On The Road Review: Dodge Charger SXT

As I meander around the frigid streets of downtown Bangor for a convenient parking space to conduct five minutes of pressing business, it suddenly becomes more apparent why shopping malls and plazas have succeeded in the modern age.

Downtowns were patron-friendly when people walked to walk, rode the bus/train/trolley or their own carriage into town and when far fewer people were vying for essential goods and services.

Today, more people, with less time, are trying to satisfy their consumption needs. Shopping centers and malls have supplanted the downtown experience by catering to a more comprehensive one-stop experience with greater access and convenience. As much as a loyal cadre of devoted urbanites advocate for their beloved and quaint downtown experiences, the masses are voting with their feet and their wallets to embrace the car-friendly open spaces of the shopping-mall animal.

On the second loop a parking spot opens up near my destination. In and out in a snap, I return to find this week’s Dodge Charger SXT Sport sedan with optional AWD boxed in by a full-size pickup truck on each side. Oh the joy of diagonal parking — on the left side of the street — completely blind to oncoming traffic.

Lowering the window, I try to hear oncoming traffic before easing into the street. Blowing hours signal the fallacy of this plan.

 

But a revelation appears; the Charger’s rear-view camera features a wide-angle lens mounted atop the trunk lid that provides a superb view up and down the street. Problem solved!

While many new cars now come with rear-view cameras, our well-optioned Charger illustrated how several advanced technologies have crept into more mainstream cars relatively quickly, but also how aggressively Chrysler (and Dodge) has rebounded since the near-death experience of its 2009 bankruptcy. This point was further demonstrated when our subsequent test car, a Lexus GS350, lacked several of the premium features that the Charger offered. Which car is the true luxury sedan?

Dodge certainly is not positioning the Charger as a luxury car, yet its revived portfolio of features will make quite an impression on full-size sedan buyers who want the feel of a European-inspired, rear-drive-oriented chassis and the space of a traditional American four-door.

For 2013, Dodge offers the Charger in no fewer than nine models and trim levels. Rear-wheel drive with the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 and a five-speed automatic is the standard offering, starting at $25,795 for the SE, while all-wheel drive is available on all models except the SRT8 and new SRT8 Super Bee. In between are the SXT and SXT Plus, the R/T, R/T Plus and R/T Max as well as the new Blacktop edition, a monochromatic sedan with a sportier chassis setup, special blacked-out wheels, plus a solid black interior. This model also is available with AWD as are all of the SXT and R/T editions. Dodge also will offer a limited production Daytona edition later this year.

Most impressive about the Charger’s chassis tuning, as well as the AWD dynamics, is how the Charger remains a rear-drive biased vehicle with neutral steering and excellent grip. Affixed to a long wheelbase layout — 120.2-inch wheelbase — with over 63 inches of track width, the 199-inch-long Charger is a true full-size sedan.

However, the Charger has its roots in the Mercedes E-class chassis design from when Chrysler was aligned with Daimler-Benz during the mid-2000s. Translation, the current Charger is very responsive for a large car and actually quite nimble. It is stable on the road, accurate in transition moves and composed over all surfaces. In fact, the Charger feels more lithe and poised than our higher-priced AWD Lexus, as well as quieter on the highway. Again, which car is the premium sedan?

And, compared to the equally large Ford Taurus, the Charger is absolutely a more enjoyable car to drive — better road manners, more direct control, better visibility, better driver engagement, more interior space, plus better controls. Charger shoppers also might compare the Buick LaCrosse and Toyota Avalon, both of which are front-drive-only full-size cars, while the Chrysler 300 (the Charger’s sibling) as well as Chevy’s upcoming Impala also would be comparable size-wise.

The very first Dodge Chargers were “midsized” two-door muscle cars that debuted in 1966, with production ending in 1978. Although Dodge used the Charger name as trim level monikers in subsequent years, the ‘real’ Charger didn’t reappear until 2006 on a full-size four-door car that is the predecessor to the car seen here. Dodge gave the Charger a modest makeover last year, including some important chassis upgrades and powertrain improvements, yet the interior only received component improvements instead of a complete overhaul. Remember, Chrysler was almost dead three years ago and new car creations usually take at least three years.

