While its namesake was a two-door hardtop, and commonly, if not completely accurately, referred to as a coupe, the all-new Charger is a four-door sedan, albeit styled somewhat deceptively to diminish that fact. Further, it's as heavy as and actually larger in a couple measures than the Dodge Magnum, which is like a station wagon, and the Chrysler 300, a full-on, unapologetic, family-size sedan.
So is the new Charger intended to reflect what the original would have become had it stayed around and matured over the four decades since the model was launched in '66? Sort of like the latest reincarnation of the Ford Mustang? Or is it simply an opportunistic attempt to capitalize on a tradition-rich name, regardless of how it may diminish that name's legacy? Sort of like the current Pontiac GTO? The market will provide the answers, or for that matter, determine whether answers are needed.
As for the car itself, no doubt it doesn't really care. It's a bold design statement, however it's viewed, a blend of throwback cues and modern form architecture. Whether it pleases matters less than whether it draws attention. Its retro graphics assure the latter.
The new Charger illustrates just how multi-talented and accomplished today's high performance cars are compared to the uni-dimensional hot rods of yesteryear. The Charger has all the pavement-ripping, gut-thumping power of the old muscle cars, but is packaged with modern creature comforts and tempered by startling levels of handling competency. Put another way, it rides, turns and stops as well as it goes.
The 2006 Dodge Charger may cost a pretty penny, and it may not get the best mileage, but what it lacks in those measures, it more than makes up in grins.
Dodge Charger SE ($22,320); Charger SXT ($25,320); Charger R/T ($29,320); Charger Daytona R/T ($31,820)
And for good reason. The same design team that parented the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum birthed this new Charger. The Charger is built on the same platform as those two, but is three inches longer overall. The Charger reportedly was planned all along to be a sedan version of the Magnum.
With this legacy, it's no surprise that there's an uprightness to the Charger's silhouette, regardless of viewing angle. The front end, in fact, tilts forward, as if it's leaning into the wind, specifically to recall the brutish, pre-aero-age styling of its muscle car era namesake. The trademark Dodge crosshairs, chromed on the SXT and R/T, body-color in the SE and SRT8 and flat black on the Daytona, dominate the front end. Compound halogen headlights peer out under hooded, almost scowling brows. A thin, trifurcated air intake slices across the lower portion of the front bumper, beneath which the Daytona and SRT8 wear a trim, flat-black chip spoiler. Fog lamps on the SXT and higher models fill small, sculpted insets at the lower corners.
From the side, the demi-fastback roofline and glasshouse look more grafted onto the somewhat fulsome body than a natural extension of the overall styling theme, very much as if the designer were trying to make a sedan look like a coupe. Hmmm. Oh, well. The beltline arcs softly back from a slight droop over the headlights to about midway in the rear side window, then kicks up over the rear quarter panel, visually bulking up the car's already hefty haunches. Flip-up, top-hinged door handles are flush mounted but operate sufficiently friendly to pose no major threats to fingernails.
The rear perspective shows a tall, almost vertical backside, with large taillights draped over the upper corners. A modest, Kamm-like lip stretches across the trailing edge of an expansive trunk lid, atop which sits a lift-suppressing spoiler on the Daytona and SRT8. A recess in the bumper holds the license plate. On the SE and SXT a single exhaust tip exits beneath the right-hand side, while the V8-powered models sport chrome-tipped, muscle car-idiom, dual exhausts.
The Charger's styling is loosely reflected on NASCAR's Nextel Cup cars, primarily seen in the crosshair grille and the painted-on taillights.
The dash and instrument cluster is identical to the Magnum's, with the minor exception of surface trims on the center stack and center console, and when ordered on the R/T, the navigation display. This isn't to complain, but to compliment, as the arrangement is pleasantly informative. From the driver's seat, easily scanned, large, round speedometer and tachometer share the top half of the steering wheel opening, with fuel and coolant temperature gauges down in the left and right corners, respectively. The steering wheel, too, comes directly from the Magnum. Air conditioning registers fill the top of the center stack, above the stereo/navigation display, with the climate control panel properly positioned beneath that, all intuitively arrayed and outfitted and within easy reach of the driver and front seat passenger. Ex-navigation display center stacks have a small, horizontal cubby below the air conditioning knobs and buttons.
Steering column stalks are imported from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin, including their awkward positioning. The more frequently used, heavily end-weighted turn-signal stalk/washer lever droops down somewhere around the 8 o'clock position, while the set-it-and-forget-it cruise control sits up around 10 o'clock. Headlight switch and dash light rheostat are located in the dash next to the driver's door, with the remote trunk release below. Outside mirrors are adjusted with a joystick in the door armrest. Thankfully, Dodge has not adopted the Mercedes-Benz practice of parking the power seat adjustments high up in the door panel but has placed them, much more intuitively, on the outboard side of the seat bottom. Large, six-way adjustable, rectangular ventilation registers fill in each end of the dash.
