It's as if nobody told Dodge about American cars: that they are cheap, flimsy, incompetent. To the contrary, the Dodge Charger is a proudly American muscle sedan, pumped, powerful, and full of swagger. Furnished with either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and a Dodge Hemi V8 if that's your inclination, this is a roomy five-place hauler that takes you straight back to the wildly optimistic American sedans of the '60s, but with a difference.
This latest version of the American full-size sedan is engineered, styled, and manufactured to go toe to toe with the best competing models the world market has to offer. Without effort, it meets that challenge and welcomes the battle. The Charger is proof that American carmakers have learned that they can no longer market shoddy design and haphazard assembly. To that end, the Dodge Charger is a proud product of the new Detroit. It's handsomely designed and has world-class fit and finish. From crankshaft to door handles, everything operates with fine precision and the promise of long-lasting service.
The Dodge Charger was redesigned for the 2011 model year, and there are no significant changes for the 2012 Charger except that a new 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 has been added to the model lineup. The 2012 Charger is the second year of the second generation of the modern Charger. The first generation ran 2006-2010. The original was launched as a '66. The General Lee Bo and Luke Duke drove was a '69.
From the outside, this second-generation Charger looks a lot like an older rendering of the American sedan, but that appearance is misleading. The retro look is a self-confident exercise in sinuous American styling.
The interior, however, is anything but old style. It's richly furnished with cutting-edge conveniences, advanced technology and the no-nonsense functionalism buyers demand. A first-rate, 8.4-inch touch-screen navigation system is coupled with a rearview camera and ancillary controls for climate and audio. The latest navigation system is sensationally intuitive, transparent, and pleasing to use, among the best we've seen. It's very easy to read and very easy to understand. Underscoring this user-friendliness, the Charger's audio controls for volume and tuning are accomplished with old-fashioned, practical radial knobs: What a concept! And following through, each of these knobs is furnished with a nice rubber feel as you make your one-touch adjustments. Brilliant. German luxury brands costing vastly more could learn from the Charger's straightforward controls.
Nothing else is more happily apparent in the new Dodge Charger than that Chrysler has enthusiastically embraced the new design and quality standards dictated by Detroit's recent, painful bailouts. To do well against foreign automakers today, American carmakers cannot be satisfied with building cars that are as good as the competition. They must build better cars at lower prices than the competition. Dodge has gone about this in a bracingly built-in-America way.
Even with a Hemi V8 and optional all-wheel drive, as our test car was furnished, the new Charger's efficient engineering produces a full-size family sedan with both strong performance and surprisingly thrifty EPA fuel economy. Our Hemi-powered test car delivered an EPA-estimated 15 mpg City and 23 mpg Highway. V6 Chargers earn a stellar 31 mpg Highway.
The 2012 Dodge Charger is the classic combination: a full-size Detroit sedan with strong performance and unmistakable American looks, selling at a surprisingly attractive price. Compared with the full-size Dodge sedan of 20 or 30 years ago, a 2012 Charger will reward the owner with exciting styling, world-class engineering and impressive value. You no longer have to buy American because it's patriotic. With cars like this, you buy American because it's smart.
This latest-generation Dodge Charger is immediately recognizable. The front says it's a Dodge, a design theme that began life on, of all things, the upright first-generation Dodge Ram pickup truck. The two vehicles could not be more different, yet the aggressive, muscular cruciform grille suits both perfectly. Achieving that kind of unmistakable model-line identity is no small achievement.
In like manner, the tail of the Charger uses the same array of full-width taillamps made famous on the Charger in the '60s. It's a handsome look that is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with historic Dodge styling cues. The Charger expresses pride in where Dodge, Chrysler Corporation, and for that matter, all American cars have been during the last few turbulent decades.
The body of the second-generation modern Charger is crisply styled throughout. It is considerably edgier and more muscular than its immediate predecessor, which had great promise but was, by comparison, a bit of a lump. Along the sides of the car are slanting, angular indentations that echo the racy rear-facing engine-room vents made so famous on the all-conquering Dodge Viper supercar. In the Charger, these are unmistakably bad looking in all of the right street-savvy ways.
Continuing this street look, in profile, the car's dramatically low roofline tapers downward rapidly at the car's mid-point. In combination with its high waistline and compressed greenhouse, the car expresses a secretive, almost hot-rod chopped appearance. Occupants seem to peer outward from sinister gun slit-like windows. Yet for all of its hunched-over appearance, the occupants' outward visibility is quite good enough.
When the Charger's dynamic outward appearance is combined with its strong performance, this is an American muscle sedan with the credentials to appeal to a broad range of tastes.
Examining the Charger's interior, we started in the back seat to investigate just how limited seating room might be underneath this low roofline. Inevitably, tall backseat passengers will have to scrunch down a little, though moderately tall riders will be just fine. The rear cabin is comfortable and roomy without being huge. The top of the backlight has multi-linear applique black stripes, providing a bit of shade from the sun and simultaneously creating the impression from outside that the rear window is even lower and more hooded.
