Another Out of the Ballpark Hit for Chrysler Group The 2006 Charger comes with the same kind of bold presence as the original '60s and early '70s models. May 22, 2005 by Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press Digital Canon SLR in hand I madly snapped shots from the bleachers among a throng of like-minded photographers trying to get a perfectly cropped shot of King Richard Petty next to the new Dodge Charger, in what was the best executed unveiling in Detroit last January. Having just been unmasked from under what looked to be a race-prepped NASCAR version of the car, the enthusiasm bordered on hysteria - a rare sight among jaded journalists. It was then that I asked myself how Chrysler keeps putting out winners when its domestic competitors seem to struggle from one new model to the next. The latest in the Ann Arbor-based automaker's lineup resurrects one of the most memorable nameplates in the storied marque's history. Charger was the quintessential muscle car when it debuted in 1966. Its brutish styling, bullish power and bad boy attitude made it a favourite among go-fast greasers, from the first generation to the third, ending in 1974. The Charger nameplate was still used on various models through the latter half of the '70s, all of the 80s and some of the '90s, but it was the early cars that make today's classic collectors and muscle car enthusiasts salivate with desire, especially when a hemi V8 is stuffed under the hood. The 2006 Charger, Dodge's modern day muscle car, is once again available with a HEMI V8, but even in stock 2.7- or 3.5-litre V6 trim comes with the same kind of bold presence as the original '60s and early '70s model. I couldn't help notice this when driving from Durham, North Carolina to Virginia International Raceway during the car's press launch earlier this week. Similarly to how the brand's Magnum sport tourer and Chrysler 300 caused a stir on the street when introduced in California, the Charger brought new meaning to rubbernecking, especially among guys. Its tough-as-nails grille and headlight combo, canted forward slightly to give the car a quick-when-standing-still profile, grabs attention, enhanced by aggressive rear fender haunches that wrap around the meaty standard 17-inch wheel and 215/65 tire package (two different 18-inch wheels are optional along with 225/60 or 235/50 performance tires), accentuated by a tall decklid that flips up at its tail to form a Kamm-like finality, make the Charger one of the most dramatic sedans on the road. The quality of the Charger's stalks and switchgear is top-grade, as are much of the interior surfaces. That sense of masculine style is carried into the cabin, a place that will have anyone familiar with the brand's muscular Magnum feeling right at home. Base cars get an austere albeit attractive woven cloth covering the seats, designed with no pattern to interrupt the Charger's purposeful layout, which is a theme I particularly like. Interior surfaces are split into two shades, gray on the bottom half of the door panels and dash plus charcoal on the upper halves, creating an airy ambience despite the slit-like side windows. I love the Viper-inspired tunneled gauges boasting electroluminescent-enhanced white faces and silver-toned rims, but I can't say I'm a big fan of the left-side wiper stalk, which forces the left hand off of the steering wheel in order to make adjustments by rotating its end. I like a more conventional right side stalk, that allows a quick flip up or down when needed with both hands still on the wheel. The quality of the Charger's stalks and switchgear, mind you, is top-grade, as are much of the interior plastic surfaces, or at least those that come readily to hand. Further down the door panels, under the steering column and on the lower half of the console, a little cost cutting is apparent. Still, it's not too often that I go crawling around on the floor of my car, so the point is rather moot. Most, except those getting out of top-line German and Japanese luxury models will find nothing to turn their noses up at. I like the silver metallic bits and pieces that give the car a more upscale appearance, the centre stack being the most liberal application of this treatment. The interior trim transforms from silver to body-colour when the current top-line Daytona model is chosen (a 425-horsepower SRT8 version will be available later in the year), a package that also adds perforated suede and leather sport seats, a front lip spoiler, rear wing, retro decal package and increase of 10-horsepower over the stock 5.7-litre HEMI, among other things, but more on this later. While I want to just start gushing at how fun the car is to drive when equipped with the HEMI V8, there are a lot of reasons for choosing one of the V6 models. First of all, the 2.7-litre SE is pretty inexpensive at $27,495, especially when tallying up all of the standard features such as those 17-inch wheels and tires I previously mentioned, its AM/FM/CD audio system, and standard safety features. The latter includes electronic stability control (ESP), all-speed traction control, 4-wheel discs with antilock (ABS), and multiple airbags - impressive. Of course the SE comes with standard power windows and locks, but the inclusion of remote keyless entry on the base car is a bonus. The tilt steering, expected, is enhanced by a telescopic feature which is normally relegated to higher priced models as well. Cruise control is also standard, which will help optimize the Charger SE's rather thrifty fuel economy when on the highway, a figure, at 7.7 L/100 km, that seems in sharp contrast to the car's substantial size. Its city rating is a thirstier 11.4 L/100 km, and the fuel needed is regular, thank goodness, the same throughout the model range, even the powerful HEMI. This