To many of us, the words "Dodge Charger" evoke images of a brawny coupe with Coke-bottle contours and hideaway headlights. Especially with the recent release of the Dukes of Hazzard movie, it's the 1968-1970 version of Dodge's classic muscle car that first comes to mind. Hard-core partisans have taken issue with DaimlerChrysler's revival of that traditional coupe name for the 2006 Dodge Charger, a four-door sedan. We say, OK, it might have been nice to save the name for a sporty coupe, but it's now on a sedan. Let's move on.
Sharing its rear-drive platform with the Dodge Magnum RT wagon and Chrysler 300C sedan, the Charger RT puts more emphasis on driving dynamics, especially when equipped with the "Road/Track Performance Group" option ($1,600), as our test car was. Standard on the R/T Daytona, this package includes sport seats, enhanced steering, firmer suspension, Michelin performance tires and 10 more horsepower.
The 2006 Dodge Charger sedan certainly looks aggressive. From the front, the reverse-canted grille and angled headlights give it a menacing appearance, like a gangsta rapper's mug on a CD case. No wonder 50 Cent wanted one. True, we see no visual link to past Chargers (well, the cool ones anyway), but the new Charger is attractive in its own right. The styling is both clean and aggressive, its stance is beefy, and those looking for a sedan with serious attitude should like it.
In Da Dodge
Thankfully, the cabin won't remind you of an old Charger — you know, flat seats, "Age of Aquarius" ergonomics, a spindly steering wheel. Pony up for that Performance Group package and you'll get sport seats with serious lateral support and all-day comfort. Two-stage seat heaters (also part of that package) warmed our backsides and hearts alike during cold morning commutes. There may be more hard plastic trim on the dash and door panels than we'd prefer, but fit and finish is very good overall.
If you've been inside a Dodge Magnum, the Charger's interior will look familiar. Not a bad thing, as large white-faced gauges and sound ergonomics are hard to fault. A thick-rimmed steering wheel that tilts and telescopes along with power-adjustable pedals allow drivers of all shapes and sizes to get comfortable. A thoughtful feature is the one-touch, three-blink lane-change feature on the turn signals. Nice for those of us who actually signal our intentions.
With a 120-inch wheelbase, backseat room is plentiful. A fold-down center armrest provides additional comfort if only two are riding in back. Should you go nuts at Costco and the 16.2-cubic-foot trunk isn't enough, you can always employ the 60/40-split folding rear seat.
Big Bruiser That's More Than a Cruiser
With the RT, Chrysler's now famous 5.7-liter Hemi V8 comes standard. It puts out impressive numbers: 340 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 390 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. That Road/Track Performance Group option bumps horsepower to 350 hp at 5,200 rpm (torque remains the same) by increasing the size of the intake tube running into the throttle body and replacing the three-passage muffler unit with a more straight-through design. "And that's a real 10 hp," says Burke Brown, the chief engineer on the Charger. "The muffler significantly reduces back pressure."
Hooked up to a quick-shifting five-speed manually selectable automatic transmission, the power plant gives the big sedan big performance. We're talking about a car that weighs more than a new Cadillac DeVille, but running up to 60 mph takes just 6.2 seconds, while the quarter is dispatched in 14.3 ticks. That's about the same as our Magnum RT long-termer, which posted 6.3 and 14.4 seconds for the same tests.
One staffer felt that the Charger's tranny slightly outperformed the unit in our Magnum by responding more crisply to throttle inputs, and stepping down more quickly when a downshift was needed during highway merging and passing. He also liked the fact that its Autostick manual select feature is tuned to hold a gear indefinitely like a real manual transmission.
Against EPA estimates of 17 city/25 highway, we only averaged 14.4 mpg during our time with the Charger. Some blame falls on Los Angeles traffic and our own lead feet. More wide-open spaces would have helped us reap the rewards of the Hemi's Multi-Displacement technology. At constant freeway speeds, when power demands are low, this system shuts down four cylinders (in just 40 milliseconds, quicker than an eye blink) to enhance fuel economy. When the need for speed arises, you're running on all cylinders again, without so much as a hiccup.
Dances Pretty Good for a Heavy
The Performance Package also adds more aggressive, more fade-resistant brake pads. Hauling the car down from 60 mph ate up only 121 feet of pavement, impressive for a 2-tonner. Equally important, the big four-wheel discs didn't fade at all during our trio of simulated panic stops. ABS is standard and brake pedal feel is linear and firm.
As with the brakes, the Charger RT's handling belies its pudge factor. In addition to allowing juvenile displays of tail-out power, rear-wheel drive contributes to the Charger's decent front-to-rear weight distribution (53/47 percent), which in turn promises more balanced handling.
Carving up a twisty road is more fun than you'd think considering the Charger's bulk. Differences over the regular Charger R/T, besides the tires, are thicker front and rear antiroll bars, which measure 30mm front and 15mm rear, and German-made Nivomat self-leveling shock absorbers that are 20-percent stiffer.
