Review: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T Max AWD
By Chris Haak
Just the good ol’ boys
Never meanin’ no harm
Beats all you never saw
Been in trouble with the law
Since the day they was born.
Those words, of course, are from Waylon Jennings’ theme song from the Dukes of Hazzard, the delightfully hokey show that ran from 1979 to 1985 about two cousins,
Coy and Vance Bo and Luke who lived in rural Georgia with their uncle Jesse and cousin Daisy. Of course, “them Duke boys” famously drove an orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a giant “01″ on each welded-shut door, and an even larger Confederate flag painted on its roof. There was probably nothing in history that brought the Dodge Charger to the public’s consciousness, while at the same time literally destroying hundreds of examples of the same car (between 309 and 329, depending on the source, says Wikipedia) as the Dukes of Hazzard did. [To see one of those Chargers being destroyed, just watch the end of the linked YouTube clip above at the 1:00 mark, where the General Lee lands and its front end nearly breaks off.]
It may seem an odd choice to open a review of a car that’s 42 years newer than the General Lee with a reference to the Dukes of Hazzard. However, for the newest Charger, Dodge has chosen to infuse the latest iteration of its large sedan with a dose of retro design cues. And they actually work pretty well, particularly if the car is going to be called a Charger. Critics of the previous generation (2006-2010) Charger noted that the name didn’t really mesh well with the model’s historical design cues. That’s no longer as much an issue; the new-for-2011 Charger adopts some of the classic car’s design features, most notably its full-width taillamps (but with LCD illumination rather than a few large incandescent bulbs) and large scallops on the doors are an obvious nod to the nameplate’s history – and finally bring the 2011 Charger very close in profile to the 1999-vintage Charger concept car. With its cross hair grille and headlights that are both canted forward (“ready to attack the road,” according to Dodge), the front of the Charger looks much more like a nod to the previous generation Charger than any kind of nod to Chargers of the sixties. It’s not as close of a copy of the original as the Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger are, but at least it can reasonably be called a Charger if you squint hard enough.
Against the last Charger, the new one’s design looks cleaner, sleeker, and more modern. The windshield is larger (in fact, all of its daylight openings are larger) and is also swept back more. That makes it easier to see traffic lights without leaning forward and craning your neck. The Charger makes no bones about being a large car; it’s bigger than most new cars, and has larger engine choices to match its large body. Fortunately, with short overhangs, large wheels, and tight fender openings, the Charger looks every part of a modern performance sedan.
Inside, the transformation was nothing short of remarkable. Where the old Charger/Magnum/300 trio did have a soft-touch dash, the first-generation LX cars had an interior design inspired by rectangles, the new car boasts a driver-centric interior with a gently sweeping curve over the gauges and center stack. Dodge says that the new dashboard shape is inspired by the 1971 Charger, and if you look at a photo of that car’s interior (click here and scroll about two thirds of the way down the page), you can definitely see the resemblance. The gauges themselves are large and easy to read, with an attractive font, and the stuff that looks like aluminum in the background is actually aluminum. The focal point in my well-equipped R/T tester, front and center, was the oversized LCD display.
Chrysler tapped Garmin’s expertise to design the Charger’s navigation system, and it’s identical to the software on a portable Garmin unit (“Where To?” and “View Map”), except that the large screen makes it even easier to read. In order to avoid button overload, ancillary functions such as heated seats and climate control fine-tuning are also performed on the touchscreen.
The Garmin system worked very well. It’s easy to use, easy to read, and even shows the posted speed limit on nearly any road that you happen to be traveling on. The speed limit display empowered my five year old and three year old back seat drivers to remind me every time the speed turned red, which meant I was exceeding the posted limit – which is easy to do in the Charger R/T (more on that in a moment). The large navigation screen and Garmin system are a welcome departure from the double DIN rectangular unit that Chrysler had been using since the middle of the last decade (and continues to use in its less heavily updated products such as the 200 and Town & Country). Garmin’s software – though almost too cartoonish for my taste in a serious performance sedan – is leaps-and-bounds better than the former navigation software that is still found in the 200.
Surrounding the new gauges, you’ll find Chrysler’s new parts-bin steering wheel, though somewhat annoyingly shared with nearly *everything* Chrysler builds for 2011 (Grand Cherokee, Challenger, 200, 300, minivans, etc.) seems to have a smaller diameter than the old wheel, and has a much thicker rim and quality feel to it. They must have gotten a heck of a deal on those wheels, but at least they’re putting good wheels in all of their cars. A bonus of this particular Charger R/T having adaptive speed control is that there are no blank, unused buttons on the right hand spoke as there are in vehicles that use the wheel but don’t have ASC.
The seats in our tester were what the company calls “Radar Red.” Trim in the center of the door panels matched the seats, and although I wasn’t crazy about red seats in a dark gray metallic car at first, I began to appreciate the welcome splash of color that they provided to an otherwise charcoal-colored interior. Plus, you don’t have to get the red seats if you’re not feeling so extroverted. Regardless of the color you choose for your Charger’s seats, you’ll find that they are supportive and comfortable. I learned this firsthand in over 500 miles behind the wheel during my week with the car.