last point saves big bucks at the pump. Performance enthusiasts will want to look at the 340/350-horsepower HEMI V8 R/T and Daytona R/T models. While the 2.7-litre SE wasn't a slug off the line, it's not the Charger for performance enthusiasts. Those will want to look either to the 250-horspower 3.5-litre V6 equipped SXT or 340/350-horsepower HEMI V8 R/T and Daytona R/T models. The former is a lot more enjoyable to drive than I had initially anticipated it would be, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the engine comes equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick manual mode. While the a 5-speed automatic comes with all-wheel drive V6 and HEMI V8 300s and Magnums, the Charger will be the first among the LX trio to receive the higher grade transmission with the 3.5-litre in rear-wheel drive application. It makes a big difference over the SE's four-speed unit, delivering smoother shifts in quicker intervals, which keeps the engine in its rev-range sweet spot resulting in optimized performance. From a technical standpoint, the transmission features an Electronically Modulated Converter Clutch (EMCC) to manage torque converter clutch slippage. The EMCC provides only partial engagement in third, fourth or fifth gears, which in-turn improves shift feel, fuel economy, drivability and cooling, says Chrysler. The 3.5-litre SXT is also noticeably lighter on its feet than the HEMI version, with quicker transitional response and nimbler manners overall. I was surprised at just how much fun this car is to drive through the corners, and how quick it is when passing. Considering that the mid-grade 3.5-litre powertrain would be considered top-of-the-line by many of its peers, I suppose the fact that it is fun to drive only makes sense. The SXT also adds aluminum wheels to the 17-inch package, a leather-clad steering wheel and shift knob, an 8-way power driver's seat, a 60/40 split-folding rear seatback with integrated centre armrest, fog lamps, a chrome grille insert and great sounding Boston Acoustics audio system with six speakers and 276 watts of power. I think this car is going to be a great seller, factoring in its $31,385 base price. Its such a great driver, that I would be questioning whether to spend more for the HEMI. Of course, if you're going to opt for the SXT make sure to not actually drive a HEMI-equipped Charger R/T. If you do, common sense might take a back seat to unbridled endorphins, especially when factoring in that only $37,550 is needed so that you can say "yes" when someone asks you if your Charger's got a HEMI in it. The 5.7-litre V8's thunderous acceleration is quite bizarre, really. There's nothing like it anywhere outside of Chrysler Group's arsenal of HEMI-equipped models, unless you've got the bucks to step into a Cadillac CTS-V at $70K-plus or one of Europe or Japan's premium brands, often priced even higher. I was quite responsible driving the Charger R/T from Durham to VIR, knowing that I would have the opportunity to put it through its paces on the track, away from police radar. Once on the track, however, there were no such concerns, allowing me to extract full potential from the big sedan. The cars Dodge chose for track duties included two fully-loaded Charger R/T Daytonas in the old/new Go-ManGo! (mango) orange-copper and matte black colour scheme - Top Banana! yellow is also available - and four others featuring the power, handling and interior upgrades of the Daytona without the racy paintwork and body add-ons. The package is called the Performance Handling Group, and features wider 18-inch performance tires, a 9-land steering gear and Nivomat self-leveling shocks. This suspension is tuned for greater feedback. Of the cars Dodge chose for track duties, two were fully-loaded Charger R/T Daytonas in the old/new Go-ManGo! (mango) orange-copper and matte black colour scheme. I don't know if I have the personal chutzpa to carry off a fully decorated Daytona for daily driving, but I completely fell for an all-black Performance Handling Group version that came complete with most of the Daytona's upgrades. Darth Vader of automobiles it is now (say that last line with Yoda's crackly voice and it works better); it's an especially menacing looking beast that, unlike a much younger me who wasn't up to much good, is very good indeed. I should mention that the Charger comes in seven exterior colours, including Bright Silver Metallic, Inferno Red Crystal Pearl, Brilliant Black, Magnesium Pearl, Midnight Blue Pearl, Cool Vanilla and Silver Steel Metallic. The Daytona adds the orange and yellow I just spoke of previously. We were on the south track, a bit smaller and curvier than the one being used at the time for testing a rather loud NASCAR mule. It featured a nice long straight with a snake-like corkscrew, not unlike the one at Laguna Seca in California, a thrill-a-minute test area for wringing the most out of the hopped up sedan. Was it up to the task? Again, surprisingly so. Even the big disc brakes showed little fade, lap after lap. The tight body shell allows the chassis to offer very little side-to-side roll while still providing a smooth ride, even when jumping curbs. It was easy to ramp up speed quickly too, getting way beyond what would be legal on the outside world before running out of track. While most Charger driver's won't get anywhere near a racetrack, which is a shame, the experience allowed me to see how well balanced the car is when pushed to its limit. The sophisticated fully-independent suspension, made up of an independent short/long arm (SLA) setup in the front and 5-link configuration out back. The result is an ideally damped setup, wonderfully controllable through long sweeping or tight corners at high-speed and confidence inspiring under extreme braking. Like the 