Chrysler’s recent success has been due to strong Jeep sales, robust Ram truck growth, plus the revival of the Dodge/Chrysler minivan lineup. Chrysler and Dodge car sales have grown at a more modest rate, which has to be of some concern for product planners as both midsize and compact cars are essential elements of the American marketplace. Chrysler remains a bit player in these segments.

The one car segment that Chrysler has done well is the full-size sedan class. Chevy’s Impala dominated sales last year, due to hefty fleet volumes. The Dodge Charger was a distant second, but safely ahead of the Ford Taurus. Chrysler 300 sales were barely behind the Taurus, while the Buick and the Toyota models trailed the class.

In the past, the Charger also would have been a mainstay at airport rental lots and high-discount fleet operators. The latest edition has done well due to the recent upgrades — performance and appearance wise.

Our Redline Red SXT Sport AWD model, $36,795 as shown, carried several compelling features. Most worked superbly, some need some fine-tuning. All were welcome on a car that presented good value. There is a caveat, however.

Most important is the Charger’s new eight-speed automatic, the same transmission that Audi uses on the A6 and other cars. Although gearing is different from the Audi, the central theme is to improve fuel economy in a two-ton sedan without sacrificing performance. Acceleration is swift in the Dodge, but real power-freaks will still lust for either of the optional Hemi V-8 engines, motors that produce 370 hp in the R/T and 470 hp in the SRT8.

The Pentastar V-6 makes 292 hp here and earns EPA ratings of 19/31 with rear-drive, 18/27-mpg with AWD. With a trip computer much more accurate than usual, the Dodge reported a best of 26.2 mpg for a 90-mile, 65-mph trip, while our eight-day average was a reasonable 24 mpg given the wintry elements, idle time and traveling velocity. At a steady 75 mph the Charger’s new transmission has the engine turning a low 1,700 rpms.

Because the Charger feels so compliant, the car readily masks its highway velocity — you can easily get lulled into the sense that you are not going as fast as you truly are. Good road cars set themselves apart from other rivals by this prowess. Good thing the adaptive cruise control works so well.

With the eight-speed you get steering wheel paddle shifters plus a stubby electronic shift lever on the console that offers negligible feel and an awkward thumb button. At the end of the week, I was still adapting to the Charger’s transmission engagement action.

It was not awkward, however, to adapt to the Charger’s excellent heated steering wheel (warms in mere seconds) or the supportive heated seats. The 8.4-inch infotainment screen remains one of the most convenient and concise to use, with easy touch actions, large buttons, and simple menu’s, while the auxiliary steering wheel audio controls for the optional Dr. Beats 556-watt, 10-speaker audio system remain among the best in the business.

This SXT Sport also featured Adaptable Cruise Control — formerly restricted to expensive luxury sedans — plus blind-spot detection, forward collision warning system, auto-dimming headlamps (which struggled with reflections from snowbanks and high-viz road signs) automatic wipers, push-button ignition with passive locks, navigation system, plus memory leather seating. The console beverage slots also were heated or cooled as needed.

The Charger offers huge access doors that open a very wide 7 -degrees, plus a spacious trunk. Rear seat space is good — not great — for adults as the sloping roofline takes some headroom for tall occupants while the center floor tunnel takes up a lot of foot space. Seat comfort is good in the rear, plus seat-heaters are available for rear occupants.

Other pluses: big 19-gallon fuel tank renders almost 500 miles of range, a diminutive turning radius gives the Charger great small space agility, plus the AWD-system removes all doubts about winter travel.

The only caveat — alluded to earlier — is how well Chrysler has overcome some of the quality gremlins that used to haunt this brand. All of this technology is very appealing in a mass-production family sedan, but will it create long-term issues down the road, repair expenses not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty? Chrysler, like a lot of other automakers, has thrown a lot of equipment into its latest offerings; let’s hope that it all holds up and the brand continues to enjoy the revival path it is on.

The Charger SXT is a handsome, almost menacing looking full-size ride with deep side coves, blacked-out wheels and a race-inspired spoiler. It’s over-the-road performance matches the look and the Charger proved to be a very satisfying travel companion. Welcome back, Charger.

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