0 liter Tigershark engine and six-speed automatic transmission for the purpose of writing a review. That’s how it works, they loan you the car, you write the review. A social contract, if you will. In this case, however, though I drove the car for a week and took scores of photos and copious notes, I decided not to write the review at the time. That sort of behavior comes with some risk, particularly if the next time you ask for a press car and they ask for a link to your last review. I had my reasons for putting off the review, and now that I’ve driven a Dart with the larger 2.4 liter motor, I’m glad that I waited, and I think Chrysler should be glad that I waited as well.

I’ll explain all that gladness in Part Two, my review of the 2014 Dodge Dart GT 2.4 L, but everything has a backstory.

Why didn’t I write the review? To begin with, I don’t particularly like to say what everyone else is saying, even if I may agree. I don’t need to add my voice to an echo chorus. If I don’t have something original to say, why bother with “me too”?

What everyone else was saying was that the combination of the 2 liter engine with the automatic resulted in rather canine behavior and we’re not talkin’ greyhounds here. The fact that the Dart with the two liter engine and slushbox is a dog has been attested to by most reviewers and it’s hardly any secret with Chrysler folks too. Detroit is a place where you might run into a decision maker in the auto industry at the grocery when out to buy bread and milk for your mom and where the Dart you park next to might very well have been bought by an engineer on an employee discount. Whenever I mention to Chrysler folks about that drivetrain being a slug, they sort of shrug their shoulders and smile sheepishly.

After my week with the Dart Limited 2.0L/6AT, I wanted to check out the Dart with the larger 2.4L engine. Unfortunatley, there weren’t very many of those made in the Dart’s early production mix. That’s another reason why I’ve waited to write this review. I wasn’t sure just how representative the car I tested was of the Darts you’d be able to buy going forward. I knew that months before I got the test car Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne admitted that the 2.0L/6AT and the Fiat 1.4 Multiair Turbo powertrains “were not the ideal solution,” and a company spokesperson said that the production mix would be rebalanced as 2.4 L engine production ramped up at the company’s Dundee, Michigan engine plant. The production mix has indeed changed and the 2.4 liter is now installed in the majority of Darts. The 2.0 liter is now only available in the base SE car and the 1.4 turbo shared with the Fiat 500 is only offered on the Dart Aero. In that sense I was correct, the car that I’m describing to you is not representative of what you can buy. In fact, you can’t even buy a 2014 Dart Limited with the 2.0.

So why write the review now? Well, to begin with the drivetrain is still available on the Dart, if not with the same high trim level. Also, as it turns out, I think the basic car is pretty decent, even better than that, and some buyers, out of a sense of frugality or budget realities, might decide to buy the Dart SE, thinking that they’ll get a nice car, and save money both on the purchase and on gasoline. As you’ll see, though, the 2.0 liter may be a false economy. Finally, reviewing this car puts the upcoming Dart GT review in context and much of this review will also still be relevant to those considering a Dart Limited.

The problem as I see it isn’t how much power that engine has, or doesn’t have. With 160 hp, it’s not going to be a speed demon but under normal circumstances with that much power in a slightly chubby compact car you should be fine in traffic and on the highway. However, every combination of engine and transmission these days seems to be calibrated to yield maximum Ms per G on the EPA test cycle, not maximum driveability. The 2.0L/6AT combination is EPA rated at 25/36 and it seems calibrated to get into the highest gear ratio as quickly as possible, meaning you’re in a higher gear before you ever get to the meaty part of the power curve.

I tend to treat “it was so slow as to be unsafe in traffic” reviews with some skepticism because 20 year old Hondas and Camrys can keep up with traffic just fine, even today when 300+ horsepower cars are commonplace. However, the way the 2.0/6AT combo drove, I genuinely felt nervous when trying to zip into a spot in traffic or when merging onto the freeway. I love a good stick shift, but I’ve never warmed to using paddle shifters or manually shifting with automatic transmissions. I figure that ZF et al know more about shifting than I do. Still, with this Dart I discovered that I had to autostick it to force the car to hold a gear long enough to be able to get on top of it and accelerate safely in traffic.

I also discovered why the transmission and engine are mapped the way they are. Leaving the car to its own devices in mixed suburban driving I was getting an indicated gas mileage in the high twenty-nines, but when I started shifting myself that dropped to about 26.5 mpg.

I really wanted to like the car. Based on the Compact U.S. Wide platform that Chrysler’s engineers in Auburn Hills derived from Fiat’s C-Evo platform first seen under the current Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Dart feels spacious, at least for front seat passengers. Wide is no misnomer, there’s an airy feel to the cabin from behind the wheel. The belt line sweeps up towards the rear of the car but at the driver’s window it’s almost low enough for resting your elbow. Because of that rising belt line, though, rear passengers might feel a bit more closed in.

Visibility for the driver is pretty good, except for the fact that the hood slopes down sharply and you can’t see the front corners. Sajeev Mehta will rejoice at the Day Light Opening (DLO) win, as small triangular windows behind the rear door glass provide a clear look at your blind spots over your shoulders. They also help keep rear passengers from getting claustrophobic from the high belt line in back. Speaking of DLO, there is some DLO fail around the mirror and A pillar, with a black plastic insert.

Speaking of black plastic, there’s a variety of black colored and textured polymers at play in the interior. Most of the surfaces that you’d come into contact with, though, are of the soft touch kind.

Everything up front was properly ergonomic, with Chrysler’s industry leading 8.4″ UConnect touchscreen well integrated visually with the configurable display that sits directly in front of the driver. I thought the default red color scheme of the liquid crystal displays was a bit garish, compared to the cooler blue scheme on the Chrysler 300S I’d had the week before, but that’s just a matter of personal taste. YMMV. The instrument panel is surrounded by a band of red trim that lights up subtly when the headlights are on. It’s a nice touch in this class of car, providing you like red.

Chrysler is big on their sliding console storage bin in the company’s minivans. I think that’s where they got the idea for a two position armrest on top of the console storage bin. Whichever position you slide it to, when you open it, you’ll find a USB port, a 1/8″ AUX port, and, what is getting to be a rarity these days, a CD drive.

The 60/40 fold-down back seat features a console that flips down from the seat back and contains cupholders and a storage bin. When that console is flipped down, it reveals the hatch for passing though long items that are being stored in the trunk, like skis.

I thought the rear seat was roomy enough but then I’m a 5’6 tall guy with a 28″ inseam. I was left with about 3″ of headroom and about 5″ of knee room. Will it Zayde? Yes, I had no problems getting my grandson’s rear facing car seat in the Dart. There are child seat latch anchors on the back deck for all three rear seat positions.

In Limited trim, the Dart had most of the features most drivers will want, in fact, most of the options offered on the car – it was pretty loaded. With the Technology Group, Premium Group, automatic transmission, UConnect and a few odds and ends, it stickered out to $25,190, including a $795 destination charge.

The seats were full leather and quite comfortable. They feature the now ubiquitous contrasting detail stitching. The passenger seat has a hidden storage compartment under the hinged seat squab for stowing small valuables.

Visually, to my tastes it’s an attractive car, sort of a muscular and squat wedge. Car companies are putting more style into their mass market compact sedans. There’s a lot of sheet metal contouring happening on the hood and around the front end that you probably wouldn’t have seen a few years ago in a class of cars that American’s have considered to be economy cars. On the outside, the Dart looks more expensive than it is.

I like the way the headlamp lenses stand proud of the fender and the rear end goes together in harmony, with an integrated. duck tail spoiler. The rear end also features a version of the Dodge Charger’s brand identifying full-width LED tail-lights. I think that the smarter designers today are using the flexibility of LED and other modern lighting technology to make a brand statement in the dark of night as well as in the light of the day.

Other than acceleration, what’s it like to drive? The Dart wants to handle. Those Alfa genes are strong. The problem is that under normal driving, letting the car shift for itself, the drivetrain’s lack of acceleration compromises the handling. You can dive bomb into a corner and it holds the line just fine, but when you want to power through the exit letting front wheel drive understeer help straighten the car out, there’s just no there there.

At first I was struck at some obvious price-pointing, but I realized that impression was biased by the fact that when they dropped off the Dart, they picked up that Chrysler 300S AWD with a Hemi, a car whose base price is almost double that of a stripper $16K Dart. While there’s indeed $14,000 worth of visible and tactile difference between the Dart and the 300, the Dart feels solid and has a fairly comfortable ride for a compact. The test car was equipped with 17″ X 7.5″ aluminum wheels mounted with 225/45 R17 Continental ContiproContact tires.

There was one visible quality control issue, a surprising one. While doing the photo shoot I noticed something I haven’t seen in a long time, a paint “run”, a drip at least an inch long near one of the rocker panels. I worked at a DuPont automotive paint lab from 1982 into the 21st century and I haven’t seen a visible paint defect that bad since the early 1990s. To be fair, the rest of the paint, and the rest of the Dart seemed to be defect free.

I noticed something else that, no pun intended, touches on quality control, or at least attention to detail, while doing the photo shoot. If you have to open the hood and the engine is hot, make sure that you’re wearing an oven mitt or using something else to protect your hand before you grab the prop rod that holds up the open hood. When stowed, the prop rod sits right above the radiator and it gets very hot.

I had high hopes for the Dart but as equipped with the 2.0L/6AT powertrain it left me disappointed. I thought the revival of the nameplate was brilliant, with many Americans holding fond memories of a reliable, inexpensive compact American car, powered by the almost indestructible Slant Six. I also knew that when they have tried, eg. Neon, the boffins in Auburn Hills know how to make a compact car, even if the company as a whole didn’t quite get the continuous improvement thing. I think that they still know how to make a decent small car, but my first encounter with the Dart suffered from expectations not met. So much so that it was my choice as my least favorite test car of 2013. Yep, not only did I not review a loaned car, I slagged it off at the end of the year. I suppose that also risked some displeasure of the folks in Auburn Hills, but they can’t complain that much since in that same end-of-year wrap up I also said that the Chrysler 300S AWD Hemi was my favorite car of 2013.

Maybe all that stuff about ticking off car companies with negative reviews is a bit exaggerated, because despite doing somethings that wouldn’t necessarily curry favor with them, the folks at Chrysler approved it when I asked the fleet company if they had a 2.4 liter Dart for me to try. We’ll look at that car, a GT model, in Part Two.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Reader Review: 2014 Dodge Charger R/T Fri, 06 Jun 2014 20:55:32 +0000 ChargerFront

TTAC reader and contributor Rich Murdocco sends us his review of his brand new 2014 Dodge Charger R/T

In the middle of the harsh winter of 2013, the lease on my beloved Ford Mustang was coming to an end. That car had a special place in my heart – The 305 horsepower power plant whisked me to my first  “big boy job”, my first date with a new girlfriend, the birth of my niece and was right there as I got down on one knee and proposed to that aforementioned girlfriend. I was faced with the difficult decision every leasee faces: Do I stick around, or see what else was out there?

Sunset Logo

I had my heart set on another Mustang. Myself, uncle and cousin walked into the Ford Dealer, priced out a GT (if it wasn’t an upgrade, what’s the point?) and left satisfied. The car I had in my head – a 2014 Ford Mustang GT in dark silver, complete with the beating 5.0 Coyote heart and sense of condescension towards Camaros. As we were driving home, my uncle casually suggested we look at the Dodge dealer down the road. I’ve always been intrigued by Dodge’s offerings, and was impressed by the then-freshly redesigned Journey’s build quality when my Uncle had one on loaner. Halfheartedly we pulled in and strolled around the lot. “There is nothing you want here, is there?” I shook my head no, and that’s when my cousin called me over to come see something he found – a Charger R/T

Sitting in the car, it didn’t feel like a Dodge. The panels fit well together. There wasn’t a rattle. What felt like metal, was in fact, metal. The chunky steering wheel’s leather was soft, flanked by paddle shifters that allow your index finger to comfortable slip between them. I pressed the push-button ignition and with the soft burble of the exhaust, I was sold. It was black, brash and just plain mean looking – in a way, it reminded me of a Buick GNX.


Before I knew it, I was handed a surprisingly quality key fob to my new 2014 Dodge Charger R/T with the new Blacktop package. The RWD (as God intended) car is powered by the 5.7 liter HEMI, has the 8.4 inch touchscreen with navigation and a 3:06 gear ratio setup.

The supportive yet comfortable seats are cloth, the HID headlights are automatic, and the sunroof is large. In fact, everything in this vehicle is large. It’s built for a supersize generation, of which my five foot seven inch height appreciates. My fiancée, who is a tiny little lady, disappears into the passenger seat, but when she drove it the power driver’s seat and adjustable steering wheel accommodated her just fine. The car’s dimensions are substantial.

At work, I’ve parked next to a BMW 5-series and dwarfed it. The Charger’s lines in the recent redesign added character to the slab-like sheet metal of the first new generation, with the most distinctive addition being the racetrack LED lights on the read end. Now, the Charger looks like well…a Charger (the odd looking 1980’s model notwithstanding). This isn’t a car for blending into the commuter pool. Even in the V6 guise, this car looks aggressive. It looks like it wants to kick puppies and wear fingerless gloves while smoke cigarettes like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.

Charger flag

Recently, when picking up my college roommate from the train, he said he found me by walking towards the “most obnoxiously angry looking car in the lot.” The attitude exerted by the sheet metal is only matched by its presence on the street. On Long Island, police of different stripes use the Charger Pursuit paired with their fleet of SHO’s. With the Blacktop package, you’re getting black 20’’ wheels that make many other drivers think you’re a cop. This is both awesome (when others let you pass) and annoying (people slam on their brakes to go the speed limit frequently). In my Mustang, few people ever wanted to rev their engines at me. In this, BMW’s especially, always want to start something – there are worse problems to have.


Coming from a Mustang, pretty much anything would look spacious, but the Charger’s trunk truly eats whatever you put in it. I recently bought a rather large A/C unit and the trunk swallowed it up. I bet if I tried, I can fit my Marshall half-stack in the car, with a guitar, with no problems. The back seat is roomy, with three of my friends in the back sitting comfortably on the two-hour trek to New Jersey when I first got it. My buddy’s girlfriend is five foot nine, and had room to spare.  The nav is simple, while the radio, “powered by Beats Audio”, is pretty punchy, with more than enough bang for an automotive system. To be honest, I don’t use the audio to its full potential, because I prefer the sound of the HEMI. The voice recognition isn’t as intuitive as my Mustang’s SYNC, but it gets the job done. If the Chrysler UConnect system and SYNC had a baby, it would be the perfect infotainment unit. One quirk that my Charger has is the placement of Sport mode. It’s accessed via the UConnect system on the same screen as the front and passenger heated seats. “Hold on Camaro… We shall duel our automobiles shortly. Please wait while I activate Sport mode!” The difference in the transmission is marked when sport mode is activated, with the aggressive upshifts quickly snapping into the next gear.

Sport Mode

Smooth. That’s the word passengers I’ve had thus far have used to describe the ride. The Mercedes sourced 5-speed gets complaints from automotive journalists, but the transmission feels pretty rock solid. It seems that the German’s leftovers have worked wonders for the brand. With decently aggressive driving, I average 16.7 miles to the gallon of mid-grade fuel, and it costs roughly $55-60 per fill up here on Long Island. The transmission would benefit from an extra gear or two, but in 2015 Chrysler is putting in their popular 8-speed which should soothe the naysayers. In manumatic mode, the paddle shifters or console shifter allows for some spirited red-line hitting runs, but the electrical nannies prevent any significant overrevving and overly aggressive downshifting. One of my newfound joys is cruising in 5th, drop it to 3rd to pass. The whole experience is very gratifying.

The HEMI provides more than enough get up and go, but acceleration is never violent like it is in my cousin’s 2013 Mustang GT. It’s a smooth crescendo mostly. Passengers will be taken by surprise, and sometimes, during a boring morning’s drive, it’s fun to plant your foot to wake up both yourself, and the car. It’s powerful, and the engine, which is typically library quiet at cruising, comes to life under hard acceleration. One complaint is that it may be too quiet. For its brash looks, you’d hope it will shoot flames from the twin exhaust. In reality, the acceleration is more than entertaining enough, but isn’t as brutal as you think it would be given the specs. It does however turn heads if you drive by a group of people at full blast. It sounds proper, especially in a tunnel, and allows for acceleration to 60 in the low to mid-fives. My brother, who passed the love of cars into his younger brother, was impressed at the Charger’s throttle response and handling as he took a sweeping turn at unmentionable speeds for taking such a turn. For a heavy sedan whose trunk can eat a 12,000 BTU AC unit while seating two in the back, it’s impressive. The car feels planted at 30 mph, 60 mph and beyond 100 mph. With the Blacktop package you get a “high speed engine controller” up to 149 mph, but good luck safely and legally hitting anywhere close to those speeds on Long Island.

One of the many surprises of the car I found was that it doesn’t handle like you expect it to. During my first test drive, I was picturing similarities to my grandma’s old Grand Marquis, but it drives very similarly to my Mustang. It’s eager on turn in, and handles the curves without too much drama. The turning radius is a bit wider, but not by as much as you’d think. My fiancée’s 2010 Accord is like turning the Queen Elizabeth compared to the Charger.