The standard, fabric-covered seats are comfortable, with adequate thigh support and side bolstering. Stepping up to the performance seats in the option packages gets more pronounced bolsters, which is good for those rare times when a twisty two-lane beckons, but not as good for climbing in and out of the car every day. And, of course, the top grade, suede-trimmed and embroidered seats in the Daytona nicely complement the boy-racer graphics of the exterior. Thanks to the sedan-spec wheelbase, there's plenty of rear seat room, too, even with front seats at their rearmost positions. No head restraint for the rear center seat is provided, however, making this car better for four adults than five.
Visibility from the driver's seat is good, but suffers a bit from safety measures and styling dictates. A-pillars designed to meet roll-over standards are thick, which makes checking for pedestrians and crossing traffic becomes more difficult. The view through the inside rearview mirror quickly puts to rest any lingering illusions about the Charger being a coupe; the rear window is a long ways back. And the C-pillars are also fat, and require careful checking during lane changes; coincidentally, they also provide great hiding places for pacing patrol cars. (The A-pillars are the posts between the windshield and front side windows: the C-pillars are the posts between the rear windscreen and rear side windows.)
The entertainment system installation takes a novel, but extremely well-integrated approach. The screen hides beneath a cover on the front center console when not in use, then pivots up between the front seats for viewing. The interface, for DVD and input and output jacks, is incorporated into the rear of the console beneath the screen and above the rear seat ventilation registers. Without the entertainment system, the center console fun
All three engines deliver power smoothly. However, the V6 breathes a bit harder and requires a bit more planning ahead in heavy traffic or on crowded two-lanes. The V8s' most advanced and socially responsible feature, a multi-displacement system that conserves fuel by shutting down four cylinders when they're not needed to maintain the car's momentum, is invisible; we knew it was there and were looking for it, and we never felt the slightest trace.
Our biggest concern while testing Chargers on North Carolina interstates was how readily we settled into an 80-mph cruise. The Charger is quiet at that speed, with very little wind or road noise. We were thankful cruise control comes standard or we'd surely have gotten to meet a state trooper exercising his writing hand. Steering in the SE and SXT seemed a bit over-assisted, and could have used more on-center feel. The re-geared setup that comes with the Road/Track Performance Group delivers better feel across the speed range. We're not sure how tiring the rumbling exhaust might be over long distances at constant speeds, however.
The Charger handled well along the winding, two-lane back roads around Virginia International Raceway in southern Virginia even when carrying speeds substantially in excess of the posted limits. Indeed, we were grateful for a properly placed dead pedal to brace ourselves while exploring those roads. The Charger is moderately nose-heavy and will plow, or understeer, momentarily before the electronic stability program steps in; this means the program's threshold is set high enough that better drivers can alter their line through a corner with deft throttle application; and lesser pilots will become aware that they are pushing the envelope.
The Performance Group comes with fatter, stickier tires (P235/55R18 Michelin MXM4s) and suspension tweaks that combine to reduce body lean in corners and quicken turn-in response. A price is paid, however, as the sportier suspension and tire combination resonates more over broken pavement, not harshly, but noticeably. There's a less fat and less sticky set available as an option on the SXT, which comes standard on the R/T; a self-sealing version is included in the Protection Group.
The AutoStick transmission works equally well in either Automatic or Manual mode. In Automatic mode, full throttle upshifts wait until redline and downshifts for passing are executed with minimal delay. In Manual mode, the transmission holds a gear to red line before shifting up a gear (unless you shift sooner, of course), which then becomes the selected gear. Only by tromping the gas in manual mode can you force a downshift, and then only for as long as the pedal is held to the floor; ease up ever so slightly, and the higher gear takes back over, and somewhat abruptly.
The Charger's brake hardware is shared with Mercedes-Benz, but the software code for the stability program, brake assist and traction control systems is written by and for Dodge. Mercedes engineers could learn something from Dodge. Pedal feel is firm, braking is reassuringly linear and there's no perceived interference from the electronic watchdogs, yielding smooth, controlled stops at will, for which a couple Virginia squirrels are immensely thankful. We haven't always been able to say the same the same thing about the braking characteristics on some of the Mercedes models.
The 2006 Dodge Charger is the latest in a remarkably long line of certain hits from the Chrysler Group. The new Charger has all the necessary ingredients, from an impressive line of engines to state-of-the-art electronic technology to the right mix of suspension and wheel-and-tire componentry to stand-out styling. So what if it isn't a two-door coupe? We like it and think Dodge will sell every one it can build.
(New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from North Carolina and southern Virginia.)