Review: 2013 Charger SE Pentastar 5AT — Two Countries And Two Thousand Miles In Four Days

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
review 2013 charger se pentastar 5at two countries and two thousand miles in four

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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4 of 127 comments
  • CelticPete CelticPete on Aug 21, 2013

    I love the Challenger - so I think I would like the Charger. I heard the revamped interiors are really nice though. So surprised Jack didn't like this one. Also you can seemingly get them pretty cheap. I always think going buy MSRP with Chrysler products is wrong. The domestics always seem to have a lot of cash back deals.

    • Wheeljack Wheeljack on Aug 21, 2013

      The interior is full of soft touch surfaces - a lot more than the Camcord. I think the issue is the surface finish and grain of the material (especially the dash and door tops) makes it look cheaper than it really is.

  • Pb35 Pb35 on Aug 22, 2013

    Love my '12 R/T. The only soft spot so far has been the brakes. They must use some cheap rotors on my so called "heavy duty" brakes that are part of the Road and Track package. I am working with the dealer to get it sorted out once and for all. Other than that, I wished that I leased it for 2 years so I could get another one next year!

    • Danio3834 Danio3834 on Aug 22, 2013

      I hear the '15s will get a pretty extensive update, so it might be worth the upgrade. Personally, I can't wait for the 8 speed.

  • Tassos What was the last time we had any good news from Ford? (or GM for that matter?)The last one was probably when Alan Mulally was CEO. Were you even born back then?Fields was a total disaster, then they go hire this clown from Toyota's PR department, the current Ford CEO, Fart-ley or something.He claims to be an auto enthusiast too (unlike Mary Barra who is even worse, but of course always forgiven, as she is the proud owner of a set of female genitals.
  • Tassos I know some would want to own a collectible Mustang. (sure as hell not me. This crappy 'secretary's car' (that was exactly its intended buying demo) was as sophisticated (transl. : CRUDE) as the FLintstone's mobile. Solid Real Axle? Are you effing kidding me?There is a huge number of these around, so they are neither expensive nor valuable.WHen it came out, it was $2,000 or so new. A colleague bought a recent one with the stupid Ecoboost which also promised good fuel economy. He drives a hard bargain and spends time shopping and I remember he paid $37k ( the fool only bought domestic crap, but luckily he is good with his hands and can fix lots of stuff on them).He told me that the alleged fuel economy is obtained only if you drive it like a VERY old lady. WHich defeats the purpose, of course, you might as well buy a used Toyota Yaris (not even a Corolla).
  • MRF 95 T-Bird Back when the Corolla consisted of a wide range of body styles. This wagon, both four door and two door sedans, a shooting brake like three door hatch as well as a sports coupe hatchback. All of which were on the popular cars on the road where I resided.
  • Wjtinfwb Jeez... I've got 3 Ford's and have been a defender due to my overall good experiences but this is getting hard to defend. Thinking the product durability testing that used to take months to rack up 100k miles or more is being replaced with computer simulations that just aren't causing these real-world issues to pop up. More time at the proving ground please...
  • Wjtinfwb Looks like Mazda put more effort into sprucing up a moribund product than Chevy did with the soon to be euthanized '24 Camaro.