This car is unapologetically American (despite the fact that shhh…it’s made in Canada). It’s big, rear-wheel driven, and powered by a big ol’ V8 up front. The interior is made of quality materials with fit and finish that was unheard of even five years ago. The street presence is ample. The fuel economy isn’t as bad as you’d think it would be given the power and weight stats. The Dodge Charger may have four doors, but it has the soul of the old Charger, and thanks to the HEMI, the heart of one as well. So far, I do not regret my decision to jump ship from Ford to MOPAR. In the future I may return, but as of right now, I’m more than content with the Charger.


On the web I’ve read comments such as the following: “it’s a pig…”, “it’s too fat”, “UGH A FAMILY CAR! It NEEDs TWO DOORS”, “It needs a manual transmission.” I’d answer these naysayers, but I’m too busy doing burnouts in the angriest looking family sedan on the road.  Long live the four-door, American muscle car.

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Marchionne’s Grand Vision For FCA Faces Hard Financial Road To Success Thu, 08 May 2014 12:00:11 +0000 Sergio Marchionne - FCA

Though Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne’s five-year plan announced this week may be ambitious, analysts are raising questions about how the plan will be funded — and how much will be needed — if it is to be successful, let alone live up to Marchionne’s vision.

Automotive News Europe reports a large part of the problem for the plan, according to Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton, is debt:

Much as we admire the ambition and think elements are achievable… it is hard to find conviction on the financing of the plan. Fiat is weighed down with huge debt, burdened by financing costs and is only thinly profitable. It’s (sic) cost of capital is huge.

Warburton adds FCA’s grand plan and its potential capital expenditure and R&D appear to be unaffordable and not prudent for investors, stating the company would need “a capital raise” for any part of the plan to pan out.

Aside from its debt, FCA also faces sales challenges from markets that are peaking or slowing down, with the European market being the biggest drag upon the automaker. However, independent analyst Marianne Keller said that with the recovery now taking place in Europe, paired with North American profits and a strong Jeep brand, Marchionne could “pull it off”; Marchionne himself announced during the five-year plan’s unveiling that he was considering a mandatory convertible bond to bring the needed financing for the plan.

Finally, FCA’s Q1 2014 results — a net loss of 319 million euros compared to a net profit of 31 million euros the year before — serve as a sign for both the company and its investors that FCA has more hard road ahead, a view best summed up by Macquarie Group analyst Jens Schattner:

If it was so easy just to launch new products to be successful in this industry, why wouldn’t everybody do exactly the same.

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Shudder To Think: New Transmissions, Bad Friends and the DaimlerChrysler Merger Wed, 07 May 2014 20:38:07 +0000 Dodge Challenger chromed T-shifter automatic transmission knob

I never would’ve known about the WA850/NAG1 transmission if it weren’t for that dead-beat roommate I had in Miami. It was desperate times for Chrysler and myself —we both just needed a friend.

16 years ago today, the Chrysler Group found an abusively negligent partner in Daimler AG. The “merger of equals” proved to be anything but, as the German camp rapidly oscillated between ignoring the American’s input and engaging in full-blown Teutonic pedantry. Rumor has it they even insulted the American’s taste in typeface by forcing them to get new business cards.

My friendship wasn’t nearly as toxic. I had been living in Miami for a few months, but had failed to adapt to the social scene. He was also a transplant from the North Atlantic so he understood my pain. He had friends that I admired, so I stuck by him. Despite his professed love for the BMX bike and only the BMX bike, he was in possession of a hand-me-down 2003 Mercedes-Benz E500. This example was a former Enron fleet-car his mother had purchased at auction in late 2006, just months before Daimler offloaded their American bedfellow. He didn’t keep up with the maintenance; it was in poor shape but I loved it. It was everything my Miata wasn’t: heavy, powerful and smooth.

It was equipped with the WA850 transmission, or as it is more commonly known, the 5G-Tronic. A five-speed automatic of Mercedes design, one of Daimler’s first acts after the merger was to force this part on Chrysler. It was clearly a superior gearbox than Chrysler’s ubiquitous 545RFE, but it was the principle of the matter. Chrysler was saddled with what they perceived to be needless logistical complications. The official Chrysler designation for the part was “New Automatic Gearbox Version 1” or NAG1. Very funny Chrysler.

In theory it was an excellent transmission, but there were serious qualms about its reliability on American roads. It wasn’t about road quality; rather it was its needy maintenance schedule and complex service that was out of line with American ownership habits. Anything less than perfectly precise handling by a tech and the thing would shudder and shake for the rest of its days.

Like Chrysler, My friend had forced something on me as well: the pointless pursuit of fun at a time in my life when I should have been saving money, exercising, and improving my craft. An apt comparison because like the WA580, a life of partying works on paper, but without the discipline to perform proper maintenance you are end up shuddering and leaking fluid in public.

The Daimler-Chrysler merger was a clear failure, and so was my friendship. Both partnerships could’ve been successful, but they required more compromise and hard work than either party was prepared for. That’s not to say the respective mergers were complete failures. Chrysler walked away with an excellent transmission that’s still in use today, and I learned how to have fun and not take myself so seriously. What we both learned was that in business like life, you can only rely on yourself for meaningful improvement.


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New York 2014: 2015 Dodge Challenger Debuts Thu, 17 Apr 2014 21:07:21 +0000 2015-Dodge-Challenger-7

Prior to the 2015 Dodge Charger descending onto the stage, the 2015 Challenger made its world debut at the 2014 New York Auto Show.

The Challenger will arrive in showrooms ahead of its sedan brother in Q3 2014, and will bring with it eight different trims, including the R/T Shaker and 392 HEMI Scat Pack. Under the hood — whether shaking or static — a choice of three engines will send power to either the standard six-speed manual or the new eight-speed Torqueflite automatic: 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (305 hp); 5.7-liter HEMI V8 (375 hp); and 6.4-liter HEMI V8 (470 hp/lb-ft of torque).

Inside, drivers will have adjustable gauges, UConnect with remote-start and Performance Pages adjustable performance system, and two touchscreens at the ready.

As for outside, the new Challenger takes its cues from the 1971 Challenger, though with modern upgrades such as LED daytime running lights and LED tail lamps.

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New York 2014: 2015 Dodge Charger Live Shots Thu, 17 Apr 2014 20:32:15 +0000 2015-Dodge-Charger-10

Alongside the 2015 Dodge Challenger, the 2015 Charger made its debut at the 2014 New York Auto Show.

The Charger, which will follow the Challenger to the showroom a few months later, will bring both the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and 5.7-liter HEMI V8 to the party. The former will push 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque through an eight-speed automatic, which will also help send the HEMI’s 370 horses and 395 lb-ft of tire-destroying torque to the back or, if equipped, all four wheels.

The big change, however, is its Dart/Durango-esque look, including LED daytime running lights and the blacked-out grill that will likely be obscured by the bull bar of the police-ready variant when the fleet orders are delivered and prepped.

2015-Dodge-Charger-10 2015-Dodge-Charger-13 2015-Dodge-Charger-18 2015-Dodge-Charger-17 2015-Dodge-Charger-7 2015-Dodge-Charger-9 2015-Dodge-Charger-8 2015-Dodge-Charger-23 2015-Dodge-Charger-16 2015-Dodge-Charger-20 ]]> 44
Chrysler Hellcat V8 Could Unseat Viper V10 Tue, 25 Mar 2014 13:09:47 +0000 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

For over a year, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been working on a Hemi V8 dubbed the Hellcat, which set to debut in a revised Dodge Challenger. However, the Hellcat could prove a challenge to the SRT Viper’s V10, possibly unseating the venerable monster from the throne.

Automotive News reports the rumored V8 has caused an internal debate within FCA, in particular what it would mean for the Viper when the Challenger receives the engine. SRT brand boss Ralph Giles told Hot Rod magazine:

We have a situation where, you know — we may have a situation — where the flagship car is not the most powerful car in our arsenal … how do we explain that to ourselves? So we have an internal horsepower race as well as an external one.

While the Viper’s naturally aspirated V10 pushes 660 horsepower, the SRT variant of the Challenger — pitted against the Ford Mustang GT500 and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 — is rumored to put out as much as 700 horses .

The 2015 Challenger is rumored to debut in New York next month.

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Capsule Review: 2014 Dodge Durango Fri, 07 Mar 2014 14:00:29 +0000 2014 Dodge Duranto_0014

It’s a shame about the 2014 Dodge Durango. Every car eventually gets wound down, but the Durango will be going out in its prime. If the way a vehicle drives is a high priority for you, it’s hard not to adore the Durango’s comportment. More tragic, the Durango has been the quiet way to get Grand Cherokee goodness with some bonus wheelbase and space for exceptionally-aggressive Dodge pricing. That’s going to be over soon.

If the Durango is so good, and Chrysler even bothered to update it this year, why is it going away? The answer: Because it’s a Dodge.

But the Durango won’t be gone for long.

2014 Dodge Duranto_0001

Soon, the vehicle we know as the Dodge Durango will go back from whence it came. It’s being re-absorbed into the Jeep line, which has aggressive volume targets and can command higher prices. Back in the mid-aughties, Jeep tried a three-row range topper. The Commander did not do well, but it’s where this generation of Durango came from. The story is brought to you by the letters W, X and K, but here’s the short version: When Jeep cleaned up the Grand Cherokee for the 2011 model year, the Dodge Durango took over as the three-row version of that WK2 architecture.

At one time, the Durango was booking nearly 200,000 sales per year for Dodge, but that’s ancient history. Those hot numbers happened back when the Durango was the latest masterstroke from Bob Lutz. Most recently, the Durango has been racking up the critical affection while actual sales seem asbestos-lined, with no heat going on. Despite the Durango’s roots, it’s a lot harder to demand premium pricing without the power of deep Jeep love. Dodge has to be a lot more aggressive about putting cash on the hood to move iron. If you want to feel smarter than the average bear, act now to get the best deal on what’s probably the best vehicle in this segment.

2014 Dodge Duranto_0005

You’re giving up a few things for the sake of the deal, chief among them is brand cachet. That might not be important to you, but it matters for resale. While the Grand Cherokee enjoys strong resale and sniffs of approval from the other twit parents at soccer practice, the Durango’s residual value drops farther, faster. Also, the Durango isn’t as space-efficient as other three-row family crossovers, and it can feel a little more trucky than the car-based competition. Fuel economy is also a challenge, though the new 8-speed automatic takes smaller sips.

Still, the positives of the Durango outweigh the negatives. There’s huge rear seat legroom, extra cargo space, a human-sized third row and composed highway ride thanks to the significantly longer wheelbase. Inside, there’s good materials, luxury touches like laminated side glass, universally-praised UConnect infotainment, now with an 8.8” screen and deeper functionality, and surprising quiet. I drove a V6 Durango dressed up like an R/T, but lacking the Hemi. I also had some time with a full-boat Durango Citadel that topped out over $52,000, but I spent the most time with this mid-$30,000s Durango with AWD, V6, 8-speed automatic with spiffy rotary shifter and utility-focused cloth upholstery. Unlike most models facing their sunset, the Durango is to-the-minute current in its level of competitiveness. You can be sure that when this vehicle is wearing Jeep emblems it will have a thicker bottom line and thinner incentives.

2014 Dodge Duranto_0028

It’s counter-intuitive, but the fact that Jeep is pulling a Godfather 3 on the three-row is an acknowledgement of its fundamental goodness. Coming back into the fold will give Jeep a comprehensive model range from Patriot/Compass, through to Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, and on up. In spite of the looming change, because the Durango and Grand Cherokee are built together, it’s less expensive to give the outgoing model the same mechanical changes as the Jeep. Variations on the assembly line cost money. What the spec sheets can’t tell you is how well all the facts and features come together out on the road. Despite the unitized construction, the attitude of the Durango is more SUV than mall-trawler crossover. You feel it in the ride, which carries the feeling of weighty authority as it smothers bad pavement into submission. You’re up higher in the Durango, and while it’s smooth and quiet, she’s a big girl that’s clearly got some Ram in her family. There’s more rugged resistance than carlike compliance, but the structure is solid and the machinery feels refined.

Saddled with 4,700 lbs, the Pentastar engine does a lot better than you’d expect a 290 hp, 3.6 liter V6 could manage. That’s partly due to the new 8-speed transmission, but there are times where it feels like it shoulda had a V8. Of course, you can get one of the best V8s on the market, the 360 hp 5.7 liter Hemi. The V8’s fat torque is still blunted by the big-time curb weight, but it does enable quicker getaways and significant bump in towing capability to 7400 lbs. The table stakes for the Hemi are higher, with fuel economy taking a significant hit, even with MDS cylinder deactivation.

2014 Dodge Duranto_0018

The fuel economy numbers to pay attention to for the Durango are the city and combined EPA ratings. Family crossovers often do a lot of in-town driving, and that kind of use with a Hemi Durango Citadel had me staring at 14.5 MPG. The red Durango in the photos, a Pentastar-powered all-wheel driver with the 8-speed automatic returned a 19.5 MPG average with a heavy emphasis on secondary roads. That’s pretty good, though lots of stop and go will drive it down further. Either way, the claim of 25 MPG highway seems like fantasy.

Another issue is visibility. The mirrors are large and forward visibility is good, plus the elevated ride height doesn’t hurt. But the back window is small and far away. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the constrained view to the rear has sunk more than one potential sale during the test drive. At 8.1”, ground clearance for the Durango is higher than in other competitors like the GM Lambda triplets (7.1”), the Nissan Pathfinder (6.5) or Ford Explorer (7.6”), so it’s not as easy to get in and out of as those vehicles, and you’ll also be perfecting your clean-and-jerk to load stuff in the back of the Durango versus the lower lift-over heights of the competition.

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With all these gotchas, it might sound like the Durango isn’t as good as those Crossovers that came from cars. The opposite is true. The ride is supple with disciplined control, and the whole vehicle feels solid. On smooth roads or the surface-of-the-moon byways that seem to cover 90 percent of the nation, the Durango chassis is always graceful. The steering, an electro-hydraulic rack and pinion, is precise and confident with good weighting but not a whole lot of feel.

The Durango is well screwed together, and it feels as good as the Grand Cherokee from behind the wheel. The Durangos which came before are really the issue here. The original sold really well, a bit of parts-bin genius, but it looked tougher than it proved to be. The second-generation Durango is best left out of this conversation, unless you’re trolling CraigsList for a bargain on a loaded-up truck-based SUV that looks Chinese. That leaves this one as the last, and best Durango. Hold on to your wallets, it’s gonna make one hell of a Jeep. 2014 Dodge Duranto_0001 2014 Dodge Duranto_0002 2014 Dodge Duranto_0003 2014 Dodge Duranto_0004 2014 Dodge Duranto_0005 2014 Dodge Duranto_0006 2014 Dodge Duranto_0007 2014 Dodge Duranto_0008 2014 Dodge Duranto_0009 2014 Dodge Duranto_0010 2014 Dodge Duranto_0011 2014 Dodge Duranto_0012 2014 Dodge Duranto_0013 2014 Dodge Duranto_0014 2014 Dodge Duranto_0015 2014 Dodge Duranto_0016 2014 Dodge Duranto_0017 2014 Dodge Duranto_0018 2014 Dodge Duranto_0019 2014 Dodge Duranto_0020 2014 Dodge Duranto_0021 2014 Dodge Duranto_0022 2014 Dodge Duranto_0023 2014 Dodge Duranto_0024 2014 Dodge Duranto_0025 2014 Dodge Duranto_0026 2014 Dodge Duranto_0027 2014 Dodge Duranto_0028

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Review: 2014 Dodge Durango Limited V8 (with Video) Thu, 16 Jan 2014 15:00:23 +0000 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-002

Car shopping used to be so simple: you could buy a truck or a car. Then came the wagon, minivan, sport utility and the latest craze: the crossover. There’s just one problem with the crossover for me however: it’s not a crossover. With a name like that you’d assume that a modern crossover blended the lines between a truck/SUV with a car/minivan. The reality of course is that the modern three-row crossover is just a front-driving minivan that doesn’t handle as well or haul as much stuff. In this sea of transverse minivans in SUV clothing lies just one mass-market vehicle that I can honestly call a three-row crossover: the Dodge Durango. Instead of a car that’s been turned into an AWD minivan with a longer hood, the Dodge uses drivetrains out of the RAM 1500 combined with a car-like unibody. While rumors swirled that the Durango would be canceled in favor of a 7-seat Jeep, Dodge was working a substantial makeover for 2014.

Click here to view the embedded video.

So what is the Durango? Is it an SUV? Is it a crossover? In my mind, both. If a Grand Cherokee can be a unibody SUV and not a crossover, the Durango must be an SUV. But if a crossover is a hybrid between a car and a truck, then the Durango is one as well. While the first and second generation Durangos were body-on-frame SUVs based on the Dakota pickup, this Durango is a three-row Grand Cherokee, which is a two-row Jeep version of the three-row Mercedes ML which is quasi related to the Mercedes E-Class, which is quasi related to the Chrysler 300. Lost yet?


2014 brings few changes to the outside of the Durango. The design first released in 2011 still looks fresh to my eye but that could be because I don’t see many on the road. Up front we get a tweaked corporate grille and new lamps while out back we get “race track” inspired light pipes circling the rump. Aside from a lowered right height on certain models and new wheels, little has changed for the Durango’s slab-sided profile, which I think is one of the Dodge’s best features. No, I’m not talking about the plain-Jane acres of sheet metal, I’m talking about RWD proportions. Bucking the trend, this three-row sports a long (and tall) hood, blunt nose, short front overhang and high belt-line.

