It seems almost an eternity ago, the 2005 introduction of the all-new Dodge Charger. Sharing its platform with the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum station wagon, all three models got off to a promising start.
Based on a previous version of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class (Dodge was part of DaimlerChrysler at the time), the trio marked the renaissance of the rear-wheel-drive, full-size American sedan. And up until the 2008 economic meltdown, the Dodge Charger was frequently among the 10 best-selling vehicles in North America.
Now, 18 months after emerging from bankruptcy and with its new Italian partner Fiat at its side, Dodge is introducing an all-new version of the Charger for the 2011 model year. The new model addresses almost every complaint leveled at its predecessor, especially those criticisms regarding the quality of its interior.
Is the Charger back on track? Quite possibly, so I took to the street and racetrack in search of answers.
Although the 2011 Charger shares the basic package and many of the dimensions with the previous version, it is an almost entirely different vehicle. The floor pan is one of the few shared parts.
When placed side by side with the previous version, the 2011 Charger looks all new. Its styling harkens to the classic 1968 to 1970 version, especially the side scallops and full-width taillight assembly that features 164 illuminated LEDs to form the car's signature racetrack.
Styling moves metal, and the new Charger won't be handicapped by its new set of clothes.
The 2011 Charger's increased outward visibility is one obvious improvement. The steeply raked windshield was redesigned to provide better forward visibility, especially for viewing signals from above (such as traffic lights).
The rear windows around the C-pillar were restyled, too. The result is a side profile that is more coupé-like than the previous version, with outward visibility improved about 15 percent.
At the recent introduction of the 2011 Dodge Charger in the San Francisco Bay Area, Joe Dehner, head of Dodge and Ram Design, said, "Had we known that the previous version was going to be called Charger, we would have styled it differently, more aggressively than we did.
"With the 2011 Charger we are addressing these criticisms, giving the 2011 version the traditional Charger-like styling cues from the iconic 1968 to 1970 version.
"Our all-new 2011 Dodge Charger incorporates the essence of the second-generation Chargers with world-class execution in a fastback, four-door coupé silhouette. The early Chargers have a cult-like following that exists today. These cars are instantly recognizable with the menacing look and unmistakable coke bottle designs and remain true to the Dodge brand today."
My take on the styling? Clearly evolutionary, the new 2011 Dodge Charger retains a strong link to the previous generation. Yet from almost every angle it looks more sinister and aggressive, especially forward of the A-pillar.
One benefit of this is improved aerodynamics: The coefficient of drag on the 2011 Charger is an impressive .29, an 8-percent improvement over the outgoing model.
Open the driver's door, however, and you immediately see where the 2011 Charger got its most meaningful improvements and refinements.
The interior of the previous-generation Charger was often criticized for the poor quality of its low-rent interior plastics. Here, soft-touch surfaces abound. The new instrument panel sports a high-quality metal bezel that surrounds the gauges.
The new (optional) 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system--featuring a Garmin aftermarket-style interface--serves up a level of fit and finish that now belies the Charger's sub-$26,000 base price. (The test R/T model I drove has a base price of $30,170.)
It is safe to say the interior of the 2011 Charger has more in common with pricier European sedans than it does with its 2005-2010 predecessors. The Charger is now class competitive (class leading in some ways), especially against its most direct domestic rival, Ford's front-wheel-drive Taurus.
Under the hood are more improvements. The two previous V6 engines have been replaced with just one, the new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that delivers 292 horsepower (up 63 percent) and 260 lb.-ft. of torque (up 36 percent) compared with the previous entry-level 2.7-liter V6 engine.
Even when compared to the previous high-output 3.5-liter V6 engine, the new Pentastar V6 engine produces 42 more horse-power (up 16 percent) and 10 lb.-ft. more torque.
It delivers these higher numbers while offering better fuel economy. For the new Pentastar V6, the EPA numbers come in at 27 m.p.g. on the highway and 18 m.p.g. in the city.
While the new Pentastar V6 is a huge improvement over the outgoing V6 engines, for many people a Charger isn't a Charger unless a Hemi sits under the hood. The Charger R/T is equipped with an improved version of the famed 5.7-liter Hemi that delivers a best-in-class 370 horsepower and respectable EPA numbers of 25 m.p.g. on the highway and 16 m.p.g. in the city.