If you live in a warm weather area, then you can probably just skip the AWD and save yourself $2,150 upfront, plus a few MPGs forever. But as someone who drives a RWD sport sedan daily with much less power and torque than this Charger has – and who has seen his car literally not have any forward momentum on a slippery street – there’s something to be said for the security and peace-of-mind that AWD provides. The day the Charger arrived for its test, I paired my phone with the car, adjusted my seat and mirrors, and backed out of my driveway. As I got to the end of my street to leave my neighborhood, I spotted a line of cars trudging uphill slowly toward me. The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was to have a Hemi underfoot and not be able to use it, so I put all of my faith in the Charger’s AWD system and stood on the gas pedal.
Instead of an immediate engagement of front wheel traction like I was anticipating, instead I let loose the noisiest burnout I’ve ever done in my life. After a harrowing second, the front tires did start clawing for traction, and I was able to take advantage of the Hemi’s power to get myself up to speed quickly after that. But don’t take Dodge’s word at face value when they tell you the transition is seamless, because I heard quite a “seam” that evening. I’m sure my neighbors did as well, because my wife told me a little while later that she ran out of the house to see what had happened, thinking I had been in some sort of terrible accident. I’m guessing that part of the reason for my experience is that the Charger combines an active transfers case with a front axle disconnect in its AWD system. The purpose of the front axle disconnect is twofold; it saves fuel by not asking the front axles to move when not needed, and also enhances the car’s rear wheel drive performance feel. The EPA says the Charger R/T AWD should hit 15 MPG in the city and 23 MPG on the highway (the figures are 16/25 for the RWD R/T). I saw about 18 MPG combined, but 23-25 MPG is quite possible on gentle highway jaunts.
Despite the car’s size and weight (sadly, it’s heavier than a 2010 Charger; blame its improved comfort, technology, and crashworthiness), it can hustle quite well. I’ve talked about the Hemi briefly, but let me tell you a bit more. It produces 370 horsepower and 395 lb-ft of torque and had cylinder deactivation to save fuel in light-load situations. The engine is smooth and powerful, and sounds fantastic above 4,000 RPMs. Sadly, the engine is bolted to a Daimler-sourced five-speed automatic that doesn’t have enough urgency in its shifts or ratios in its quiver. Don’t get me wrong; the Charger performs quite admirably in spite of its transmission, but assuming that the Charger R/T gets the same eight speed automatic that has been announced for the V6 Charger (the same one that takes the V6 car’s EPA highway rating from 27 MPG to an eye-opening 31 MPG), and assuming that the eight speeder can shift with more alacrity, the Charger R/T will be nothing short of amazing. Unlike some heavier vehicles with fuel-shutoff technology (i.e. GM’s large SUVs), the system in the Charger can actually accelerate [gently] in four cylinder mode, and can certainly maintain speed on a reasonably flat road in four cylinder mode. Use the pedal a lot and you’ll be visiting the gas station often.
Braking performance is improved over the old Charger (and in a different league from the old, old, old Charger that inspired this car’s design), and body control seemed to be decent despite the Charger R/T not having the stiffer suspension that the Charger SRT8 will have. My biggest complaint about a Challenger R/T against a Challenger SRT8 was that the Challenger R/T’s suspension seemed to be too soft, so hopefully this newfound competence will mean good things for the 2012 Charger SRT8.
You’ll pay $5,000 for the Max Package on a Charger R/T, but you get a lot of nice technology and luxury/convenience features for that money. The package includes Adaptive Speed Control, Forward Collision Warning, 8.4 inch touchscreen display, Garmin navigation system, Sirius Satellite Radio, 506-watt 9-speaker sound system, rain sensing wipers, automatically dimming SmartBeam headlamps, heated/cooled front console cupholders, front overhead LED lighting, heated steering wheel, and
Corinthian Nappa leather seats. Aside from that package, the only other option on our tester was the $825 power sunroof. With a base price of $33,145 (including destination), the Charger R/T AWD that we evaluated rang up a $39,095 MSRP (again, including destination).
While 39 grand may sound like a lot for a Dodge, you’re getting serious technology, safety, and performance features – plus all wheel drive – in a car that costs some $3,700 less at invoice than a comparably-equipped Taurus SHO according to our pals at TrueDelta.com. MSRP to MSRP, the SHO costs a substantial $5,675 more, and while I liked the SHO and its EcoBoost V6 a lot, I’d pick the Charger even if they were the same price. Considering that this Charger was largely developed during the Cerberus era at Chrysler, with Fiat’s oversight of its final development, I’m optimistic that perhaps even more superior products are in the pipeline from Chrysler over the next few years now that the company has more resources to draw from after its near-death experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next from the folks in Auburn Hills.
Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.