To create the Durango from the Grand Cherokee, Chrysler stretched the Jeep’s wheelbase by 5-inches to 119.8 inches and added three inches to the body. The result is four-inches longer than an Explorer but two inches shorter than the Traverse, Acadia and Enclave triplets. Thanks to the Durango’s short front overhand, the Dodge has the longest wheelbase by a long way, beating even the full-size Chevy Tahoe. Speaking of the body-on-frame competition, the Durango may have been a size too small in the past, but this generation is just 8/10ths of an inch shorter than that Tahoe.



Body-on-frame SUVs have a practicality problem when it comes to space efficiency. Because the frame sits between the body and the road, they tend to be taller than unibody crossovers despite having less interior volume. Like the rest of the crossover crowd, this allows the Durango to have a spacious interior with a comparatively low entry height. 2014 brings a raft of much-needed interior updates to the cabin including a new soft touch dashboard, Chrysler’s latest corporate steering wheel with shift paddles, revised climate controls, Chrysler’s latest uConnect 2 infotainment system and a standard 7-inch LCD instrument cluster. Like the other Chrysler products with this LCD, the screen is flanked by a traditional tachometer, fuel and temperature gauge. Oddly enough, the standard infotainment screen is a smallish (in comparison) 5-inches.

Front seat comfort proves excellent in the Durango which was something of a relief, as the last few Chrysler products I have driven had form and oddly shaped seat bottom cushions that make me feel as if I was “sitting on and not in the seat.” As with all three-row vehicles, the accommodations get less comfortable as you move toward the back. By default all Durango trims are 7-passenger vehicles with a three-across second row. For $895 Dodge will delete the middle seat and insert a pair of more comfortable captain’s chairs and a center console with cup holders and a storage compartment. The third row is a strictly two-person affair and, like most crossovers, is best left to children and your mother in law. Those who do find themselves in “the way back” will be comforted by above average headroom and soft touch plastic arm rests. With large exterior proportions you’d expect a big cargo hold like in the cavernous Traverse, alas the RWD layout that makes the Durango so unique renders the interior less practical. With more of the body used up for “hood,” we get just 17 cubes of space behind the third row. That’s three less than an Explorer, seven less than GM’s Lambda triplets and about the same as a Honda Pilot. On the bright side this is more than you will find in a Highlander or Sorento and shockingly enough, more than in the Tahoe as well.



uConnect 2 is the first major update to Chrysler’s 8.4-inch touchscreen system that launched in 2011 and the first version of this system the Durango has ever had. Based on a QNX UNIX operating system, the system features well polished graphics, snappy screen changes and a large, bright display. For the second edition of uConnect, Chrysler smoothed out the few rough edges in the first generation of this system and added a boat-load of trendy tech features you may or may not care about. In addition to improved voice commands for USB/iDevice control, uConnect 2 offers smartphone integration allowing you to stream audio from Pandora, iHeart Radio or Slacker Radio. You can have text messages read to you and dictate replies (if your phone supports it) and search for restaurants and businesses via Yelp. In addition to all the smartphone-tied features, uConnect 2 integrates a CDMA modem on the Sprint network into the unit for over-the-air software updates and access to the new “App Store” where you will be able to buy apps for your car. Since there’s a cell modem onboard, uConnect can be configured to act as a WiFi hot spot for your tablets and game devices as well. Keep in mind speeds are 3G, not Sprint’s WiMAX or LTE network.

Completing the information assault is SiriusXM’s assortment of satellite data services which include traffic, movie times, sports scores, fuel prices and weather reports. As with uConnect data services, there’s a fee associated after the first few months so keep that in mind. 2014 also brings uConnect Access which is Chrysler’s answer to GM’s OnStar providing 911 assistance, crash notification and vehicle health reports. Garmin’s navigation software is still available as a $500 add-on (standard on Summit) and it still looks like someone cut a hole in the screen and stuck a hand-held Garmin unit in the dash. The interface is easy to use but notably less snazzy than the rest of the system’s graphics. If the bevy of USB ports has you confused, you can rock your Cat Stevens CD by paying $190 for a single-slot disc player jammed into the center armrest.

2014 Dodge Durango 5.7L HEMI V8 Engine-001Drivetrain

Dodge shoppers will find two of the Grand Cherokee’s four engines under the hood. First up we have a 290HP/260lb-ft 3.6L V6 (295HP in certain trims) standard in all trims except the R/T. R/T models get a standard 360HP/390lb-ft 5.7L HEMI V8 which can be added to the other trims for $2,795. 2014 brings a beefed up cooling system and a number of minor tweaks in the name of fuel economy. Sadly Chrysler has decided to keep the V6 EcoDiesel engine and 6.4L SRT V8 Grand Cherokee only options, so if you hoped to sip diesel or burn rubber in your three row crossover, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Both engines are mated to a ZF-designed 8-speed automatic. V6 models use the low torque variety made by Chrysler while V8 models use a heavy-duty 8HP70 made in a ZF factory. If you’re up to date on Euro inbreeding, you know this is the same transmission used by BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce. To say this is a step up from the vilified Mercedes 5-speed or the Chrysler 6 speed (the 65RFE featured some of the strangest ratio spacing ever) is putting it mildly. Fuel economy jumps 9% in the V6, 10% in the V8. No small feat in a 4,835lb SUV (as tested). All Durangos start out as rear wheel drive vehicles but you can add a two-speed four-wheel-drive system for $2,400. Although Dodge bills this as AWD, it is the same transfer case that Jeep calls 4×4 in Selec-Trac II equipped Grand Cherokees. Thanks to the heavy-duty drivetrain towing rings in at 6,200lbs for the V6 and 7,400lbs for the V8. Like the Jeeps the Durango has moved to more car-like 5-lug wheels which should widen after-market selection.

2014 Dodge Durango Exterior


The engineers took the refresh opportunity to tweak the Durango toward the sportier side of the segment with stiffer springs and beefier sway bars. While far from a night-and-day transformation, the difference is noticeable and appreciated out on the roads. While never harsh, it is obvious the Durango is tuned towards the firm side of this segment. Thanks to the long wheelbase the Durango feels well composed on the highway or on broken pavement.

With a nearly 50/50 weight balance, wide 265-width tires, and a lower center of gravity than a “traditional SUV”, the Durango is easily the handling and road feeling champion. That’s not to say the Durango is some sort of sports car in disguise, but when you compare a well balanced 360 horsepower rear wheel drive elephant to a slightly lighter but much less balanced front driving elephant on skinny rubber, it’s easy to see which is more exciting. Thanks to the Mercedes roots there’s even a whiff of feedback in the steering, more than you can say for the average crossover. Despite the long wheelbase and wide tires, the Durango still cuts a fairly respectable 37-foot turning circle.

Those statement may have you scratching your head if you recall what I said about Jeep on which the Durango is based, I must admit I scratched my head as well. Although the Dodge and the Jeep share suspension design elements and a limited number of components, the tuning is quite different. The Grand Cherokee Summit rides 3.1-inchs higher and was equipped with the off-road oriented air suspension.

2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-005

When it comes to performance, the new 8-speed automatic makes a night and day difference shaving a whopping 1.4 seconds off the 0-60 time versus the last V8 Durango we tested. The reason is all in the gear ratios. While the 545RFE and 65RFE transmissions suffered from some truly odd ratios, the ZF unit’s ratios are more evenly spread and dig deeper in the low gears. The result is a 6.0 second sprint to highway speeds which finally nips on the tails of the Explorer Sport which we’re told will do the same in 5.9-6.0 (TTAC hasn’t tested one yet). This proves what extra gears can do for you because the Explorer is 200lbs lighter and has a far more advantageous torque curve thanks to the twin turbos.

You can also thank the ZF transmission for the Durango’s robust towing numbers. V6 models are now rated for 6,200lbs while the V8 can haul up to 7,400lbs when properly equipped. That’s nearly 50% more than you can tow in any of the crossover competition and just 1,000 lbs shy of the average full-size body-on-frame hauler.

The transmission is also responsible for a whopping 20% increase in fuel economy. The last V8 Durango I tested eked out a combined 14.8 MPG over a week while the 2014 managed 18.0 MPG. While 18 MPG isn’t impressive in wider terms, it is 1/2 an MPG better than GM’s Lambda crossovers or the Ford Explorer on my commute cycle. The V6 yields improved fuel economy at the expense of thrust, but you should know that although the acceleration provided by the V6 is competitive with the V6 three-row competition, the 20 MPG average falls short of the new Highlander, Pathfinder and the rest of the FWD eco-minded competition.

After a week with the Durango I was no closer to answering the biggest question car buffs have: is this Dodge a crossover or an SUV? One thing is sure however, the Durango is likely the most fun you can have with 6 of your friends for under $50,000.


Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Specifications as tested:

0-30: 2.4

0-60: 6.0

1/4 Mile: 14.6 Seconds @ 96 MPH

Cabin noise at 50 MPH: 69dB @ 50 MPH

Average observed fuel economy: 18 MPG over 811 miles


2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-014 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-013 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-009 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-004 2014 Dodge Durango 5.7L HEMI V8 Engine-002 2014 Dodge Durango 5.7L HEMI V8 Engine-001 2014 Dodge Durango 5.7L HEMI V8 Engine 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-003 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-002 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-001 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-005 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-006 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-007 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-008 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-012 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-011 2014 Dodge Durango Exterior-010 DG014_058DU DG014_057DU DG014_051DU DG014_043DU DG014_030DU ]]> 60
Review: 2013 Charger SE Pentastar 5AT — Two Countries And Two Thousand Miles In Four Days Tue, 20 Aug 2013 13:15:34 +0000 charger1

The scheme was both ridiculous and somewhat unlikely to succeed as written. Drive from Columbus, Ohio to Toronto for the John Mayer concert. Turn immediately around and drive home. Go to work for a day, go to sleep. Wake up and drive from Columbus to Charlotte, NC via Lexington, KY. Play three sets with Bark M. at a rooftop party chock-full of impossibly gorgeous women and free Tito’s vodka. Sleep. Drive home. Do not damage car, do not play an Em7 when a Emaj7 is called for, do not short my brother on the “A” section in the middle of his solo, do not attempt to crash bachelorette party in the next room.

We needed room for equipment and people, the ability to hit 110 mph on hilly freeways in order to make soundcheck on time, a boomin’ system, and the maximum possible fuel economy. The car had to be spacious enough for three people to travel and/or take roadside naps in while being small enough to fit in a downtown parking garage spot. Most of all, it had to be relaxing on the freeway, because I’d be doing almost all the driving on low or no sleep, but not so relaxing that I fell asleep behind the wheel.

In other words, what I needed was what your parents or grandparents might have called a grown man’s car. I love the Camry and I respect the Altima, but with a task like this ahead, only one rental ride would do. Mr. Charger, step forward.


Much hay’s being made of the new eight-speed transmission in Pentastar Chargers, but if you take the base “SE” model, which retails for just over $27K, you’ll get the NAG1 Benz unit that has appeared, with various parts swapped out, everywhere from the Maybach 62 to the pre-PDK Porsche 997 Turbo. I don’t know that this is such a bad thing. The transmission is well-understood and many places can fix it. If you were looking to run a Charger for a long time or under severe conditions, it might well be a better choice than the octo-box. It certainly doesn’t hobble the car the way the cheapo four-speed did its entry-level predecessors.

We’ll follow the example of the Greek playwrights and provide some of the conclusion of this review right here in the fifth paragraph. This is not a full-sized car, not in the way that a Panther is a full-sized car or even in the way that the Avalon is a full-sized car. If you’re looking to get the most metal for your money, this isn’t for you. Get a slightly used or dealership-remainder W-body Impala. Nor is the Charger a “value” in the traditional sense. The Camry SE has it matched for feature count at an MSRP five grand beneath that of the Dodge, plus it will probably be worth more when you trade it in five years from now. Nor is it an SRT-8 on a budget; the Pentastar is massively strong and it handles okay but there’s a tangible universe of difference in the way an SE goes down the road and the way the big-bore model rips the asphalt off it.

So. Not a value, not a big car, not a sports car. What is it? Why, it’s nothing more — and nothing less — than the perfection of the Mopar M-body. I realized it as I was casually bopping across a set of raised train tracks near my neighborhood at eighty-five miles per hour. Of all the cars I’ve driven around here, only my Town Car pulls that same trick off with aplomb. Most mass-market sedans, even high-priced ones, produce a Suspension Death Rattle(tm) at about fifty mph, but I’d somehow just naturally assumed that the Charger could do it. This is a proper heavy-duty automobile. I don’t mean to imply that it will last forever or that every part on the thing is built to MIL-SPEC. Far from it. But the bones of the thing are pure, sheer, bad ass. It has the power-to-weight ratio of the original BMW 750il but returned nearly 32 miles per gallon in long-distance freeway usage. Twenty-seven thousand dollars would get you “more car” in a Camry or a Malibu but that really means more gingerbread, more shine slathered on a sixteen-grand metal box that accepts its entire powertrain in a single unit from beneath on the factory line like a working girl nonchalantly descending upon two customers at once. Just to speed the process. To save the client money. The bones of the Charger aren’t really from a Mercedes-Benz, no matter how much the car’s champions and critics wish it to be so, but they are thoroughbred, heavy-duty, worthy of mention along with the everlasting Fifth Avenue or Gran Fury. Under the skin, the Charger is an expensive automobile.

No surprise, then, that the rest of it’s depressingly cheap and crappy. Get in the car and suddenly it’s 1998 all over again at Chrysler. The flat black plastic interior would barely have passed muster in my old Neon. There’s an odd sort of fascia laid over the driver’s side of the thing. I know it’s real metal because it retains heat and cold but it doesn’t look very nice. Ten minutes in the thing and you’re ready to buy a Chrysler 300 without regard for the additional cost. Just to see some color and design, you know? It’s not very good. The Avenger interior is kind of better and the Grand Caravan interior is considerably superior. The instrument panel is laughably bad. It’s the lowest-contrast set of gauges I’ve ever seen on a production automobile. Grey and dark red on black. Learn to change the center display to show your speed. You’ll need to in order to avoid tickets. At twilight the dashboard is all but invisible. This is damned near unacceptable in 2013 and I don’t care that it looks cool in a mega-watt-lit showroom.

It doesn’t help that after the airy, well-lit environment of my cream-interior Town Car the Charger’s cockpit feels like falling into a well. The doors are so high and visibility is indifferent to the rear and sides. It took me all of LJK Setright’s one hundred miles for me to get over it. If I could wave a wand and change one thing about the Charger, it would be to drop the beltline four or five inches. I don’t want to hide in the car.

This particular fault is in no way unique to Chrysler LX sedans, however. Everybody runs the beltline high now. It’s not worth bitching about. I just wish this car had an M-body’s worth of glass around me. Wish in one hand, grab the Charger’s shifter in the other, throw it across the strangely vacant pattern down to “D”, stomp the throttle, achieve redemption. My hand to God, this has to be the best big-inch V-6 available. No, it doesn’t have a VQ37′s worth of raw horsepower but it just revs and sounds great and exudes willingness at all times. Car and Driver says it’s noticeably slower than the V-6 front-wheel-drivers and they have numbers to prove it. In the real world, however, the Charger has traction and composure the Accord and Camry can’t match. You can drive this thing full-throttle all the time if you want and your license has the points to spare. The old Impala can probably walk it but you’d need to be on the freeway because everywhere there’s broken pavement or camber problems the Dodge is unstoppable. Like I said. Heavy duty.

The Toronto leg of my trip passed without incident, the trip computer reporting more than thirty miles per gallon even once I hit the city’s infamous Gardiner Expressway. Once on the surface streets the Mopar displayed its big-wheeled indifference to potholes under full throttle and I took spot after spot away from slower, less certain traffic. On the drive home I had to stop and take a nap. Turns out I’m no longer superhuman at the age of forty-one and after thirty-six hours and seven hundred miles I need a rest. Two hours reclined in the mouse-fur seat was easy as pie then it was back to the road. This is a highway car. It doesn’t stress you on the six-lane the way the lighter, tidier competition does. It doesn’t transmit those fatiguing vibrations to your hands and it doesn’t wander and it isn’t sensitive to wind. Only an oddly spooky noise from the trunk area betrays the presence of serious cross-breeze. There’s only one real annoyance in the car, and it’s not going to affect everyone, but from what I’ve researched it’s not unique to my tester, so I’ll mention it. The mini-screen uConnect system plays individual albums from iPods in alphabetical order. This, as I’m sure you all know, places “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing” right after “Edge of Desire”. I don’t mind that, but try listening to Contra that way. Starting with “A-Punk” instead of “Mansard Roof”? Bitch pleeeeeeeeease.

Prepping for the second leg of my trip revealed another less-than-stellar aspect of the Charger: the trunk isn’t full-sized either. I ended up taking one amplifier (a Roland VGA-5, hedging my bet with solid-state electronics for a long trip) instead of two, and two guitars instead of three. The Town Car is so far beyond the Charger in trunk space it’s not funny. And don’t forget that if you decide you want the nice interior and the hip look of the Chrysler 300 — it has less trunk than this. Ridiculous. They should make a long-trunk 300C and call it the Newport. It would look nice in my driveway. I don’t recall the M-body having much of a trunk so I suppose they’re staying on-message here.