300 and Magnum, Chrysler borrowed much of its state-of-the-art chassis from Mercedes-Benz, but reworked it to fit the slightly larger and heavier car in its Indiana facility, where the five-speed transmission gets built as well by the way. For such reasons it would be a mistake to not consider the Charger just because it looks like a muscle car - which were rather crude compared to their European counterparts in their heydays. Even the R/T's pushrod actuated overhead-valve HEMI V8, enhanced with an Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) by the way, is a lot more advanced than some multivalve engines, in some respects. Its Multi-Displacement System (MDS) was the first cylinder deactivation system to be sold in North America on large-volume vehicles when introduced in the 300C. MDS increases fuel economy by up to 20 percent while still delivering all of the engine's 340-horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque when called upon. There's nothing like the Charger R/T anywhere outside of Chrysler Group's arsenal of HEMI-equipped models. Making MDS possible is a host of new developments, including high-speed electronic controls, sophisticated algorithms controlling the systems and the integration of electronic throttle control. As a result Chrysler Group reports a deactivation and activation process that needs only 40 milliseconds (0.040 seconds) to transition from eight-cylinders to four or vice versa. I have to concur, it's seamless. So how does it work? Essentially MDS deactivates the valve lifters in four of the V8's cylinders (1, 7, 4 and 6), resulting in four closed valves and zero combustion in half the cylinders. Fortunately the "dead" cylinders don't drag energy from the working four, due to air being pumped through those cylinders temporarily out of action. There's yet more technology integrated into each new Charger, but with time and space considerations in mind I'll only add in a couple more items. First, the car's optional navigation system is relatively simple to setup and use, plus features a large, colour display. Screens in mind, an optional DVD entertainment system can be purchased, turning the comfortable rear seats into a movie theatre. The unit fits into the rear half of the centre console, tucking neatly out of the way when not in use. Those rear seats are truly expansive, by the way, making the sedan feel more limousine-like than most in its class. Headroom is plentiful, as is space around the hips and shoulders, and you'd need to be pretty tall to fill the foot wells. The same goes for front seat room, and if you're planning on filling up the trunk you'd better plan for a half dozen trips from the house to the garage with arms full - at 459 L (16.2 cu ft) it's even larger than the Chrysler 300's. I would be remiss not to mention the Charger's safety features, which are plentiful. In addition to the standard stability and traction controls systems, standard four-wheel discs with ABS and Brake Assist, plus advanced multi-stage dual front airbags, the Charger includes height adjustable front seatbelts with pretensioners, an energy absorbing steering column to protect the driver in case of a frontal impact, an Enhanced Occupant Response System (EARS), and Occupant Classification System (OCS), which senses the size and positioning of front seat occupants to make adjustments for airbag deployment. A theft deterent system with an engine immobilizer is also standard. An alarm system is optional, as are side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants, a tire pressure monitoring system, self-sealing tires, and a HomeLink universal transceiver. The car's optional navigation system is relatively simple to setup and use, plus features a large, colour display. Probably most important on the safety front is the Charger's 5-Star U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) frontal crash rating, the highest possible. The Charger marks ten 5-Star ratings in a row for Chrysler Group, an impressive feat (for more information go to the automotive news section of this website for May 18, 2005: Dodge Charger Achieves 5-Star NHTSA Frontal Crash Rating). Convenience features that I personally found handy included the optional power adjustable pedals, which are actuated via a button at the side of the seat next to the power seat controls instead of on the lower front dash where some rivals place the switch. Leaning forward for adjustments makes it difficult to get a true reading on pedal placement. The powered pedals and seats come in one of two convenience group packages, available in SXT or R/T trim levels. They add heated front seats and leather seating surfaces in the SXT and, over and above the power pedals and seats, automatic air conditioning with dual zone controls, automatic headlamps and express up/down front windows in the R/T. When all is said and done, no matter what options you choose the Charger is one terrific car. It looks bold and brazen, perfect for its mission as the Ram-badged brand's flagship sedan, performs with few faults, yet is extremely refined. I didn't feel a single shake or hear one rattle when driving it on the open road, nor when punishing it around the racetrack. Despite the low-speed rumble of the HEMI's exhaust note, it's not overly imposing. Actually, it's quiet at highway speeds. The Charger, whether in V6 or V8 trim, is an extremely impressive new sedan, that I believe will sell amazingly well. Man I wish I'd bought DaimlerChrysler stock when it was low a few years ago. Those days are gone, unfortunately, or fortunately if you're a Chrysler Group exec, but the muscle car era is alive and well, thanks to cars like the Charger. The Charger, whether in V6 or V8 trim, is an extremely impressive new sedan, that I believe will sell amazingly well.