2011-12 Dodge Charger SE Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Dodge Charger SE

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS


Back in 1966, Dodge jumped into the muscle car wars big-time with its Charger. A mid-sized (by 1966 measure) two-door coupe with a fastback roofline that reached to the full-width taillights, it made a bold statement. With a choice of V8 engines from the 230-horsepower 318 through the 325-hp 383, or the even then legendary 426 Hemi's low-ball 425, it was a beast.

It lasted only two model years, to be replaced by the second generation in 1968. Which introduced interesting "double diamond" coke-bottle/area rule styling for the sides and a "flying buttress" rear window treatment. Engines ranged from the 225-cid "slant-6" through the 318 and 383 V8s, with the 440 or 426 Hemi for those with a need for serious speed.

    • SEE ALSO: Dodge Buyers Guide

At least in a straight line. 60s muscle cars were drag racers par excellence, but the primitive state of suspension, tire, and brake technology made corners dubious habitat.

A third generation debuted in 1971, but the muscle car era was coming to a close. By 1975, really only the name remained, and that disappeared after 1978.

Only to be resurrected as a (relatively) high-performance (for those dismal days)model of the small, front-wheel drive Dodge Omni in the early 1980s. It got a boost, sometimes turbo, from racing legend Carroll Shelby, but disappeared after 1987.

It seems that good names never die in the auto industry, and the Charger name was brought back for model year 2006. For the first time, it was a four-door sedan, but it was back to rear-wheel drive architecture, with V6 and new-generation Hemi V8 power. It proved popular, and got some major revisions for 2011.

Most notably, the styling dips heavily into the 1968-70 era for cues, especially the double-diamond sides and tunnel roof. The previous version's simple taillights have been replaced by a full-width appliqué, shades of 1966.

Most importantly, the V6 is now the 3.6-liter Pentastar. Its 292 horsepower is a 63 percent improvement over the previous base-model 2.7-liter V6, and 16 percent more than the old high-output 3.5. For 2011, it was matched to a five-speed automatic with AutoStick manual mode; 2012 sees one major improvement in the form of an eight-speed ZF automatic, which should make a noticeable improvement in fuel economy, especially on the highway.

And yes, the Hemi is still offered. But the V6 is the more popular choice, and is new. And is what was in the 2011 Charger SE Rallye Plus model that I've driven for the past week. Despite its now "last year" status, it's close enough to its 2012 equivalent for test purposes, although if you want all of the options that were on this particular car - the Rallye Plus, Driver Confidence Group, Driver Convenience Group, Navigation system, and Rallye Appearance Group, you'll have to opt for an SXT trim level as far as I can tell. That will give you the eight-speed automatic; the 2012 SE still has the five-speed.

Which was fine, although the eight-speed should be even better. From a car, not consumer electronics, viewpoint, the key option group is the Rallye Appearance Group, offered on the 2012 SXT unchanged from the 2011 SE. Besides an upgraded audio system, rear spoiler, and 245/45 R20 tires on alloy rims, it includes the "Performance Suspension". Worthwhile for that alone -- today's Charger has no difficulties when the road gets twisty. Today's Charger likes that! In chassis, powertrain, exterior and interior styling and build quality, Chrysler has a car to be proud of. And one that can hold its own against anything in its class, from anywhere in the world.

APPEARANCE: With the familiar crosshair grille, it's definably a Dodge Charger. But the shape is a bit different… gone are the pronounced humps in the rear fenders, replaced by the smoother "double diamond" shape. The old slab sides give way to a cutline that harkens back to the double-indentation on the second-generation Charger. And the old simple taillights are replaced by a full-width appliqué that livens up the rear considerably. Dual trapezoidal exhaust tips complete the performance look. The makeover is cohesive, and a significant improvement in the looks department.


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COMFORT: By today's standards, the Charger is a large car. With a length of just under 200 inches, on a 120-inch wheelbase, it's shorter than the first- or second-generation Charger, and on a three-inch longer wheelbase. With four doors instead of two for passenger access, so no compromises for the rear passengers and no lack of space for anyone. Interior styling is contemporary international, with simple shapes and high-quality materials. An aluminum, or at least convincingly aluminum-looking, inlay around the instruments is a notable styling element. A good instrument layout and easy-to-use controls, even for the nav system, help to make the Charger a very pleasant car for any distance. As do very good front seats. A locking, compartmentalized glove box provides secure storage for more than the owner's manual, registration papers, and maybe a pair of gloves. My test car had heated front and outboard rear seats, and heated and cooled front console cupholders. All expected contemporary cabin electronics are standard or available, depending on trim level. The trunk is spacious, and space can be increased by folding the 60/40 rear seatback.

SAFETY: Passive safety is addressed by a strong unibody structure that uses high-strength steels and transformation-induced plasticity to maximize passenger protection through front and rear crush zones and a central safety cage. A full complement of airbags and reactive head restraints are further enhancements. Good handling characteristics, strong four-wheel antilock disc brakes, electronic stability control, rain brake support, ready alert braking, and hill start assist improve active safety. Blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic detection is available, and was fitted to my test car. It's very useful on the road and especially when backing from between two large vehicles in a parking lot.

RIDE AND HANDLING: "Performance Suspension" means firmer shock and spring rates, and is available when the "plus two" 20-inch wheels and tires are specified. The overall result is a firm but still comfortable ride. The fully-independent unequal-length control arm front, multilink rear suspension is geological eras beyond what was found in a late-60s Charger. The current example can't possibly be a classic muscle car -- it stops and corners even better than it accelerates, and it accelerates plenty quickly, thank you.

PERFORMANCE: There's one place where modern technology undeniably bests old - under the hood. At 3.6 liters, or 220 cubic inches, the Pentastar V6 is nearly the same size as the venerable 225 ci "slant six" of the 1960s. That made between 145 and 200 horsepower depending on state of tune. The Pentastar makes 292 (at 6350 rpm), with 260 lb-ft of torque at 4800 and plenty even much lower. That's modern net horsepower, not the gross rating (on a dyno with no loss from such fripperies as fan, pumps, transmission, etc) of the muscle car era. So it's quite likely stronger than even the 383 V8 of yore, at least in stock trim. The Charger V6's 0-60 time, just over seven seconds, would have been mighty impressive back in the muscle car era, and still is today. Credit lightweight alloy construction, dual overhead camshafts with variable cam phasing, and four-valve combustion chambers, all exotic racing technology in the 60s, for that. The five-speed automatic works well in D for most use. For a sporting run on a fun road, merely switch to manual mode and hold a gear, either second or third depending on speed. EPA estimates are 18mpg city, 27 highway, and I got 21 overall for the week. I'd expect a few mpg better, especially on the highway, with the new eight-speed, and better acceleration.

CONCLUSIONS: The latest Dodge Charger combines a look back for style with contemporary engine and chassis to make a car that would have been inconceivable in the muscle car era.

SPECIFICATIONS

2011/12 Dodge Charger SE

Base Price $ 25,170

Price As Tested $ 34,995

Engine Type dohc 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 with variable cam phasing

Engine Size 3.6 liters / 220 cu. in.

Horsepower 292 @ 6350 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 260 @ 4800 rpm

Transmission 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase / Length 120 in. / 199.9 in.

Curb Weight 3961 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 13.6

Fuel Capacity 19.1 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires 245/45 R20 99V Firestone Firehawk (opt)

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, ESP standard

Suspension, front/rear independent short-and-long arm / independent multilink

Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 18 / 27 / 21

0 to 60 mph 7.2 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

not applicable due to model year changes


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