I handed the wheel over to Bark for the second half of the Lexington-to-Charlotte leg and he dropped my average mileage right down to twenty-four and a half by lead-footing a hundred miles of mountain freeway and rarely dipping beneath ninety miles per hour. He said we were going to miss soundcheck if he didn’t drive like a crazy person. Turns out we missed soundcheck anyway, mostly because he wanted to iron the shirt he had tailored in Toulouse last week for this gig. Oh well.

After an utterly fascinating gig beneath a steel tent and a furious amount of rain (if you’re interested in what we were playing and with whom, I’ll tell you) it was time to retire to my room. The bachelorette party next door proved to be a totally lame group of girls with husbands. Who brings husbands to a bachelorette party? Six hours and sleep then back on the road. My goal was to restore the Charger’s 30-mpg honor in the five-hundred-plus miles to come but at some point I forgot about that and accidentally decided to test the car’s top-speed limiter. It has one. Final stats:



Thirty miles per gallon in a car that leaps for triple digits and smokes back tires and holds four people. Hell yes. I was charged five days for the rental because I brought it back a trifle late. It would have been a bargain at twice the price. Listen. I cannot recommend the Charger over the Camry to you, the TTAC reader. It costs more. It will probably break more often and retain less value and if you’re driving in the city the mileage really can’t hang with the four-cylinder cars. In the winter it really, really needs snow tires and I know you never buy them, even though I always do, even for Audis. This isn’t the interior you want. You really want at least a 300 Luxury Edition and that’s real money and the trunk is smaller. The smart thing to do at that point is to buy an ES350 anyway.

But there are a few of you out there who will love the Charger, as I do. Because it’s a road warrior, because the bones of it feel heavy, because you can throw the tail out on rainy city streets, because it looks like Mike Tyson in some sucker’s rearview mirror, because it’s a man’s car in an era where just writing “man’s car” in this review will upset some people and probably rightly so, I can’t apologize for how I was raised and what I believe. I suppose a woman could own and love it but she’d have to be a bad-ass herself, Anne Hathaway in a black leather outfit or that one girl from Sleater-Kinney who screams all the time. This Canadian automobile is meant to serve a declining number of traditional Americans, that cool dad who swears at dinner then winks at you and who owns Snap-On tools and who holds the door for old people and who has a preference between Ozzy and Dio. If you’ve ever seriously thought about font choice or identity politics for more than thirty seconds, this may not be the car for you. But if you want the toughest car twenty-seven grand can buy, if you want to know what it was like to open the throttle on a 360-powered Fifth Avenue in an era of ninety-horsepower Accords, step right up. It won’t be here forever. I promise you that.

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Rental Car Review: 2013 Dodge Avenger Fri, 09 Aug 2013 15:00:41 +0000 IMG_1026

I had dinner recently with TTAC’s enfant terrible, Doug Demuro, something we do every few weeks as our respective schedules permit.  Predictably, our pre-, mid- and post-prandial conversation revolved around our shared passion for automobiles, as well as the people who read and write about them.  At one point I made a hasty proclamation, which was in retrospect unwise given my audience: “Doug, I really don’t think any manufacturers are making objectively bad cars right now.”  Doug paused and replied: “My friend, have you ever heard of Chrys-ler?,” enunciating the last pair of syllables as if speaking to an alien.  He continued, “check out the 200 if you have a chance.”

As (bad) luck would have it, I found myself at the local Porsche dealer not long ago, eager to trade my hard-earned dollars in exchange for renewed braking capabilities for my car.  As always, they were bereft of loaner cars, but they promised to provide me with an Enterprise rental car.  After leaving my 911 at its home-away-from-home – I am legitimately on a first name basis with the majority of the service department at my local Porsche emporium – I rode with the Enterprise lady (they really did pick me up!) to their nearby lot.  I was confronted with two options – a ubiquitous Ford F-150 or a 2013 Dodge Avenger.  Mindful that the Avenger is the ostensibly edgier stablemate of the aforementioned Chrysler 200, as well as some recent accolades directed at the sub-prime striver’s car of choice I chose the Dodge.  After the perfunctory walk-around and paperwork, I was on my way.

Truth be told, I was a little excited to try out the Dodge.  Walter P. Chrysler’s namesake company has endured ups and downs and a variety of masters and bedfellows throughout its nearly 90-year history.  Like anyone who would name a car after himself, or commission an iconic, Art Deco Manhattan skyscraper with the same nomenclature, the eponym obviously took great pride in his body of work, the representation of his endeavors.  The company endured after his passing, but fell on hard times by the late 1970s, with newly hired executive Lee Iacocca approaching Congress for a bailout in late 1979.  After over $1 billion in backstopping, Chrysler was back on its feet in the next decade, riding the successful restructuring and the strength of its product offerings, including the minivan.  Chrysler later consorted with Daimler and ended up in the arms of private equity sponsor Cerberus after the dissolution of the uneasy union with the Germans.  The automaker suffered more misfortune courtesy of the financial crisis and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in the spring of 2009.  A curious ownership structure resulted, with Fiat and the United Auto Workers union sharing custody of the company.  In recent years we’ve seen Super Bowl sloganeering that appeals to emotion – “Imported from Detroit”, “Halftime in America”, and “God Made a Farmer” in succession – and suffered partisan bloviating and mudslinging concerning the company’s direction.

But how are the products, the cars that the company designs and manufactures with the intention of returning a profit to its owners?  I wanted to find out.

My Avenger for a few days was a 15,000 mile example that was already showing considerable wear due to its rental fleet usage.  Upon getting settled inside I was struck by the exceptionally cheap plastics that permeated the interior.  Enterprise had helpfully added an admonishment against smoking inside the car, presumably to prevent those trapped inside it from attempting self-immolation.

Avenger No Smoking

I adjusted the trio of mirrors in an attempt to enhance rearward visibility, but it was futile.  You might forgive compromised situational awareness in, say, a Lamborghini Countach, but I found this distressing in the Dodge, in particular the enormous blind spots created by the plastic cladding extending from the c-pillars.

Avenger C Pillar Inside

This design feature was apparently elected to facilitate the placement of aerodynamic addenda on the exterior, ensuring that the rear end of this front-wheel drive economy car remains planted during aggressive maneuvering.

 Avenger C Pillar Exterior

While I wasn’t able to position the rear-view mirror at any angle that afforded a reasonable view of whatever was tailgating me, I was permitted an excellent view of the rear shelf, which appeared to be upholstered in scraps that otherwise could have been used to form the coarse outer covering for a stack of Marshall amplifiers.

 Avenger Rear Shelf

I eventually composed myself and reasoned that the poor visibility could be a blessing in disguise – I couldn’t see out, but no one else would be able to see me driving the car.  I cranked the engine and returned to work.  The Avenger featured 4 cylinders and 4 forward gears, and it moaned like a dying animal when anything beyond half throttle was applied.  The transmission proved extraordinarily dimwitted, pausing for several seconds before swapping cogs, even when cruising on surface streets.  The steering wheel featured small buttons on its reverse, and I hoped that they would allow me to control gear selection, just like Doug’s Cadillac CTS-V station wagon, which was also made by a bailed-out domestic automaker.  Instead, I later found out via the world-wide web that the buttons controlled the car’s stereo, although on my car they were already broken (or never functional), as pressing them elicited no response from the Dodge.

Speaking of the steering wheel… steering feel is often discussed by car reviewers and enthusiasts, but its something that’s quite difficult to describe adequately using only words.  It depends on the complex interplay among weighting, linearity of response, and the transmission of the tires’ relationship with the tarmac back to the helm; perhaps it’s a bit like pornography, you know it when you feel it.  You also know when you don’t feel it, and the Avenger provided no feel whatsoever.  It reminded me of playing Cruis’n USA at the local arcade as a child.

Despite the record levels of rain that have plagued Atlanta this year, it still gets hot in the Dirty South during the Dog Days of summer.  I cranked up the air conditioning on my maiden voyage, but quickly noticed that it mostly provided a huffing and puffing of sound and fury, rather than serving its intended purpose, so I just rolled down the windows instead.  The Avenger’s window switches are quite interesting.  Whereas my 20th century Porsche’s switches return a precise click upon reaching their detents, the Dodge’s switches appear to be made from a Styrofoam packing peanut that was spray-painted black.  They are so flimsy that I could easily detach them from their housings using only two fingers.

 Avenger Window Switch

The passenger side window features an ironic sticker.

 Avenger Sticker

There’s no pride to be taken in any aspect of the Dodge Avenger.  There’s no pride to be taken by the taxpayers who have facilitated the continued existence of this stinker of a car.  There’s none of that pride that Walter P. Chrysler had when he put his name on his cars.  All that’s left is shame.

David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics, and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post-graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta.  A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.

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Dad, Is This How Vipers Really Go Together? Wed, 05 Jun 2013 12:30:11 +0000 IMG_0011

The longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s about people, not machines. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that cars are way cool, something only human beings could create, but it’s those human beings involved in that creation that make stories worth telling and hearing. When my son, my only son, Moshe, whom I love, was a boy we put model cars together. It was a father-son thing but I also wanted him to learn a little patience. We took care putting them together, but we rarely painted them. That too took much patience. Sometime when he was in fifth grade, so this would have been 1994 or 1995 when Mo was ten years old, we were building a model of a Dodge Viper. It was an AMT/Ertl kit, in 1:25 scale.


I let him pick out the models that we built and by the time he picked out a Viper, we’d already assembled a Lamborghini Diablo and a Ferrari Testarossa and by then we might have made his Pinewood Derby racer too (the fastest finisher that wasn’t over the legal weight limit). While building the Viper, though, he asked me a question about the Viper kit that he hadn’t asked about the other models. “Abba,” he said, “is this how Vipers really go together?”  I told him that it was a pretty detailed and accurate model, but no, they didn’t go together quite the same way as the model kit. Then I said to him, “Well, the factory where they build them is on Conner in Detroit. The president of Chrysler is a man named Robert Lutz. I’ll get you the address of the Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park (this was before the move to Auburn Hills), and you can write him a letter about visiting the factory with your classmates from school.”


I got the address and Mo wrote the letter. He composed it himself (with some guidance) and wrote it in his best penmanship, which by the time he was 10 had devolved to a bit of a scrawl. He even addressed the envelope himself. I didn’t really think anything would come of it, but Mo’s grandfather always told me that it never hurts to ask, the worst that can happen is that someone will say no. A couple of weeks later Moshe’s mom called me at work and told me that someone from Chrysler was trying to get in touch with me. We had a ’91 Dodge AWD minivan that we liked a lot but it also went through four of those 604 transmissions while we owned it, mostly at Chrysler’s expense. I figured it was something to do with our Caravan so I called the number.


The gentleman identified himself as the general manager of manufacturing for the Chrysler corporation. I’ve lived around Detroit my whole life, I was working for DuPont Automotive at the time, one of the few companies that was a Tier One, Tier Two and Tier Three supplier to the auto industry, and I knew right away that people at that high level don’t call up folks about their bad transmissions.


“I have a letter here that your son apparently wrote. I want you to know that it’s gotten more attention here than a letter from President Clinton would have. Honestly, if an adult had written it, it would have gone into the circular file, but Mr. Lutz liked how your son wrote it himself and we’d like to invite his class for a field trip to see how Vipers are really built at the Conner Ave plant.”


I told him that the school had two fifth grades, so we’d be talking about fifty 10 year olds, not twenty five, plus adult chaperones. He said that would be no problem. This was one school field trip for which finding enough adult supervision was also going to be no problem at all. He laid out the proposed itinerary, a VIP tour of the plant and assembly line, a question and answer period with some snacks, and maybe some gifts. I explained that it was a Jewish parochial school and that Detroit favorites Faygo pop and Better Made potato chips were kosher.


The tour went off without a hitch. The factory workers, handpicked from Chrysler’s employees at large, were thrilled to see kids come through the plant. The last thing they do before hanging the body panels is test the rolling chassis on a dynamometer. Large concrete pillars rose up, hydraulically, from the floor to keep the car in place should it manage to get off of the rollers. The then took it up through all the gears to about 160 MPH.  During the question and answer period, one boy asked if it was the same car as on Knight Rider. Our hosts laughed and said no. Perhaps the lad was a bit confused because the Viper indeed starred in a television show, called, wait for it, “Viper”. Chrysler Design even designed the Viper Defender “star” car for the show. Perhaps the fact that product placement was more important than things like plot and dialog is why it only lasted a year on NBC. On the other hand, the show had its fans because it lived on in syndication until 1999, with a number of revisions. The Viper Defender  from the series comes up for sale from time to time. It recently failed to sell eBay with a high bid of $174,100, reserve not reached.


Back at the factory, after the boys and girls had their soft drinks, they handed out the swag, red t-shirts with black Viper logos and then it was time to go home. At the time I believe all production Vipers were either red, black or yellow. On our way out of the factory I noticed one in a dark blue green. In the almost 20 years since then I’ve only seen one other Viper in that color. Mo and I still have our shirts, his is a bit faded and has a tear or two, mine is almost brand new. Considering that he used the finished Viper model as a toy, it’s still in decent condition. One front wheel is missing and one of the rears needs to be cemented back on. The plastic has yellowed a bit – Mo used to keep it on a window ledge so it’s been exposed to a bit of UV. When Mo’s son Aryeh is old enough to play with it without breaking it, it’ll be his. The Viper is back in production and if Chrysler manages to hang around for till Aryeh is ten, maybe he and Mo will build their own model of a 2022 Viper.


The kids learned a lot that day and not just how cars go together and are an important part of the industry and culture of their hometown. The Conner Ave plant is on Detroit’s east side. These were all suburban kids who had most likely never been driven on surface streets in the less genteel parts of the city. Detroit’s blight is infamous today and that decay didn’t start yesterday. From some of the kids’ comments about some of the houses that they saw, I think they learned that they were rather fortunate, and not just because they were getting a field trip to the Viper factory.

Fast forward a decade or so to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Mo had been helping me work the press previews of the big Detroit show for a few years by then. I was up on the stage after a GM press conference, asking Bob Lutz some questions and when I noticed my son walking towards us, I said to him, “You may not remember this, but when you were still at Chrysler in Highland Park, a ten year old boy wrote you a letter about the Viper factory and you arranged a field trip for his class. That boy is now an engineering student,” and I motioned to my son to join us.

Lutz asked him what kind of engineering, and he said he hadn’t yet decided, maybe mechanical. Lutz then urged him to consider chemical engineering because of the push for electric cars. Chemistry is at the heart of every electric cell. I thought to myself, “cool, a captain of industry is giving my son career advice.” This was in 2007 or 2008, when Lutz was championing the Chevy Volt project and when many others in the auto industry also thought that EVs were the next big thing. Lutz is the consummate marketer, always trying to pitch something, if not a car or some automotive business, then himself and his ideas. The skeptic in me says that he was using the opportunity to promote one of his pet projects, the Volt. The dad in me says that it was a genuine moment.


Next to the times that I get paid for it, the best thing about writing about cars is the access that I get to people, places and some exceptionally cool cars. For instance, at the media luncheon for the just completed Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, I had the opportunity to chat with recent Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, and ask Roger Penske if he’d take the job if GM’s board offered him the CEO position. We tend to define public figures like Kanaan, Penske and Lutz by their singular accomplishments in the public eye but the simple truism is that famous people are people too. At the Grand Prix luncheon Tony’s racing colleagues and competitors seemed genuinely happy for his win and you’ll excuse me if I think that Lutz was actually giving my son career advice.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Review: 2013 Dodge Avenger SE Fri, 26 Apr 2013 13:00:43 +0000

How much car can you get in this country for sixteen thousand bucks? Well, you could try a base-model Elantra, or with a bit of sharp dealing you might come up with a Sentra. TrueCar thinks you might be able to sneak into a Cruze LS. Certainly you could get a Ford Focus, which might be the best choice if you can shift for yourself or you trust the PowerShift double-clutcher.

How about something a little bigger and more powerful? Would you be interested? What if I told you it wasn’t all that bad on a racetrack? What if you’re a subprime buyer?

With the current group of incentives, it’s possible to get a 2013 Avenger SE like the nearly-new one I rented last week for about sixteen grand. The bad news is that you don’t really want an Avenger SE. You want an Avenger SE V6 For an extra $2100 or so, you get alloy wheels and a six-speed transmission with AutoStick manumatic control to replace the prehistoric four-cogger. Oh, and there’s the minor matter of a Pentastar V-6, which enables the Avenger to crank out fourteen-second quarter-mile times at will.

Unfortunately for me, nobody wanted to rent me an Avenger SE V6 for a little trip I had to take to GingerMan Raceway last week. (If you’re curious as to what I was driving at GingerMan, you’ll need to click here.) In fact, they didn’t even want to rent me an Avenger SE. They wanted to rent me a Corolla. I had to beg and plead and cajole to get the Avenger. I did this because the Corolla is about my least favorite rental car ever. Compared to the Corolla, the Avenger is a Viper.

Well, maybe it’s not a Viper. But neither is it a Fleetwood Talisman. In fact, the Avenger is closer size-wise to the Corolla than it is to the Camry. Mitsubishi and Chrysler failed to correctly predict the Cretaceous explosion in mid-sized cars — or maybe they did but figured the LX cars would cover the high end. Either way, the Avenger is positively tidy in the modern context. Visibility’s decent all the way around despite the face-down-ass-up proportions stolen from the last-generation Charger. There’s a noticeable amount of extra space both front and rear compared to the compact cars but it’s not even Altima-sized inside.