The rear seat is firm and supportive, with a fairly hard back-cushion. A central pull-down elbow rest contains two cup holders and a stowage compartment. Dual rear-seat climate vents are provided, together with a 12-volt outlet and rear seat heaters. Deluxe.
Beautiful plum-shaded Nappa leather upholstery is furnished throughout. The front-seat display is mildly spartan, but not in the sense of being cold or under-supplied. Rather, the instrumentation has attractive, classy white-on-black dials. The display, uncomplicated and straightforward, is simple modern.
The dashboard has a sleek, scooped-out titanium-look central motif. Below the tachometer (which no longer has a redline because automatic shifting prevents over-revving) and speedometer are a water temperature gauge and a fuel gauge. Also included in the instrumentation is a compass and an exterior temperature readout.
Between these instruments, an Info board delivers a list of performance parameters, including coolant temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure, transmission temperature, engine hours, tire pressure and several measures of instant and trip fuel mileage. Our one complaint here was that gaining access to this Info board's numerous categories of data was confusing and took some non-intuitive hunting around.
The navi screen, by contrast, was excellent, intuitive, and immediately accessible. Navigation is by simple plan view. The screen is bright, easily read and devoid of complex graphics. Its touch-screen offers Radio, Controls, Climate, Navigation, Phone and More, the latter signifying Sirius Travel Link and a Settings inventory. New for 2012, the system has been upgraded, with hands-free texting, voice commands for Garmin navigation, Sirius Traffic, and full iPod control features. Suddenly, Chrysler and Dodge have one of the best navigation systems available today.
On the steering wheel are controls for the Info board, voice activation and cruise control. On the rear of the steering wheel, where the paddle shifters would be on the R/T Road & Track model, we found a complex set of six different touch buttons. These were designed for manipulating radio volume, selecting stations, bands and pre-selects, but they were a classic instance of too much of a good thing. Mastering which of these buttons controlled what functions, and using the buttons efficiently for their intended purpose would take some serious concentration.
In place of paddle shifters, our test car had a sequential 5-speed manu-matic shifter: It operated independently or could be manually selected. The system had a nice provision whereby if you wanted to cancel manual shifting and return to automatic, you simply push the lever to the right for about one second. Immediately, the transmission returns to selecting its own gears. The manual selector delivered fast, positive manual shifts. Excellent.
In the center console, our test car had two heated-or-cooled cupholders, a deluxe touch.
The stark four-letter badges on the car's sides say, Hemi. Not a lot more need be said. This is a serious American V8, with torque and horsepower enough to pin you back in your seat or, just as surely, enough poise to potter along as complacently as you like.
And because this is a fully self-confident powerplant, Dodge sees no need to hype it with a sudden, falsely energetic throttle pedal. Throttle response is immediate and proportional, allowing smooth, forceful acceleration.
Dodge's Fuel-Saver Technology cancels four cylinders when they aren't needed, also eliminating needless fuel flow when decelerating. In our test car, EPA-rated City fuel mileage, at 15 mpg, is as meager as would be expected in a big V8. But the Charger's 23 mpg Highway fuel consumption is good, considering that this is nearly six liter's worth of Hemi.
All-wheel drive is always a useful thing to have aboard, delivering massively better traction and dynamic balance in almost any driving. And the minute you begin driving the Charger R/T Plus AWD, it's clear that this car is a complete break from the Dodges of decades ago.
Yet despite our R/T Plus AWD having only Normal Duty suspension, the car proved a remarkably stable, grippy driver. There was only moderate lean, squat or dive during cornering, acceleration or braking. Pushed hard on dry pavement, the all-wheel drive always gives you just a little more cornering grip than you expect.
Ride quality is very good, and the car's solid structure soaks up road surface irregularities with ease. Yet as relatively compliant as the ride is, steering is lively and communicative, keeping you in direct touch with the road. The thick, sturdy leather-wrapped steering wheel underscores the well-developed solidity of the car. With its variable-assist electronic steering, the driver is encouraged to think of this Charger as not nearly as large and cumbersome as outward appearances may suggest. Despite its dimensions, this is a crisp, sporty muscle sedan. It incites confidence and enjoyable driving.
Braking performance is exemplary. The R/T Road & Track model boasts bigger, more forceful Brembo disc brakes, good for reducing fade when driving on a race track and repeatedly hammering the brakes. The R/T Plus AWD Package includes 13.6-inch vented front discs and 12.6-inch vented rear discs. (In non-AWD R/T Plus models, the front and rear brake rotors are both 12.6 inches.) The 13.6-inch brakes provided massive, balanced non-skid stopping power, especially in combination with the multiple electronic brake-assist technologies of rain brake support, ready alert braking, electronic stability control, all-speed traction control and hill-start assist.
The Charger SRT8 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in the high 4-second range and can cover the standing quarter-mile in the high 12-second range. Top speed is 175 mph, according to Dodge. The SRT8 can brake from 60-0 mph in 120 feet.
The 2012 Dodge Charger is a dynamic, forceful road car that starts, stops and corners with poise. If Dodge had come anywhere near to this kind of Charger years ago, the company would have been every buyer's hero. This is an American sedan to be proud of.
Ted West filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report.