Its Fuel Saver Technology runs the engine on just four cylinders under light loads while cruising. The flip side of the Hemi is its ability to deliver consistently 0-60 times under six seconds accompanied by a throaty soundtrack. God bless, and long live, the V8.
Less likely to engender compliments is the 2011 Charger's five-speed automatic transmission, derived from a Mercedes-Benz design. It was recalibrated for the 2011 Charger to be more responsive, and the five-speed does its job without complaint.
Yet the five-speed is undoubtedly just a placeholder until the arrival of a new eight-speed automatic trans-mission, which is reportedly being developed in conjunction with ZF. Expect the eight-speed as a running change at some point in the 2012 model year.
And speaking of expected changes, an SRT8 version is rumored to be coming about a year from now. It will feature the same 392-cubic-inch Hemi V8 found in the 2011 Challenger SRT8 392 with a massive 470-horsepower spinning the rear wheels. With an expected starting price near $40,000, it should provide a viable alternative to imported sport sedans costing significantly more.
At Infineon Raceway north of San Francisco, Dodge gave me the chance to flog the Charger R/T on the track. I came away extremely impressed--not so much by the power from the Hemi as with the sharpness of the chassis.
While many think the chassis is a carryover from the previous version's E-Class-derived underpinnings, nothing could be further from the truth.
Improved stick comes courtesy of new front and rear suspension calibrations designed to deliver sharper handling response. This was apparent on both the track and on the twisting roads north of San Francisco.
More aggressive front- and rear-camber geometry settings, -1.0 degrees up front and -1.75 degrees in the rear, contribute to the improved crispness of the handling.
Another contributing factor are all-new premium hydrobushings combined with new monotube shock absorbers, spring rates, and re-designed front and rear multi-link suspension geometries that provide the 2011 Dodge Charger with exceptional performance handling dynamics for such a large car.
Moreover, the new electro-hydraulic power-steering system in the 2011 Charger features 25 percent quicker steering combined with improved on-center tracking while reducing steering noise. Gone is the somewhat rubbery feeling of the previous version.
The greatest compliment I can give is that despite its size--the car rides on a 120-inch wheelbase and is 200 inches overall--the new Charger drives smaller than it is and goes where you point it.
Also available is an all-wheel-drive version. It features a segment-exclusive active transfer case and front-axle disconnect system that improves fuel economy by up to 5 percent.
The 2011 Dodge Charger's innovative AWD system transitions between rear-wheel drive and AWD with no driver intervention. When all-wheel drive is not required, the system automatically disconnects the front axle to maximize fuel economy.
An added benefit is that the Charger responds with all the performance and handling attributes of rear-wheel-drive vehicles that make them so much more fun to drive than front-wheel-drive competitors. While you sacrifice some fuel economy, enthusiasts like me usually feel it is a worthwhile tradeoff.
One of the more intriguing option packages for the 2011 Charger is the Super Track Pack, which adds larger front and rear anti-roll bars. Responses are sharpened thanks to a lower rear-axle ratio, Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, upgraded shocks, and three-mode stability control.
Oh, and there's one more bonus. When equipped with the Super Track Pack, the stability control can be fully neutered. When combined with the Hemi in the R/T trim level, driving this car at the Infineon track, which hosts a West Coast stop on NASCAR's Sprint Cup, is as close to Kurt Busch as most of us will get.
With aggressive styling, improved handling, a dramatically upgraded interior, and a brand-new V6 and optional Hemi, the 2011 Dodge Charger goes from mid pack to the top of the class.
Shortchanged for development resources under its two previous owners, it looks as if the partnership with Fiat is now paying big dividends. I can hardly wait for an SRT8 version, expected about this time next year.
Length: 199.9 inches
Width: 75.0 inches
Curb weight: 3,961 pounds
Engine: V8, 5.7-liter DOHC, normally aspirated
Horsepower: 370 h.p. @ 5250 r.p.m.
Torque: 395 lb.-ft. @ 4,200 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 16/25
price: $30,170 with $825
As-tested price: $38,010 with $825 destination
Also consider: 2011 Chevrolet Impala, 2011 Ford Taurus, 2011 Hyundai Genesis, 2011 Nissan Maxima