I’m repeatedly told all over the Internet that the Avenger and 200 have a horrifyingly cheap interior despite the recent round of revisions. I’m not sure about that. The plastic’s about the same as what you get everywhere else (with the possible exception of the Cruze) and there’s a fair amount of actual metal trim which has to be a unique selling point at this price. If you can compare this to, say, a Mazda3 Grand Touring, which costs three grand more before incentives, and say there’s any real difference in materials quality or assembly, I congratulate you on your ability to perceive a difference that is nonexistent to me.

The seats, on the other hand, immediately impressed me as being positively medieval and after fifty miles I had a sore back. I’m used to knocking out five or six hundred miles before back pain sets in so this was an unpleasant surprise. I never got comfortable in the Avenger’s seats and no amount of adjustment helped. I recall quite enjoying the seats in the Chrysler 200, so make sure you try both cars if you’re thinking about buying either. There’s a difference there.

Luckily for me this was one of my shorter rental trips, with barely 315 miles between my front door and the registration tower at GingerMan. With temperatures swinging between 22 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, every moment I spent driving an open-cockpit car was pretty miserable. I wanted to take a few friends out on the racetrack and thought about taking the Avenger. Naturally, my rental contract prevented doing something irresponsible like that. But as I was looking through the glovebox to find my rental contract just to make sure it prevented something irresponsible like that, a handwritten note fell out. This is what it said,

Dear Avenger Driver,

To save you the trouble of violating your rental contract to take this Avenger around the track, I’ve done it for you and taken some basic notes on how the car behaved.

First, the power. It’s not bad, really, and with just 3400 pounds to move it’s no trouble to hit 90mph on Gingerman’s back straight. What a shame there’s no AutoStick in this model! But the transmission won’t catch you out. Just hit the throttle a half-second before you know you’ll need it, because the four-speed will shift up a gear under hard braking and kind of loaf in the mid-corner.

Handling is remarkably neutral and the rear end can be manipulated with light trail braking. With the traction control turned off, the nose doesn’t push too badly. With better brake pads it would be suited to 20-lap runs. As it is, the pedal gets a little hard after five laps or so.

Steering isn’t terribly responsive but it’s honest and you’d be able to place the Avenger within a few inches of your desired apex. Body roll’s pretty good! A lot of so-called sporty German sedans roll more than the Avenger does.

The Avenger’s easily capable of catching mid-pack LeMons racers. They don’t like it when you do this. In fact, you’ll be able to pull the 944 that’s out there in the straights and hang with it in the corners. It’s far from an utterly hopeless track car. With decent tires it might surprise you. I bet the V-6 AutoStick is a corker. Thanks for reading.

Well, that was convenient. My drive home reaffirmed my hatred of the seats but after a long day in an unmuffled open car I appreciated the relatively quiet Avenger interior. It would be nice to have a little more clarity and power in the stereo; really, I think Ford still has the edge, no pun intended, in base sound systems. Not that you could even touch a Fusion for this kind of cash.

I wouldn’t buy this Avenger for the simple reason that a V-6 Chrysler 200 is far, far more satisfying and it doesn’t cost much more. As a way to carry four full-sized adults with reasonable pace and economy for a rock-bottom price, however, this humble Dodge is tough to beat. The buyers for the 2013 Avenger may be subprime, but the Avenger itself is pretty okay.

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Cop Drives Cop Car: 2012 Dodge Charger Pursuit Sat, 06 Apr 2013 18:54:55 +0000

My takedown of the Ford Police Interceptor Sedan Taurus generated almost two hundred comments. Having recognized what the people want, I immediately began scheming for rides in the Ford’s two major competitors in order to give it to them. An E-mail, followed by a visit to the municipal sales manager at Lexington’s Freedom Dodge- Chrysler- Jeep- Fiat and I was provided with a 2012 Dodge Charger Pursuit for a weekend evaluation.

Mr. Jim Sawrie is the cop car guy at Freedom Dodge and generally keeps a demonstration unit on hand equipped with a center console, protective barrier, and a lightbar. He stripes his demo cars up in various ways, even aping the decal package Lexington PD uses a couple of years ago. He gave his current model a pretty basic decal job, plain enough that you wouldn’t think it would ever be mistaken for a real police car. So, of course, when I stopped to take photos of the car near downtown Lexington I was approached by a guy who wanted to know which Federal alphabet agency was represented by the acronym DEMO.

“DEMO? Why, that’s the Department of Energy Military Operations Command. The “C” is silent and for your safety and in the interest of National Security, you need to move along…”

I can’t really blame the citizen for his concern. Even in refrigerator white and with minimal markings the Charger screams “Official Government Business” as loudly as the Crown Vic ever did. “Beautiful and intimidating,” was how the supervisor in charge of the fleet of Chargers being run by a neighboring agency described it when I called to get his views on the Dodge’s long term durability.  Compared to the plain- Jane styling of the Caprice and the bulbous, dog-with-it’s-butt-in-the-air look of the Taurus, the Charger’s long, low, and wide profile definitely has the most character.

That exterior design helps make the Charger’s interior a much more comfortable place to get to the business of police work, especially compared to the Taurus. I donned my gunbelt and spent much of a Saturday morning driving around with it on. The center console Mr. Sawrie had chosen to install in the car was fairly wide, starting at 11 inches wide at the base of the center stack and tapering to 9 inches wide by the time it reached the area of the seatbelt buckles. Even with a full gunbelt, I had plenty of room without the console pressing in on me, although a slightly narrower console wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Note to equipment vendors: Just because you have the space doesn’t mean you have to fill it.

The extra space makes entering and exiting the front seats of the car very easy, particularly when doing so quickly. Both the front and rear doors open 90 degrees, further than the doors on a Crown Vic and much further than on the Taurus with it’s nylon retntion strap that retards the opening of the front doors. Getting into the backseat is very tight, particularly for a prisoner with his hands secured behind his back. The Dodge’s low roofline is the main culprit here, particularly the way it slopes sharply back towards the “C” pillar. The routine admonition given to prisoners by cops all over the world to “Watch your head and knees” becomes more meaningful when herding perps in and out of a Charger instead of a Crown Vic. Seriously, jailbirds. Watch your heads.

The interior was quieter than I expected, even at highway speeds when air turbulence around the exterior spotlight mounted on the “A” pillar and around the lightbar tends to create a lot of wind noise in marked police vehicles. I was also surprised by the visibility. I had expected that the Charger’s low slung roofline would create a driving experience similar to that of the Taurus. That wasn’t the case at all. While blindspots still existed, particularly with a protective barrier installed, I never felt closed in and blind the way I did when driving the Taurus. Parallel parking, even without the benefit of a rearview camera, was fine.

Controls for the HVAC and stereo were handled primarily through the Uconnect touchscreen, although there were redundant controls for both mounted below. A USB outlet and auxillary port are standard. I found Uconnect to be easy to learn without resorting to the owner’s manual. The car was equipped with optional Bluetooth and paired quickly and easily with my Samsung phone. An option like Bluetooth is probably not taken up by most departments, but perhaps more of them should consider it. Like it or not, fair or unfair, the simple reality is that the cellphone is a vital tool to most patrol officers and one that will be used while driving. The nature of the job will simply require a certain number of distractions to the driver and any technology that can reduce those should be embraced, even if it costs a bit more per unit.

The car I drove was equipped with the 5.7 L Hemi V-8 and included cylinder deactivation. If anything the cylinder deactivation programming is over- aggressive. It seemed as if everytime I glanced at the instrument cluster, the computer was advising me that I was in ECO mode. The transition between four and eight-cylinder operation was relatively seemless and definitely makes a huge difference in fuel consumption. I averaged 15 mpg over 168 miles of driving. (I simulated the time spent idling in a normal patrol shift by leaving the engine running every time I got out to take photos of the car.)

That’s actually pretty good for a police car, particularly one with the 370 horsepower of the Charger’s Hemi V-8. Put your foot in it and all attempts at ECO management vanish with a roar. Testing by the Michigan State Police recorded a top speed of 152 mph. I believe it. In fact, the Hemi might be too much. Had I been given a Charger instead of a Crown Vic when I first hit the streets at age 22, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here to write these articles today.  For most departments the 292 horsepower 3.7 L V-6 and a top speed of 141 mph would probably be a better choice.

Power is routed to the rear wheels through a 5 speed automatic, which includes Chrysler’s Autostick system. A column mounted gear selection lever is a welcome touch although it makes using Autostick almost impossible. The selection buttons for up and down shifting are mounted on the shift lever, which puts them in an awkward position for use during performance driving. I tried Autostick out on a twisty road near my home and found it nearly impossible to use while maintaining control of the wheel.

Control is definitely something you want to maintain. Overall the Charger is incredibly stable, but the Hemi will sneak up on you. The Crown Vic doesn’t particularly like to be hustled through the curves and responds with a certain amount of float and instability. Consequently you’re more aware of your speed as you approach corners in a Crown Vic.

The Charger hugs the road much better and builds your confidence until you glance down at the digital speedo readout as you enter a curve and HOLY CRAP THAT’S TOO FAST! I can report that the brakes  and the traction control work very well and kept me from having to have any awkward conversations with Bertel and Mr. Sawrie.

At least the bill wouldn’t have been too high. Fleet price for a Hemi powered Charger Pursuit starts at $23,585. For reference the most comparable civilian trim level, the Charger R/T, has a base MSRP of $29,995. For the budget minded municipal fleet manager, the V-6 powered Charger Pursuit starts at $21,949, undercutting the price of the cheapest Ford by $790.

Cheap is not usually considered a compliment and Dodge has a reputation, probably undeserved, for poor quality. My own agency’s experiences with Pentastar products has been negative. We were all issued Fords when I started in 1997, but the last of the old Diplomats had only been retired a couple of years before. No one I know who had the misfortune to have been issued one has anything good to say about them. When the previous generation of police Chargers hit the streets in 2006, we actually bought a few of them for use by detectives. Three out of eight developed transmission problems in the first two years of service.

Kentucky Law Enforcement Memorial

With that track record in mind, I called a nearby agecy that has switched exclusively to Chargers and asked how their cars have held up. The sergeant in charge of the fleet, Mister “beautiful and intimidating,” reported that their experience has generally been positive. One unit had gone through three motor mounts in six months, but my source felt that was more an issue of operator error than a failure of the car. Front ends tend to need replacing around 75,000 miles. Unlike Lexington’s experience he’d only had to have two transmissions rebuilt and both of those were in cars that had done over 120,000 miles. He only had one of the new generation of Charger in his fleet, but it seemed to be holding up as well or better than the older cars.

His major complaint was that the Chargers cost more to repair than the Crown Vics did. That’s probably going to be a complaint with all of the new generation cop cars, however. The second-best thing about the Crown Vic, after it’s size, was it’s simplicity. In a fleet maintenance situation simplicity usually equates to “cheap to fix.”  All of the new models are significantly more complex.

Still, Dodge’s quality problems seemed to have mostly been resolved, at least in my source’s experience. The testimony of one fleet manager may not be evidence of a turnaround in and of itself, but it appears that the Charger has made significant inroads into the police market in Central Kentucky.

The introduction of the first generation of Charger was the first real challenge to Ford’s domination of the police market in a decade. The second generation appears to be better than the first, while still undercutting the price of the Taurus. I concluded my review of the Taurus by noting that the competition was nipping at Ford’s heels. I was wrong. With the new Charger, Dodge has passed them.

Freedom Dodge of Lexington, KY provided the vehicle and one tank of gas for this review.

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Review: 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 (Video) Tue, 12 Feb 2013 16:28:20 +0000

Last time we had a Challenger SRT8 to review, well, we didn’t review it so much as we burnt the rubber off the rear wheels. Sorry Dodge, we couldn’t help it. After a few Facebook requests, we put Dodge’s 470HP retro coupé back on our wish list and someone at Chrysler decided to trust me with their retro cruiser. If you couldn’t afford that Challenger in the poster on your wall when you were in college, click through the jump to find out what Dodge’s 470HP two-door is like to live with for a week before you throw down 45-large on this retro bruiser.

Click here to view the embedded video.


Designing “retro” sounds easy to me. You pull out a picture of ye olde Challenger from 1972, put it next to a picture of your largest sedan and make the shapes fit. Next you round things off a bit, tack on some 5MPH inspired bumpers, spray it with metallic paint and hey-presto, you have a modern Challenger. You also have one enormous coupé. Sure, Chrysler says the “LC” platform Challenger is shorter than their “LX” platform sedans, but you’d be hard pressed to say where inches were excised. The result is a heavyweight muscle car with a wheelbase 9-inches longer and a body that’s 10-inches longer than Ford’s pony car.

Parked next to the Camaro and Mustang, the Challenger dwarfs them both like the Jolly Green Giant next to Little Pea. This means comparisons between the three muscle cars is difficult. It doesn’t make rational sense either because I have a hard time believing anyone will seriously cross-shop a Mustang Boss 302 and a Challenger SRT8. Why? They’re just not the same kind of car. While the Challenger’s portly dimensions are likely to turn off some shoppers, I was strangely intrigued. But then again, I have a soft spot for big Chryslers having owned both a Chrysler LHS and an Eagle Vision. The size (visual and on paper) of this beast brought another vehicle to mind: the BMW 650i. Blasphemy? Perhaps, but they’re about the same size.



2008 is an important year to keep in mind as it was post-Mercedes but pre-Fiat. It was in that Cerberus window that the Challenger was born. As a result, the cabin’s plastics aren’t as awful as the first generation 300/Charger, but neither are they as good as the 2011 revisions of the same. Still, the Camaro and Mustang don’t exactly come covered in the best plastics that money can buy, so while the Challenger feels a little rubbery and low-rent, the American competition isn’t much better.

On the bright side, the SRT8 392 version of the Challenger is brought up-market by standard leather upholstery with Alcantara seat and door inserts, high levels of standard equipment and one of the best OEM steering wheels available. The new SRT wheel is chunky, deeply cushioned, covered in soft leather, heated, thoroughly addictive and enough for me to forgive the rubbery dash and oddly positioned door handles. Of course, only a few days before the “publish” button was pressed on this review, Chrysler announced a “core” version of the SRT8 Challenger that drops the price by removing the leather and other options. Full details on the low-cost model have yet to be released at this time.

Front seat comfort proved excellent for long trips, although the seat design suffers from the same problem as the Chrysler 200: the bottom cushion is shaped like a “dome” making it feel as if you’re sitting “on” the seat and not “in” the seat. To hold you “on” the leather clad gumdrop during the inevitable shenanigans 470HP will invite, Dodge severely bolstered the seats. Thankfully (and unlike the Mercedes C63), Chrysler was kind enough to make the seats wide enough for normal Americans. Back in 2011 when the 392 debuted, an ivory/blue leather interior was offered, but for 2013 your only options are black on black or the red and black interior our tester wore.

Thanks to the proportions and long wheelbase, rear accommodations are large, comfortable and “normally” shaped. What do I mean by that? Sit in a Mustang, Camaro, or most other two-door four-seat coupés and you’ll notice the seat backs are set at an odd angle to “improve” the headroom and legroom numbers in an otherwise small rear compartment. Despite having (on paper) only three inches more legroom and two more inches of headroom than the Mustang or Camaro, the rear cabin feels cavernous. It’s even possible to squeeze a third adult in the rear of the Challenger, something you can’t do in the four-seat Camaro or Mustang. Chrysler also designed the optional $995 sunroof so that it doesn’t cut into rear headroom.

When it comes to cargo schlepping, Dodge went retro with a trunk lid rather than a modern trunk “hatch.” The result is a high lift-over making it difficult to lift heavy suitcases into the trunk without scuffing the rear bumper. On the bright side, the cargo hold is a cavernous 16.2 cubic feet, a whopping 44% larger than the Camaro. While the Challenger lost points in our exclusive Trunk Comfort Index (see the video segment) for having cheap trunk fabric, it gained more for having trunk hinges that don’t cut down on usable trunk space.


Dodge’s snazzy new engine didn’t bring Chrysler’s new uConnect system with it leaving shoppers to choose from three retro radio and navigation options. We start off with a base 6-speaker Dodge-branded audio system and a 6.5-inch touchscreen head unit with a standard CD/DVD player, Bluetooth phone interface aND USB/iPod interface port. $595 buys you the 6.5-inch touchscreen Garmin-based navigation system and Sirius Satellite radio. The system is as easy to use as after-market Garmin systems but doesn’t have the ability to enter a destination address via voice commands. Chrysler’s “730N’” navigation head unit adds the ability to voice command your navigation wishes but the cost is dear at $2,190 because it must be ordered with the optional Harmon Kardon amplifier/speaker package.

The $1,995 Harmon system used their Logic 7 surround processing engine (as seen in the BMW 6-Series), 18 speakers and Green Edge amplifiers. The system can be added to any of the infotainment options on the Challenger. (No, the irony of power efficient “green” amplifiers on a vehicle that wears a gas guzzler tax was not lost on me.) In terms of sound quality, the base system is barely average while the Logic 7 system wouldn’t be out of place on a $60,000 luxury vehicle. Before you check any of the option boxes however, you should know this generation of uConnect system doesn’t exactly love USB/iDevices and browsing your tunes is a drag. Compared to Chevy’s MyLink system or the older SYNC system in the Mustang, the Challenger’s interface is ancient and a distant third place.


