By Roger Boylan
Plato had no room for artists in his ideal republic, but not because he didn’t respect them; on the contrary, he argued that the “sacred fear” inspired by great art could cause too much excitement and passion and ultimately undermine the entire social system. I surmise, therefore, that he would have been firmly opposed to anyone in his republic driving the car I just wrapped up a week with: the ’09 Dodge Charger SRT8, a work of mechanical art quite capable of generating excitement and passion and undermining anybody’s social system. At first sight, this sculpture of power parked in my driveway raised serious doubts in my mind that it and I could ever find a modus vivendi. After all, it’s an in-your-face statement of automotive moxie, a direct descendant of the macho muscle cars of the ’60s driven by televisual hillbillies, mechanical monsters that mostly made a lot of noise and smoked their rear tires during getaways from the moonshine authorities. This, I thought, was hardly my style; my daily driver is a Jaguar S-Type, nimble enough but comparatively discreet. I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake; was this Charger my nemesis? I was eager to find out, so I stashed the Jag in the garage for the duration and embarked on my routine of weekday commutes and weekend excursions as the middle-aged driver of what appeared to be the quintessential young man’s car.
The first revelation was, quite simply, the power of the thing. I’d never driven anything like it, not even the Supercharged Jaguar XF. Lower the boot and the Charger lives up to its name, charging ahead on an uninterrupted rush of power accompanied by a magnificent throaty roar that tickles something primeval in the human soul. This is all made possible by the 425 horses galloping under the hood, where a 6.1 liter Hemi V-8 works its magic in tandem with an adaptive 5-speed transmission that soon learned my driving style, notably that I was incapable of approaching an entrance ramp without dropping the hammer. After a couple of slight hesitations, it adapted by producing utterly seamless downshifts. (It comes with the AutoStick manual feature, which I ignored, on the no-doubt fusty principle that a manual is a manual and an automatic is an automatic.) An informal speed test or two gave a tick under 5 seconds for the 0-60 run. Fortunately, stopping was just as fast. The brakes, massive Brembo jobs with huge red calipers, reined in the beast firmly and fast, with no evidence of fade, despite several sudden stops for testing purposes. Cornering, as I found on a rapid drive through the Hill Country, is superb, the kind you’d expect from a Lotus, or a Miata, not a full-size American family car. Best of all, the SRT8 comes loaded with safety features such as active suspension traction control and an electronic stability program that makes it nearly impossible for the non-Nascar driver–and that would be me–to lose control, or unglue the car from the blacktop. Airbags abounded, too, side curtains in the back, console- and seat-mounted in the front. It’s that rara avis, a safe muscle car.
But it works equally well as a workaday commuter. I settled comfortably into the daily rush-hour routine, when opportunities for hairy-chested driving antics are few. No worries there. The Charger revealed itself to be quiet and steady when needed, with a docile response to light pressure on the gas pedal. And, with a 19-gallon fuel tank, it proved not to be the gasoline dipsomaniac I was half-expecting: I got 20 mpg on the highway at a steady 70, down around 17 when that primeval urge took over and before I knew it I was coming perilously close to three digits on the speedometer (which goes all the way up to 180 miles p.h., just in case)….I was confident, however, that my friendly local highway patrolman had his eye on me, even if my Charger was a sedate silver rather than a screaming tomato red. The air scoop on the hood, the flying rear wing, the 20-in. wheels, and the red Brembo calipers are signs that this Charger means business. (Ironically, our businesslike local Texas constabulary has its own Chargers.)
The car’s domestic bona fides were confirmed when I took the family for a Thanksgiving excursion through Austin’s western suburbs and into the adjacent countryside. It was windy outside, but little wind noise penetrated within. The tires can be heard on rough surfaces, but not much, and on smooth pavement are barely audible. (My car was Eagle-shod, each tire inflated to 35 psi.) My passengers had nothing but praise for the Charger’s comfort and easy ride and its many interior accessories, such as the DVD screen, remote control, and cordless headphones available to rear-seat passengers, the Sirius satellite radio/GPS nav screen, and the dual climate controls (instant cold or hot air) up front. The dashboard is conservatively but soothingly laid out in gray and silver, with the aforementioned 180-mph speedometer and a LED display for oil temperature and pressure and tire pressure. In daytime the soft backlighting is clearly visible and in the dark the gauges light up with a blue-white glow, which manages to be neither distracting nor cheesy.
Indeed, good taste is evident throughout the car; this, too, was somewhat unexpected. Unquestionably, the interior of the Charger SRT8 would be a comfortable place to spend some time, even entire days, criss-crossing the empty deserts of the Southwest and bustling up the sinuous coastal highways of California and Oregon. Even after 200+ miles of nonstop driving one day I felt ready for more. I attribute this in part to the sheer pleasure of driving the car–its solidity, responsiveness, and power–and in part to the pleasant interior, especially the driver’s leg room and the well-sculpted and supportive suede-and-leather seats, which boast special red but subtle “SRT” stitching (and which can heat up at the touch of a button, a feature seldom needed in Texas, except by masochists). Room in the back is ample, too, even for the ample, such as I; as an experiment, I managed to arrange my person into a tolerable semi-reclining position back there, with the front seat pushed back halfway. The rear seats split 60/40 and fold forward, expanding the already considerable space of the trunk to a cargo cavern of near-SUV dimensions.
All of this doesn’t come cheap. This is the top-of-the-line Dodge, after all. The sticker price hovers around $40K for one loaded to the gills, but that’s a purely theoretical price these days, of course; I’ve seen comparable ’08 Chargers on sale at a $12K markdown at my local Dodge dealer. And, bearing in mind that the SRT8 poaches in the groves of the AMG Benz and BMW M-series, which command prices $20K higher, on average, to describe it as a bargain would be no exaggeration.
Does it take the threat of ruin and bankruptcy for the American automobile industry to produce such fine machines? The Charger SRT8, the daily ride of the true car lover, is an instant classic. It’s a car for all seasons: it can come roaring out of the primeval mists like Godzilla, or trundle meekly down the road to the grocery store. I thoroughly enjoyed my week with it, and was sorry to see it go. The hip adjective “awesome” would be an appropriate description, were it not so misused that its original meaning–as a reaction to something like Plato’s sacred fear–has been lost. Let me just say that I was mightily impressed, and would add one of these beauties to my dream garage in a heartbeat.
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