HEMI. 392. Almost, but not quite. Chrysler (like everyone else) designs their engines with metric measurements and the chief engineer at Dodge claims the displacement translation to English units was done after the fact. That’s why this 392 is really a 391, but that’s close enough for the marketing department. If we’re splitting hairs, the heads are only partially hemispherical. Does any of that matter? Nope.

Any complaints about the rubbery interior evaporate you look at the engine’s numbers. Chrysler didn’t just bore out the 6.1 to get more displacement. Instead, the 6.4L shares its tech with Chrysler’s revised 5.7L V8. Unlike the competition, you won’t find any overhead cams, no special direct injection sauce and only 2 valves per cylinder. Despite that, the 6.4L engine is far from retro. This pushrod V8 gets variable valve timing thanks to a trick camshaft, a variable length intake manifold and cylinder deactivation (with the automatic transmission only). The changes vs the old 6.1L SRT engine are transformative. Power is up 45HP to 470 while torque takes a 90ft-lb leap to a horsepower matching 470. More important is the significant improvement in torque from 2,000-4,000RPM. The old 6.1L engine had some odd power peaks and felt out of breath at the top end. The 6.4 on the other hand feels eager at almost any RPM.

Dodge made the Tremec TR6060 6-speed manual transmission (borrowed from the old Viper) standard, a surprising twist in a portfolio that’s automatic heavy. The manual’s shifts are short, the engagement is near perfection and the clutch pedal is linear with predictable engagement and low effort. Should you be a left-leg amputee, a Mercedes 5-speed automatic is available. Don’t do it. While the automatic transmission enables Chrysler’s Multi Displacement System to function, the 6-speed manual is better in every way including fuel economy. Speaking of economy, the Challenger wears a $1,000 gas guzzler tax because of its 14/23/17 MPG numbers (City/Highway/Combined). However, thanks to an extremely tall 6th gear we averaged 19.5MPG over our week with the Challenger and averaged an impressive 25MPG on a long road trip. Real world economy numbers with the automatic appeared to be 1-2MPG lower based on a short drive with a dealer provided vehicle.


At 4,200lbs and 198-inches long, the Challenger is a GT car at heart, much like BMW’s 4,368lb 193-inch 6-Series. That means (if you haven’t figured it out by now) that being behind the wheel of the Challenger SRT8 is more like being behind the wheel of BMW’s two-door luxury barge than Ford’s pony car. Is that a bad thing? Not in my book. Sure the Challenger cuts a circle 5-feet bigger than the Mustang, doesn’t handle as well on the track, and delivers straight line performance numbers similar to the less expensive Mustang GT, but it’s the car I’d rather drive. Why? The Challenger delivers the most polished ride of the high-horsepower American trio thanks to a standard computer controlled suspension system. If that makes me sound like an old man, let me remind you that Mustang/Camaro vs Challenger is always going to be an apples vs oranges comparison.

No performance car review would be complete without performance numbers. Before we dig in, it is important to keep in mind that the test car had a manual transmission. This means the driver is the single biggest factor involved. The 2013 SRT8 has “launch control” but it proved too cumbersome so it wasn’t used in our tests. You should also know that a single shift (1-2) is required to get the Challenger to 60 while four are required for the 1/4 mile (1-4). Traction is also a problem with any 2WD vehicle and this much power; the more control you have over your rubber burning, the faster your 0-30 times will be.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in. Our first test resulted in an 8.1 second run to 60… Because we only used third gear. That should tell you the kind of torque this engine produces. When not joking around, my best time was a 4.4 second run to 60 with a respectable 2.0 second 0-30 time. You can see from these two numbers that traction is the issue. I estimate with wider, grippier tires in the rear, a 1.8 second 0-30 and 4.2 second 0-60 would be achievable. If you opt for the automatic, 60MPH will take a few ticks longer, but because the Mercedes slushbox only needs gears 1-3 for the 1/4 mile (1-4 in the manual) Chrysler says the time will be about 4/10ths faster.

With a starting price of $44,775, the Challenger is about $2,000 more than a Mustang Boss 302 and around $5,000 more dear than a Camaro SS when comparably equipped. Of course for the price you get dynamic suspension, a larger trunk, bigger back seat and one of the best exhaust notes in the industry. In an attempt to even the playing field, Dodge just announced a new “core” model which will start just under $40-large. When pitted against the competition, the Challenger may march to a different drummer, but this is a beat I dig. The SRT8 392 is ginormous, impractical and eats like a teenager with the munchies. It’s also comfortable, powerful and put more smiles per mile on my face than I had expected. It’s hard to go wrong with those results. Just don’t race for pinks, ok?

Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30:2.0 Seconds

0-60: 4.4 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 12.8 Seconds @ 115 MPH

Observed Average Fuel Economy: 19.5MPG over 829 miles

2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front Wheel, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, 392 Logo, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Rear Spoiler, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Rear 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Trunk, Cargo Area, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Trunk, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Door Panel, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Steering wheel, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, 6-Speed Shifter, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, 6-Speed Shifter, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Infotainment, uConnect, Picture Courtesty of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Passenger Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Driver's Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Dashboard Driver's side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Rear Seats, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Center Console, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Seats, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Engine, 6.4L HEMI V8, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Engine, 6.4L HEMI V8, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Engine, 6.4L 470HP HEMI V8, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Front Grille, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Exterior, Fuel Door, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Gauges, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Gauges, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Interior, Gauges, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Review: 2013 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye Fri, 17 Aug 2012 14:03:46 +0000

You’ve got to give Sergio Marchionne credit for at least one thing: he’s a masterful negotiator. The Italian-Canadian FIAT exec bluffed General Motors into paying $2 billion for the right to NOT buy the Italian company. He went on to acquire a controlling stake in Chrysler for no cash. Instead, FIAT agreed to provide the auto maker, hollowed out by Daimler and Cerberus, with powertrains and platforms. Three years after that deal, Chrysler has introduced the first car developed for North America around FIAT innards, the compact Dodge Dart sedan (pre-production review).

Take an Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback, stretch it and widen it, add a trunk, and you somehow end up with a car that, aesthetically, would have fit right into Dodge’s late 1990s lineup. The distended front clip and clean, rounded surfaces recall those of the Avenger coupe, with a hint of second-generation Neon. But the height of the car is pure 2012, so there’s a lot more metal over the wheel openings than you’d have found on a circa-2000 Dodge. Perhaps the Dart will look right in R/T form (coming this fall). The SXT Rallye’s wheels, though 17 inches in diameter, appear undersized. This said, those who find the styling of Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra overwrought might prefer the Dart’s simpler forms.

Parts of the Dart’s interior appear similarly dated, with the center stack and console marked by the organic shapes and non-flush faceplates of a 1990s Pontiac. Other parts, most notably the reconfigurable LCD instruments in the upper trim levels and the large 8.4” “Uconnect” touchscreen, could not be more current. Then there’s the grating over the speakers, which looks like it belongs in a different car on a different continent, if not a different planet. This hodgepodge cleans up fairly well in the upper trim levels, where the hood over the instruments is upholstered, the upper IP surround is lit in red, and additional splashes of color are available on the door panels and seats. The exterior is available in a dozen colors, while the interior is offered in 14 trim combinations, both numbers well above the current segment norm. For some reason, though, all of the cars I saw on dealer lots were drably outfitted in black or, worse, gray. Materials quality is fairly good, with cushy armrests among the many soft-touch surfaces, but isn’t quite up to that inside a Ford Focus or a Chevy Cruze.

Drop down into the driver’s seat and the first thing you notice is that you don’t drop down very far. Compared to the Focus or Cruze, you sit high in the Dart—another aspect of the car that’s more 2000 than today. Even the base Dart has manual height adjusters on both front seats, but only the shortest people will likely employ them. This would be good for visibility—if the instrument panel were not very deep and the A-pillars were not somewhat thick and steeply raked. I drove the Dart on a hot day, and the amount of heat radiating off the top of the IP strained the A/C. The view to the rear could be Exhibit A in the case for mandatory rearview cameras. A good one with lines that trace the car’s path is packaged with the 8.4-inch screen.

The Dart’s front seats, though not entirely bereft of lateral support, feel slightly overstuffed rather than form-fitting. The German flavor of recent Ford and GM compacts is absent here, perhaps because FIAT, though European, isn’t German. Like those in the Focus and Cruze, and unlike that in the Americanized VW Jetta, the Dart’s rear seat offers barely enough headroom and legroom for six-foot-tall passengers and its cushion feels undersized.

The new Dodge Dart’s base engine is a 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine good for 160 horsepower. Spend another $1,300 and you get a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine good for…160 horsepower. But the boosted engine is considerably torquier at middling engine speeds, 184 pound-feet at 2,500 rpm vs. 148 at 4,600. Even the 2.4 that will power the R/T has less twist (171 pound-feet @4,800) if more power (184). This is what the spec sheets say, anyway. On the road, the 1.4T feels soft south of 3,000 rpm. The car’s portly, midsize sedan-like 3,200-pound curb weight doesn’t help, but a variant of the same engine also must be spun north of 3k in the 2,500-pound FIAT 500 Abarth for any semblance of alacrity. This engine will be available with a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual, but at intro was offered only with the three-pedal variety. The third pedal leaves much to be desired, grabbing with scant feedback only near the very top of its long, spongy travel. The shifter is similarly long of throw and somewhat clunky, but is passable aside from a metal knob that heats to finger-scorching temps in the sunlight.

The Dodge Dart earned FIAT five percent of Chrysler by managing over 40 miles-per-gallon in the EPA’s tests—before the adjustments to make the numbers on the window sticker realistic. The window sticker numbers aren’t terribly impressive with the 2.0: 25/36 with the manual transmission and 24/34 with the automatic. The 1.4T with the manual does better, 27/39, but still falls short of the segment’s best.

The Dart’s chassis behaves well, with decent balance, moderate lean, and minimal float or slop. Still, damping isn’t as tight as in a Ford Focus or even a Buick Verano. Between this, a feedback-free electric-assist steering system, and the ever-evident aforementioned heft the Dart lacks the character of a precision instrument. A connection between car and driver proves elusive. Those seeking isolation will be more satisfied. The Dart rides softer than either the Focus or the Elantra. If and when the HVAC blower isn’t working like mad, interior noise levels are very low. Credit the triple door seals that Lexus helped make popular in the 1990s but that bean counters have often cut in the years since.

Dodge has much ground to regain in the compact sedan segment, so you might expect the Dart to be priced aggressively. But is it? Much like Hyundai, the Dart doesn’t so much have a low price as a slightly lower price paired with more stuff. The tested middle-of-the-range SXT Rallye with 1.4T and nav listed for $22,965. About $800 of this can be chalked up to the Rallye’s sportier exterior and interior trim, probably not the best value.

Like with the Ford Focus, stepping up to a higher trim level adds more to the feature list than it does to the price. When loaded up with high-watt Alpine audio, nav, heated leather, and a sunroof, the Dodge Dart Limited 2.0 lists for $24,865. A similarly-equipped 2013 Ford Focus SE, among the most expensive cars in the segment, lists for $25,505. Adjust for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, though, and the Dodge Dart ends up with a roughly $1,000 advantage thanks to features you can’t get on the Focus. These include four additional airbags, a heated steering wheel, rearview camera, rear cross-traffic detection, auto-dimming headlights, reconfigurable LCD instrumentation, and power four-way lumbar. Add the 1.4T engine to the Dodge, though, and they’re back near parity.

A 2013 Hyundia Elantra Limited with nav lists for $24,070, so less than the Dodge but not dramatically so. Adjust for feature differences and the Dodge ends up with a $500 advantage—until you add the 1.4T engine to get EPA numbers approaching the Hyundai’s.

Overall, the new Dodge Dart is a good car, even among the best in the segment, but some others are better looking, better constructed, roomier, more fun to drive, or more economical. An almost all-new car based on FIAT bits, its reliability very much remains to be seen. Its price is in the same ballpark as the Ford’s and the Hyundai’s, so until big rebates arrive, its window sticker isn’t compelling. Why buy one? A few features you can’t get anywhere else in the segment (but that won’t be found on most Darts on dealer lots) seem the most compelling reason. Is this enough? If the Ford Focus didn’t exist, I’d rate the Dart more highly. But the Focus does exist.

Brad Marshall of Suburban Chrysler in Novi, MI, provided the car. Brad can be reached at 248-427-7721.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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Pre-Production Review: 2013 Dodge Dart Mon, 11 Jun 2012 16:23:18 +0000

The last time Chrysler made a serious attempt at the C-segment was in 1995 with the Neon. High initial sales were soon followed by less-than-stellar crash scores, a redesign that put off buyers, the death of the Plymouth brand, and the unholy offspring that was the Dodge Caliber. With Fiat needing to add a “40 MPG CAFE” vehicle to the fleet to continue their acquisition, the Dodge Dart was born. This first fruit of the Fiat/Dodge marriage isn’t just a rebadged Alfa Romeo Giulietta (pronounced Juliet-ta), and there’s a reason for that. Dodge wants a bigger part of the pie since sedans account for 80% of the compact segment. Rather than “sedanify” the Giulietta, Dodge took the extra step of crafting an entirely new vehicle that shares little with the Italian organ donor. Can some Italian spice give Dodge what they need to compete with the growing compact sedan segment? Dodge invited us to a regional preview event to find out.


I used to be a Mopar man. My folks have bought them for years and my first two new cars were a 1997 Eagle Vision and a 2000 Chrysler LHS. Keeping that era of Pentastar product in mind, the Dodge Dart fits right in with a tail straight out of the 1999 Dodge Intrepid. Before you flame, I think the look is far more attractive than many small cars on the market. What sets the Dart apart however is the aggressive front end with a broad grille and ginormous headlights. The front end styling is almost enough to make you forget this is the C-segment. So far, so good.


Inside the Dart you’ll find a cabin light-years ahead of the Caliber. While there are still plenty of hard plastic bits to be found, the cabin actually has more soft touch points than the Cruze or Sentra. While the styling may turn off some customers, the thick-rimmed steering wheel might hook some swing-voters. Dodge either has high sales goals or isn’t concerned about dwell time on dealer lots as there are around a dozen different interior trim color and style combinations. I’d call that good for the shopper, questionable for the profitable future of the Dart. Base SE models skip air conditioning and power door locks and use a lower grade of seat fabric to keep prices low. A quick look at the lineup indicates that Dodge expects the $17,995 SXT model to be the volume seller as it has the usual mix of equipment shoppers demand like A/C, keyless entry, folding rear seats and a sextuplet of speakers and a few extra cup holders. Despite considerable improvements, the Focus and Elantra are still better places to spend your time, but I’d rather be in the Dart than a Mazda 3 or a Cruze.


If you love gadgets, the Dart is the compact car of choice. With the exception of a self-parking feature like Ford’s Focus, the upper trim levels of the Dart allow some snazzy features you won’t find elsewhere in the segment. Starting with the Limited trim, the speedometer in the gauge cluster is replaced with a 7-inch LCD that is highly customizable. Unlike the LCD gauges Mercedes, Jaguar and Land Rover use, this one does more than just display a picture of a dial. Aside from navigation and infotainment displays, the system also doubles as the trip computer. Dodge also decided to allow a decent amount of customization from color choices to what date you see and where you see it. Also standard on the Limited model (optional on SXT and above) is Chrysler’s 8.4-inch uConnect system. Our brief time with the system showed that Chrysler has worked the Apple iDevice bugs out of the system. uConnect 8.4 now offers full voice command of your iDevice allowing you to say “play song, Red Solo Cup” and have the system do your bidding. The system works as well as Ford’s MyTouch but is far more responsive than Ford’s slow system.


Despite the PR folks not commenting on the long rumored 9-speed transmissions, there was plenty of new metal to see under the hood. First up is the 2.0L engine. This is related to the Caliber’s 2.0L engine but only shares 20% of the parts. Most of the changes relate to smoothness and noise control, but power does get a slight bump to 160HP and 145lb-ft of torque. Next up is a 1.4L turbo Fiat engine almost directly transplanted from the Alfa. This “MutiAir” engine cranks out the same horsepower as the 2.0L but trumps with 184lb-ft of twist. Next up is the 2.4L engine (in the R/T model) which gets the same NVH improvements and incorporates MultiAir to boost power to 184HP and 171lb-ft of twist. MultiAir is Fiat’s way of saying that the intake valves on the 1.4L and 2.4L engines are actuated via solenoid-actuated hydraulic chamber that sits between the valve and the cam (at least on the 2.4L. The 1.4L doesn’t have an intake cam). The result is more controlled valve lift, the ability to remove the throttle body and some seriously complicated plumbing. What’s the reliability going to be like? Your guess is as good as mine. If you want to know more, check out this video. All engines can be mated to the 6-speed Fiat manual transmission while the 2.0 and 2.4 get the option of a 6-speed Hyundai-sourced slushbox and the 1.4 can be had with Fiat’s 6-speed dual dry clutch transmission.  How about that SRT Dart? The PR folks won’t say a word.



We had only a limited time and about 25 miles behind the wheel of two Limited trim Darts, so bear that in mind. The Dart uses a modified version of Giulietta’s suspension setup. If you think that gives you European handling, think again. The Dart weighs about 300lbs more than the Giulietta and the engineers softened the suspension and used softer bushings all around. While our brief cloverleaf-on-ramp-skidpad tests revealed admirable grip and less body roll than I would have assumed, the Dart loses its composure rapidly on broken pavement.

The base 2.0L engine and the 6-speed automatic are a the combination most owners will end up with. The pair work well together and never felt flustered in city traffic. The 1.4L turbo is more engaging and since it has more torque than even the 2.4L R/T engine it would be my engine of choice. The manual transmission had surprisingly long throws which I found cumbersome and tiring. Fortunately clutch pedal feel is good with a medium firm spring and very linear engagement. The 1.4L turbo didn’t suffer from turbo lag like some forced-induction mills and the extra twist is a welcome companion making the manual transmission easier to live with in real-world driving. Dodge didn’t have a dual clutch transmission available to test, so check back for a full review when the Dart starts shipping.

A wise man once told me that everything in the $12,000-$120,000 vehicle market competes on value. The question that kept coming to the lips of the masses assembled was: would you buy the Dart over X? The response was usually a long pause followed by a soft no. It’s not that the Dart is a bad car, it is solidly class competitive. So what’s the problem? Given a choice between the Ford Focus and the Dart, or the Hyundai Elantra and the Dart, the Dart comes in second. Why? Brand image.

Hyundai has spent the last decade producing consistently better products, but that’s not the entire reason for their recent success.  While the Darts offers more “whiz-bang” than the Elantra, the Korean alternative is slightly better put together and cheaper. That’s the hook. If the Dart was even $1,000 cheaper it would be one of the best choices in the segment. Still, if you’re in the market for a compact sedan, the Dart should be towards the top of your list, certainly above the Corola and Cruze. If you’re a tech-lover, place the Dart higher on your list, if you’re a technophobe, drop it to the middle.  Either way, be sure to stop by the Ford and Hyundai/Kia dealer before you import something from Detroit.


Dodge invited us to a regional event and allowed us unaccompanied drives in two pre-production Dodge Dart Limited vehicles.

Oddly enough, free beer and BBQ was also on tap.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Interior, Storage seat, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Interior, rear seats, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, trunk, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Interior, LCD gauge cluster, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Engine, 2.0L Tigershark four cylinder, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, side, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, front 3/4, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, side, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, front 3/4, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, front 3/4, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, rear 3/4, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, Front, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, front, grille, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, front 3/4, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, side, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Engine, 1.4L Fiat MultiAir Turbo, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Engine, 1.4L Fiat MultiAir Turbo, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, rear, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, Rear, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Exterior, rear, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, trunk, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, interior, driver's side, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, Interior, Dashboard, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, interior, steering wheel, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, interior,  Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, interior, rear seats, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Dodge Dart Limited, interior, rear seats, Photography Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Review: 2012 Dodge Charger SXT Plus Sun, 01 Apr 2012 18:25:32 +0000

A month ago, I reviewed the 470-horsepower, 470-pound-feet Chrysler 300C SRT8. Today, we have a much milder 2012 Dodge Charger SXT Plus with the 292-horsepower, 260-pound-feet V6 and Rallye Appearance Group. I enjoyed driving the weaker car more. This is where you note the date of publication. But I’m not foolin.

Chrysler’s new corporate V6 is “best in class” in some segments, but “worst in class” among V6-powered rear-wheel-drive sedans, where Hyundai’s revised 3.8 leads the pack. Blame the lack of direct injection. Better yet, forget the numbers. The V6 might give up 31 foot-pounds of torque to the Genesis and over 200 to the SRT mill, but it still feels plenty torquey in typical driving. No, it can’t break the rear tires loose at 35 miles-per-hour, but it can and will shove you into the seat when called upon to do so. In this application, the new corporate engine also sounds more like a good ol’ American V8 than any DOHC six has a right to, fitting the character of this 21st-century muscle car. Throttle-induced oversteer remains a very real possibility, and with fewer pound-feet in play it’s easier to modulate. In default mode the stability control, though better than most, kills the joy. Hit a button on the center console to raise its threshold to a more appropriate level.

The V6’s low-rpm grunt came as a surprise, as the same engine feels soft at low rpm in the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Credit two substantial differences. First, the Charger, at 3,996 pounds, checks in nearly a half-ton below the all-wheel-drive SUVs.

Second, the Charger is the first corporate application of a new eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. Compared to the old five-speed automatic (which remains standard in the base Charger), the new one’s ratios start lower (12.48 vs. 10.99 overall) and top out higher (1.78 vs. 2.54), enabling both better performance and better fuel economy. Anyone who’s been thinking that five or six ratios is plenty—this transmission will change your mind. BMW uses a related transmission in its cars, but the Dodge variant actually shifts more smoothly. Compared to the old five-speed, the new transmission is much smoother, much more responsive, and smarter. It’s quick to upshift, but also quick to downshift when summoned by your right foot.

Want to select and hold a specific gear? We’ve debated whether, with a manumatic, it makes more sense to push forward or pull backward for a downshift. Chrysler, the first automaker to offer a manually-shiftable automatic in a mainstream car, went the road less traveled: side-to-side. With the new transmission, they’ve eliminated the ability to shift via the shifter altogether. Instead, the Rallye Appearance Group includes well-designed die-cast magnesium paddle shifters. Jaguars should (but don’t) come with paddles as nice as these.

A monostatic shifter (which, like a computer joystick, returns to center each time after being pushed or pulled) attends the new transmission. You’ll find these in nearly all current two-pedal BMWs, but the Chrysler/Dodge implementation is different. The Pentastar bunch (like the Audi A8 team) must have decided that BMW’s system–pushing a button to engage Park and pushing forward for Reverse—strays too far from long-established convention. So P-R-N-D remain in their usual order. The downside of this arrangement: the system must intuit from the distance of your pull whether you’re seeking Reverse or Drive, and the detents are nearly imperceptible. Too often the system, uncertain of your request, decides that the best action is no action at all. It sometimes took me three or four attempts to engage Drive—usually when I was most in a hurry to do so. Calmly and firmly pull back on the T-handle WHILE depressing the button on top of it, and you’ll get Drive (nearly) every time. Chrysler has done such a good job with the touch and voice controls of the car’s uconnect infotainment system, how could they botch something as simple as a shifter?

Pulling back on the Charger’s shifter once in D engages Sport mode. Pull back on the shifter again to revert to D. I didn’t notice a large difference in transmission behavior between the two—the transmission’s shifts become a little quicker and its shifting strategy becomes a little more aggressive. The biggest difference between the modes: if you use the paddles in S, the transmission won’t override your gear selection. I actually preferred D. The car takes corners well in second, which is six paddle pulls down from top gear in S-manual mode. But manually shift the car in D, then prod the accelerator, and you get second or third right away. The transmission will then hold until you approach the redline or request an upshift. (To exit manual mode hold down on the upshift paddle for a few seconds or toggle between S and D.)

Fuel economy? The new transmission bumps the Charger’s EPA ratings from 18 city, 27 highway to 19/31. The trip computer reported averages between 19 and 25 in typical suburban driving, dependent on the number of red lights and the aggressiveness of my right foot, with the average usually in the low 20s. On a 78-mph light-footed cruise to the airport it reported 31.5.

In any iteration the Dodge Charger and the closely related Chrysler 300 feel like the big, heavy cars they are. But the V6-powered car feels significantly lighter and better balanced than the SRT. Perhaps because it is. Three-quarters of the SRT8’s 369 additional pounds sit over the front wheels. Even 100 extra pounds in the nose can affect a car’s handling. Nearly three times this amount can be counted on to substantially change the character of a car. Where the SRT’s responses to steering inputs are deliberate, the V6 car feels almost chuckable. If the lighter car still isn’t rotating quickly enough for you, dip into the throttle to nudge the rear end around. Not looking to drive a big sedan like you stole it? Even in casual driving the lighter car simply feels better. The V6’s electro-hydraulic steering is at least as direct and communicative as the (not exactly chatty) belt-driven system in the SRT8. The weak link lies elsewhere: the 245/45VR20 Firestone Firehawk GTV tires lack grip despite their large contact patches and squeal loudly the moment they start to slip.

With the Rallye Appearance Group’s “performance suspension” (similar in tuning to the V8-powered R/T), the Charger sometimes rides a little lumpy and thumpy. Some will prefer the more relaxed tuning of the standard suspension. But the car glides down most roads smoothly and quietly. Add in the large, comfortable sport bucket seats, and the Charger proves exceedingly pleasant both around town and on the highway.

Luxury cues are mixed. The warmly hued Nappa leather upholstery looks and feels upscale, but the coarse texture of the black instrument panel and upper doors successfully disguises their soft-touch composition. Not that the Charger’s “modern day muscle car” exterior promises any luxury within. For those seeking more upscale styling (but the same texture to the black interior bits) Chrysler offers the 300.

The tested car (with most but not all options—no nav or adaptive cruise present) listed for $35,510. But the new powertrain can be had for much less if you’re willing to do without leather, sunroof, dubs, and such. A Charger SE with the optional ($1,000 well spent) 8-speed automatic lists for $27,420. A strongly recommended deletion even for those who like their cars loaded: do without the rear spoiler and save $225. Dropping the red tri-coat paint can save another $500, bringing the price to $34,785.

A Chrysler 300S equipped like the tested car lists for $41,460. It does include nearly $2,000 in additional content (based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool), most notably a larger sunroof and adaptive cruise control (also available on the Dodge), but this still leaves a gap of about $4,750. Suddenly I find myself warming to the Dodge’s styling. Only Hyundai (yes, Hyundai) offers another large rear-wheel-drive sedan in this price range, and that only if “this price range” extends all the way to $43,850. A nearly $2,500 feature adjustment in the Korean cruiser’s favor still leaves the Dodge with a roughly $6,600 price advantage. In this context, the tested car’s mid-thirties price seems a bargain.

With gas prices once again hovering around $4, and perhaps headed even higher, you’d think that a two-ton, 200-inch rear-wheel-drive sedan would make about as much sense as seat heaters in Miami. But, thanks to a new engine and transmission, the big Dodge’s EPA numbers are competitive with those of the much smaller, much lighter Accord and Camry V6s. Yet you don’t have to sacrifice performance. The powertrain provides plenty of thrust and its relatively low weight actually enables better handling than is possible with a massive HEMI pushing down on the front treads. Even more than the SRT8, the V6 car simply feels right. Add in a relatively low price, oversteer-on-demand, big comfy seats, and the ability to effortlessly devour miles by the hundreds, and (with assists from a German transmission, Canadian factory workers, and Italian overlords), the Charger successfully sustains the tradition of the big American sedan.

Dodge provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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Review: 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 Wed, 23 Nov 2011 16:00:39 +0000 When you’re a 24 Hours of LeMons judge, it’s expected that you’ll roll up to the track in a righteous Judgemobile. Perhaps it’s a fenderless, three-wheeled Amazon, or maybe it’s a woodie Roadmaster… Sometimes, though, you need to call up a car manufacturer’s PR flack and get something new and shiny, then stand by helplessly as it gets T-boned by some LeMons racer’s runaway Winnebago see how the budget-challenged racer crowd responds to its presence. The ’11 Cadillac Escalade Platinum Hybrid Judgemobile was sort of terrible (though it did have great presence) so this time I decided I’d spend the race weekend with a manly, tire-smokin’ V8-powered vehicle that ought to make heartland American car freaks— for example, the sort we get at the Showroom-Schlock Shootout LeMons in Illinois— start chanting teary-eyed Pledges of Allegiance to a fiery sky full of imaginary F-111s. That would be the Challenger SRT8, of course, in Vanishing Point white.
So, I called up the Chrysler flack: “Hey, Giuseppe,” I didn’t say, “Remember all the nice stuff I wrote about your cutesy little Euro-eco-socialist commuter car? You owe me, paisan’! Now gimme something worthy of a real American, and make sure there’s a goddamn Hemi under the hood. Capisce?
So, next thing I know there’s a couple of heavies with wafer-thin watches and suspicious suit bulges handing over this baby at Midway Airport. Of course, the whole Italian schtick fell apart for me the moment it occurred to me that the Challenger’s chassis ancestry goes all the way back to the Renault 25 (via an illustrious Eagle Premier/LH platform/LX platform lineage), with a bunch of Mercedes-Benz W210 and W220 suspension bits thrown into the mix. Chrysler, AMC, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Fiat, maybe even a bit of hidden Mitsubishi genetic material here and there— I’m liking the Challenger already!
It’s a good-looking machine, though I could rant for endless paragraphs about the psychological-voodoo/no-doubt-focus-grouped-to-death reasoning behind the choice of the E-Body Challenger as the inspiration for this car’s appearance.
Chrysler never really had a true head-to-head competitor with the original Mustang and Camaro, great as the original A-body-based Barracuda was. It doesn’t matter, because Plymouth’s demise meant the Barracuda nameplate was off the table, so the current Mustang/Camaro rival would have to grab its retro-ized look from the fatter, sales-failure E-body. The ace in the hole was the hagiographic Vanishing Point, which managed to cast the Challenger in a role symbolizing the individual’s victory over The Man’s oppression, breaking the downward-spiral sense of Vietnam-War-fueled American diminished expectations that led to the Malaise Era… or something like that. Freedom.
Personally, I think Vanishing Point‘s brush strokes are far too broad to really capture that early-70s proto-Malaise sense (though the chase scenes are pretty damn cool); Two-Lane Blacktop, also released in 1971, does a much better job. OK, meandering historio-cinematic digression over— let’s talk about now.
I suppose I’m a member of the target demographic for this thing; I got my first driver’s license in 1982, which was the Golden Age for cheap Detroit muscle in California, and the car stuff from Dazed and Confused might as well have been a documentary about the street-race-obsessed car culture at my high school. Battered-but-fast 10-to-15-year-old big-block Chevelles and Satellites and Fairlanes could be had for not much more than a grand. Back then, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to buy a new Cutlass 442 or Super Bee… and now Detroit can sell me the much faster, much better-built 21st-century version.
Right. So, what does this car do best? Burnouts! In all of my many years blowing the treads off junkyard bias-plies and rental-car rubber, I never experienced any vehicle that makes perfect, totally controlled burnouts anywhere near as easy as this car does. I’m willing to bet cash money that Chrysler’s engineers made this feature a design priority, and they deserve a healthy bonus for succeeding so admirably. This car had the automatic transmission, which made burnouts easier, but I have a feeling that the manual-trans car has no problem in that department. I also tried some hard drag-style launches and the car hooked up quite well; it wouldn’t be much of a trick to knock out some good dragstrip passes in this machine.
Seriously, you can create elaborate burnout novels with the Challenger SRT8… character development, climax, resolution, the works. The folks at Autobahn Country Club were kind enough to let me use their skidpad for a tire-smokin’ photograph session, and the clouds of tire smoke completely obscured the entire paddock, a quarter-mile downwind. I heard later that the smogged-out LeMons racers were cheering the car’s amazing burnout performance, and several were heard to state that they’d be visiting their nearest Dodge dealership and shopping for Challengers as soon as the race was over.
Unfortunately, the Challenger-as-Judgemobile got upstaged by a far superior Showroom-Schlock Shootout Judgemobile. Let’s face it: when a LeMons judge gets the choice between a 2012 Challenger SRT8 and a Reliant Super Robin for leading the penalty parade, there is no choice but to take the Reliant.
We did put both of them on the track as co-pace cars, which I feel certain is the first time a Robin and a Challenger have served together in that role.
Judge Sam agreed with me that the Challenger SRT8 was far nicer for real-world driving duties (i.e., driving between the hotel and the race track) than the Escalade Platinum had been. So, burnouts aside, how is it to drive?
The front seats are very comfortable and the quality of materials in the interior is quantum leaps ahead of the “unfit for human consumption” interiors that so horrified Sergio Marchionne. The suspension did a fine, Renault/Mercedes-Benz-style job of smoothing out the Stalingradian pothole-O-rama road surfaces in Chicago and Joliet. I’m sure I could take one of these things on an exurban-edge-city commute for hours every day and feel pretty good about the ride and comfort.
Granted, it’s something of an ergonomic disaster. You can’t see diddly-squat behind you, with the vast C pillars creating maddeningly huge blind spots. Your hands obscure the turn-signal indicators when they’re on the steering wheel. The back seat is all but useless; maybe it could hold a couple of small adults, but you won’t be able to get them into the seats in the first place (I gave up even on putting my LeMons Supreme Court bribe booze in the back seat, opting instead for the trunk). The lid for the center-console storage compartment can’t be operated by human hands.
The controls for the navigation/audio features are frustratingly unintuitive, with the lengthy response time for input that seems to be the norm for automotive computer interfaces. Why a $90 cellphone made by Malaysian sweatshop inmates can produce instant results from four memory-hog applications simultaneously while a simple choice of song title brings a $48,000 car’s computer to its knees is beyond me.
But who gives a shit about nickel/dime irritants like that? Not me! More burnouts!
In fact, I should be reviewing this automobile for the pages of Gnarly Burnout Magazine. Wooooooooooo!
Detroit has really lost its way in some areas over the last few decades, but not when it comes to V8 engines. GM and Chrysler are making some miraculously good pushrod V8s these days, and this 392-cubic-inch/470-horsepower powerplant isn’t even a member of the same species as the rough-idling, non-cold-starting, clattery, single-digit-MPG relics of the so-called Muscle Car Golden Age. This engine starts up instantly, idles in most civilized fashion, manages highway fuel mileage well into the 20s… and manages to drag a two-ton-plus car down the quarter-mile in under 13 seconds.
Speaking of tons, the big-block ’70 Challenger scaled in at nearly 3,800 pounds, so we can’t be too hard on the ’12 SRT8 version for weighing more than 4,200 pounds. Still, I can’t help but think of the two ways in which Chrysler might have built The Greatest Mopar Of All Freakin’ Time instead of a flawed-but-lovable burnout-king commuter car. The first way would have been to put this engine in a car weighing 2,900 pounds. We can all think of a dozen reasons why this could never happen, but just imagine it.
The other way would have been to use the 1971 Plymouth Satellite instead of the ’70 Challenger as retro-inspiration, bringing the Plymouth marque out of retirement if necessary. I’d buy one right now.
Image source: Old Car Brochures
As for handling and brakes and all that stuff them decadent Yurpeans seem to care about so much, I didn’t get a chance to take the Challenger out on the Autobahn CC road course, nor did I pound it at 11/10ths on the mean streets of Joliet. It seemed perfectly competent at my usual 3/10ths pace. Anyway, you don’t buy this car for going around corners, commie (though Baruth managed to do pretty well with the ’11 at Infineon).
The LeMons Supreme Court decided that there was one way in which the Challenger made a superior Judgemobile: as the centerpiece of the Hair Of The Dog Air Guitar Penalty. Miscreant drivers were required to air-guitar their way through the entirety of Nazarath’s Challenger-centric Hair of the Dog, while waving a large American flag.

Look upon our works, wannabe superpowers, and despair.
Nazareth, a Hemi, and “AMERICAN MADE” tattooed on your back. Chrysler should hire this guy as their spokesman.
As for the quality of the little bits and pieces in out-of-the-way places, all the connectors and fasteners that I could find looked to be several notches above the quality of the parts I’ve seen in Chrysler products of a few years back. It appears that the days of the sub-low-bidder vendors may be over.
There were a few mildly flaky touches, such as this Neon-style weatherstrip seam, but nothing that felt like it was about to snap off in one’s hand.
The verdict: On the one-dimensional side, well-built, engine absolutely top notch. Would make a good real-world daily driver. King of the Smoky Burnouts.

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One Half-Lap Of America: 60 Hours and 1,970 Miles In A Rental Caravan Sat, 09 Jul 2011 23:13:54 +0000

Women and minivans, women and minivans. They don’t quite go together like a horse and carriage, but it’s possible to be just a little more romantic about either when the location is right. I fell in love with the revise-and-retouch 2011 Chrysler minivans during an epic Northern California trip, as detailed in my first-drive review, but sometimes the girl who bewitched you in that far-away hotel room turns out to be a completely damaged headcase in daily living, and sometimes a manufacturer-prepped van in a gorgeous setting doesn’t hold up in that cold, no-makeup morning.

To find out, I requested (meaning “rented”) a Grand Caravan from my local PR flack (meaning “Enterprise counter agent”) and I set out on a trip designed to test the not-so-minivan to its limits (meaning “I had a trip I was going to take anyway and I want to get paid for doing it.”) Only by driving nearly two thousand miles in under three days could I determine if Chrysler was ready to compete against the leaders in the segment. Translation: “I will submit my fuel receipts for this trip, and they will not be paid because there was no reason to cover this kind of distance.”

My initial review of the Town & Country was so enthusiastic that Michael Karesh promptly contributed a counterpoint where he provided detailed statistical comparisons to other minivans, as well as a link to a site called “TrueDelta”. I’ve never been to “TrueDelta”, but based on the name I expect it has something to do with either maximizing acceleration or evaluating photos of the mons veneris. I’m interested in both of those things, both separately and together, so I’m saving my first trip to the site for a day when I really need a pick-me-up of hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.

The van I drove would cost a buyer $27,425 MSRP less rebates as of this writing. Frankly, it seems like a hell of a bargain and then some. It’s missing a lot of the goodies — heated seats, a moonroof, navigation, remote start, the super-duper Infinity sound system, leather interior, et al — but it has all the critical pieces of equipment for a middle-class family, from power doors to a rear-view camera. The stereo is pretty good, although the Caravan’s oddly hushed interior goes a long way towards flattering it.

My route was like so: from sunny Powell, Ohio, drive to Mt. Pico in Vermont, Mt. Kearsarge in New Hampshire, and then up the Maine coast so my partner in crime, Vodka McBigbra, could put on her favorite bikini and scandalize entire vacationing families while I played “Little Wing” on the hotel balcony. Follow a similar route, with less mountain-road driving and more freeway drone, on the way back.

I resolved to drive the entire trip in the Caravan’s “Econ” mode, which is selected by pressing a small button on the center console. That button is right next to the hazard button and it’s twice as big as said hazard button. I took this as a cheerful indicator that Chrysler didn’t expect the van to break down, and they didn’t expect me to misuse the hazard button for long-term parking in airport loading zones, but they did expect me to be economical and whatnot.

The dash readout doesn’t lie. Well, it may lie, but the (in)frequency of my fuel stops indicated that it wasn’t lying by much. That’s the overall readout for 1500 miles, much of it up and down some pretty curvy roads in Vermont. Yes, I did leave the transmission in “Econ” mode, which makes the Caravan a little sluggish in everyday driving, but when I needed to grab a gear or two I did it with the convenient dashboard tip-shifter, and once, during a particularly determined rush up an on-ramp, I looked down and realized I was doing a solid buck-oh-five. At that speed, the Caravan is quiet and controllable. Don’t give this to your teenaged son and think he’s going to slow down as a result. This is a quick vehicle and the engine absolutely encourages abuse in the same way that Ford’s Duratec really doesn’t.

Stow-N-Go: priceless if you have children and need quick space. Lame otherwise, although when I returned the vehicle to Enterprise I told the cutie behind the counter that “somebody stole the seats, I think” and then watched in complete satisfaction as she looked for them in the van.

The Grand Caravan is rated for 3600lbs towing capacity. That’s perilously close to what a Plymouth Neon race car weighs on a Featherlite trailer. I thought about that particular combination a lot during my trip. Why not enjoy a reasonably-sized vehicle with a massive amount of reconfigurable, weather-proofed interior space and outstanding fuel mileage for all the times when I’m not towing?

Let’s take a minute to talk about (in)famous auto writer LJK Setright and his “hundred-mile rule”. Setright said that legitimate automotive testing could consist of no more than one hundred miles. By the time the hundred-mile mark rolls around, you see, the faults of the vehicle would have receded in the tester’s consciousness, the same way a constant noise or smell tends to fade into the background of our awareness after some time has passed. I think he’s at least half-right, but it’s only well past the 100-mile mark that the fitness of the vehicle for long trips is truly apparent. Some minor faults in seating position or control effort aren’t too bothersome in a short trip, but they become all-conqueringly miserable while crossing a continent. Michael and I have already given you the 100-mile review.

Past one hundred miles, when the nine hundredth mile without any kind of meaningful rest stop appears, the Caravan reveals some unexpected strengths and weaknesses. Strength: unlike many vans, the seat position doesn’t put stress on the knees and ankles. Weakness: the seats need more back support, perhaps adjustable. Strength: it’s quiet, it tracks hands-off, and it’s relatively impervious to wind. Weakness: the armest on the right side is hard and the left side armrest is poorly positioned on the door. Strength: visibility is outstanding all the way around. Weakness: the center console makes it difficult to get into the back area for making out helping a child who needs help.

The bottom line? Over the course of some long, annoying drives, the Caravan is as good, or better, than any midsize sedan you can buy for this kind of money. Forget the space, forget the van-centric virtues. If you drive this vehicle a thousand miles out, all by your lonesome, and then drive a LaCrosse a thousand miles back, you’ll prefer the Caravan. I’m not kidding. Why buy a sedan? The Caravan matches most of them for economy, is priced within shouting distance of them, and then you turn around and OMFG FIVE MORE PEOPLE AND A BUNCH OF STUFF GOES BACK THERE TOO. Down a backroad, the G/C will bitchslap a lot of fairly recent mid-sizers, it will beat them up the ramp to the freeway, and you can just happen to PUT A ZILLION CUBIC FEET OF RARE CAGED BIRDS FROM MEXICO IN THE BACK.

It turns out this is one California romance that holds up in the cold light of a Maine sunrise. The Grand Caravan is simply a great car. It isn’t a Great Little Car — the spiritual successor to that is a Mazda 2 — but it’s a Nice Big Van. Money well spent, as a rental, and I suspect it would be money well spent as a purchase, too. The word will spread. The Caravan wasn’t the original minivan — that was a bit of Iacocca marketing magic — but it’s one of the best.

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Review: 2011 Dodge Durango Citadel Wed, 15 Jun 2011 18:57:42 +0000

The Chevrolet TrailBlazer and its many sibs are extinct. The Ford Explorer nameplate survives, but it’s now attached to a car-based crossover. Only one family of domestic midsize conventional SUVs remains—and, quite ironically, it’s based on a Mercedes platform. We’ve examined the five-seat Jeep Grand Cherokee before. For those more focused on people hauling than rock crawling Chrysler more recently introduced the seven-seat Dodge Durango. Is the all-new 2011 Durango only for people who need the dependable towing capacity of a conventional SUV? Or can it compete with the transverse-engined competition on their own terms?

As in its first two generations, the 2011 Dodge Durango combines the width of a midsize SUV with the length of a full-size SUV. The third-generation’s clean, well-proportioned exterior is a huge improvement over the perpetually pregnant previous one. If there is any fault with the new SUV’s handsome styling it’s that little aside from a crosshair grille distinguishes it as a Dodge. Also, it could easily be from a decade ago. But there’s also much to be said for timeless designs. The new Durango might not be au courant, but it also won’t look dated tomorrow.

The 2011 Durango’s interior is similarly almost too tasteful for its own good. The design could hardly be simpler, and some areas like the center console appear plain. With no racy curves and no fancy graphics, there’s nothing in here to surprise and delight—unless you’re surprised and delighted to find first-rate materials in a Dodge. Chrysler has upgraded nearly all of its interiors for the 2011 model year, and those in the Durango and the related Jeep Grand Cherokee are the best of the bunch. Not only does the top-of-the-line Citadel’s tan leather with black stitching feel as good as it looks (black leather is also available), but just about everything feels solid enough to go the distance. In terms of interior materials and workmanship, the more highly styled Ford Explorer is a step or two behind and GM’s large crossovers are hopelessly outclassed.
The Durango’s touchscreen controls don’t look as slick as those in the Explorer’s MyFord Touch system, but they’re easier to operate. One exception: the Garmin-powered navigation screens don’t only appear crudely rendered, but they don’t display many street names, so it’s often hard to tell where you are at a glance. The main instruments are similar to those in other 2011 Dodges. Their red perimeters, a Dodge brand cue, don’t fit the upscale, un-Dodge character of the rest of the interior.

Getting into the Durango highlights its first serious deficiency: the floor is considerably higher than in a car-based crossover, so it’s not as easy to step up onto. Once you’re up in the seat, though, the driving position is very good. The instrument panel and the pillars flanking the windshield are far less massive than those in the Ford. The Dodge’s windshield is comfortably raked and is neither too close nor too distant. Then there’s the width of the interior. With 58.5 inches of shoulder room up front, the Durango is about three inches narrower inside than the Explorer and GM’s large crossovers. There’s less headroom in the Dodge as well. So people seeking the roomiest possible vehicle won’t find it in the Durango. But, for others, the Durango’s cozier interior together with its driving position make it easy to drive for a vehicle that’s nearly 200 inches long and nearly 5,400 pounds.

The front seats are firm, perhaps too firm for some people. My main problem with them: I had to struggle to position the four-way-adjustable lumbar support so that it didn’t prod me uncomfortably. It’s a great feature very badly executed. On the other hand, the headrests have some fore-aft adjustment, a rarity these days.

The second row is comfortably high off the floor. The third isn’t, but this is typical, and the new Durango’s way back is considerably roomier than in the past and competitive with the car-based competition. And, if the kids back there get out of line, there’s a button on the dash to whack them on the back of the head with the headrest. This also serves to lower the headrests to improve rearward visibility, which is limited regardless. The rearview monitor proves very helpful.

Partly because so much space has been allocated to the third-row seat, there’s less cargo space behind it than in the Explorer or larger GM crossovers. Good enough for sizable grocery runs, but on family trips all of the luggage isn’t likely to fit without folding a seat or putting some up on the roof. Fold both rows—very easily done, as unlike in the Explorer the headrests flop forward automatically—and there’s still much less cargo volume than in the GM crossovers (84.5 vs. 116.9 cubic feet), but a few cubes more than in the Explorer. The Dodge does have an ace up its sleeve: unlike in these competitors, its front passenger seat also folds flat, to form a very long load floor (except in the Citadel, where the front passenger seat power reclines).

The new Durango is available with two engines, a DOHC 290-horsepower 3.6-liter “Pentastar” V6 and a cam-in-block 360-horsepower 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8. I’ve sampled the former in the related Jeep Grand Cherokee, and found it sluggish up to 35 mph or so. A new transmission with more than five-speeds of the Mercedes-supplied unit would help, but one isn’t available yet. Until one is, the V8 is the obvious choice for anyone who cares about low-speed performance. Because of the Hemi-powered Durango’s curb weight and the tall initial gearing of its Chrysler-engineered five-speed automatic (where the ratios are based on what was doable rather than what was desirable), even the V8 feels a little soft up to 4,500 rpm. Bottom line: with the 2011 Durango you need the V8 to match the low-speed performance of the V6s in competitors. 360 horsepower isn’t what it used to be.

In which case you won’t be matching their fuel economy. While the Durango V6 AWD earns competitive EPA ratings of 16/22, the Hemi AWD manages only 13/20 despite the ability to run on four cylinders while cruising. Even the old-school Chevrolet Tahoe achieves 15/21. In the real world the trip computer reported 13.5 to 16.5 in suburban driving but only about 18 on the highway.

In the V8’s defense, you can tow 7,200 pounds with it (7,400 with RWD), which is over a ton more than with car-based competitors. And the official specs might understate the difference. The longitudinal transmission in the Durango was designed with a high towing capacity in mind, and has been used in Dodge trucks for years. The transverse automatic in the Explorer and GM crossovers is inherently more fragile, and was designed primarily for use in cars. So if you need to tow a few tons the Dodge has a clear advantage.

If only the Durango’s brakes felt as strong as its powertrain. While they might be up to the task when pressed (with no mountains nearby and nothing to tow, I didn’t work them hard), they require an unusual amount of effort. Press down with a typical amount of force and it seems like the Durango doesn’t want to stop.

Partly because you sit so high, the Durango feels less agile than the Explorer and large GM crossovers. A VW Touareg feels even more car-like, aided by more compact dimensions and firmer suspension tuning. But the Durango’s handling is stable, balanced, and thoroughly predictable, with better body control than you’ll find in large conventional SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition. It also feels less massive and bulky than the platform donor Mercedes GL-Class, or the Infiniti QX56, for that matter. The Dodge’s all-wheel-drive system effectively limits the potential for fun. With it the attitude of the chassis is always dull but safe moderate understeer. I drove a rear-wheel-drive Durango earlier, when there was snow on the roads, and found it much more entertaining, with progressive, easily controllable oversteer when powering out of turns. I didn’t feel the need for all-wheel-drive, though the great majority of snow belt residents will no doubt insist upon it. The stability control system works very well, smoothly intervening only as much as is necessary.

While some bobbling is unavoidable with such a tall vehicle, the Durango generally rides very smoothly and quietly. Above all, it feels solid and precisely controlled the way premium European vehicles tend to. In comparison the large GM SUVs and, to an even greater extent, the large Ford SUVs feel unrefined and dated. Even the car-based crossover’s from these manufacturers can’t quite match the Dodge in this regard. Between its ride and its interior the Durango oozes quality.

The 2011 Durango has the look and feel of a premium car, but not necessarily a premium price. The tested vehicle’s $48,530 sticker might seem steep, but this is the top-of-the-line Citadel with every available option except the towing package. (A Durango Crew with V6, AWD, and leather lists for $37,565.) A similarly loaded 2011 Ford Explorer lists for $400 more. Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool give’s the Ford a $1,775 advantage, but removing the $1,895 Hemi from the equation would more than cancel this out. Compared to the GMC Acadia, the Dodge with the Hemi is about $500 less before adjusting for feature differences and about $2,250 less afterwards. Remove the Hemi and the Dodge is significantly less expensive than the GMC. And compared to the Mercedes-Benz GL450 that provided its platform? Over $32,000 less before adjusting for feature differences, and nearly $29,000 less afterwards. From this perspective the Dodge could be a bargain.

Ultimately, the 2011 Dodge Dodge competes strongly with the Ford Explorer and large GM crossovers on their own terms. It does have a higher step-in and tighter interior, but handles nearly as well, rides better, and looks and feels considerably more expensive—without actually being more expensive. For heavy towing, GM and Ford offer only large conventional SUVs, and these feel unrefined and dated in comparison. The Durango’s weakest area: its transmissions. Fuel economy lags with the V8, while the V6 needs a transmission with a larger number of better ratios to provide competitive low-speed performance. Granted, most people drive in a relaxed fashion and so will find nothing wrong with the current powertrain. For the others, a new transmission is on the way.

Dodge provided the Durango Citadel, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

The Durango Crew was provided by Michael Williams at Southfield Dodge in Southfield, MI (248) 354-2950.

Michael Karesh operates, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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