The steering also received a retuning in the form of a unique steering gear with nine grooves instead of six. Brown says passing the hydraulic power steering fluid through the additional grooves made for more precise tuning and allowed his team to achieve the steering feel they wanted without the crude kickback the stiffer suspension and stickier tires would have otherwise caused. It also makes the steering 20-to-25-percent heavier than it is on a regular Charger or any Magnum.
"We started with the Michelin tire, which very much has a performance character to it," says Brown. "Then we tuned the rest of the suspension to go with it."
Quick reactions, nicely weighted and precise steering and effectively quelled body roll are the results. Yes, you can sense the Charger's heft on initial turn-in, but there's no slop in the suspension and steering — it remains composed and the tires don't squeal until you start to get overzealous.
The ride is firm but controlled. Even on Downtown L.A.'s broken-up streets, the Charger absorbed most of the bumps without drama. Sharp impacts can give you a little spank, but overall, the RT provides an agreeable, sporting balance between handling and ride.
At Least They Didn't Call It a Polara
Whatever you think of the decision to use the name, there's no denying the 2006 Dodge Charger RT is a lot of car for the money. For a starting price of around $30,000, you get a stylish, powerful, roomy car with a tough attitude and very strong performance. But the Charger doesn't just perform better than its platform siblings, it feels better.
"When we were engineering the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger, we wanted all three vehicles to have their own character," Brown told us during a phone interview. "We wanted each car to feel different."
Well, we've driven all three, and we like the Charger's character the best. It's the bad boy of the bunch and it wants to party. Hard. Stoke the coals and order the optional Road/Track Performance Group. You won't regret it.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our Charger was equipped with an optional sound package that included six Boston Acoustics speakers and a subwoofer. The optional package can be ordered with or without an integrated navigation system. It's a 322-watt system that includes MP3 capability, an in-dash six-disc CD changer and a cassette player.
Performance: This stereo is very similar to the system available in the Chrysler 300 and we think it sounds very good. The bass response is wonderful and warm and is not prone to distortion. Low bass tones are kept tight and unmuddled by a subwoofer that offers just the right amount of punch. Highs and midrange sounds are also reproduced very well, and highs, mids and lows are separated nicely. The sound has a depth that surprised us. As we inserted CD after CD looking for a flaw, we found only one: At moderate to high volumes, the highs can occasionally "squeak." It is unlikely that anyone would listen to the stereo as loudly as we did for very long, but it is this weakness that earns the system a 9 rather than a perfect 10.
Because of the sharp, clear and warm sound reproduction, we feel this stereo is well worth the extra $535 you'll pay for the "sound group 2" option. The Charger RT's stereo compares favorably to other optional stereos even when considering those found on more upscale and expensive cars. For a V8-powered rear-wheel-drive sedan, the Dodge Charger RT is a relative bargain and the stellar Boston Acoustics sound system mimics that formula — high performance, reasonable price.
Best Feature: Sound separation and clarity.
Worst Feature: Some highs can "squeak" at higher volumes.
Conclusion: An excellent stereo that will make you want to bust out old favorites as well as modern music selections just to hear how good they can sound. — Brian Moody
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
First, to all the "two-doors or death" freaks — get over it! The car has four doors, and that means it will actually sell well enough for the nameplate to live past a single product cycle. Besides, with a new Challenger in the works Dodge will still have a rear-drive, Hemi-powered coupe available in a few short years (but if that one shows up with four doors you have my permission to bury DCX in hate mail).
Next, to the people who say, "It's just a Magnum sedan!" you really should drive one before making such proclamations. Actually, the interior is basically a Magnum sedan, but the driving dynamics are unlike the Magnum or the 300. This is supposed to be the "sporty" kid in the gang, and it lives up to that billing. The styling is unique, too, but I would suggest watching your head when getting in or out of the rear seat, as that C-pillar swings awfully low (my wife bumped her head after buckling the kids in).
Finally, to all of you who want to enjoy the looks, sounds and acceleration of a muscle car, but reality demands a large sedan versus a traditional two-door coupe (à la Mustang/GTO), the new Charger awaits.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says:
"That's a lotta car for a little girl," my neighbor said when I pulled into the garage. While I might have bristled for half a second at being called a little girl, the old boy was right, the Charger is a lot of car. It's big and fast and makes you feel like you can take on the world. One press of the accelerator pedal and the Hemi springs you forward like a quick, fat cat.
Inside, the Charger is as comfortable as your living room sofa, in both the front and rear. My 5-year-old daughter is no longer easily impressed by her kindergarten chariot, but even she commented on the thickly padded seats.
While I might not revere the muscle car era, or pay nightly homage to reruns of the General Lee, I certainly can appreciate what the modern-day Charger has to offer. It has muscular good looks, a spacious interior and Hemi power, all for under $35,000. Well, even little ol' me can understand the magnetism of that combination.
"I went to the dealer to look at the 300C, but I was blown away by the new Charger. One test-drive was all I needed to know that this is the car for me. I've had Mustangs in the past, but I was not impressed, nor do I think that the new Mustangs provide everything that the new Chargers do. I don't mind if the Charger is a couple of heartbeats slower than the Mustang — I'm willing to give that up for the ability to seat four comfortably & put a week's worth of groceries in the trunk. The best features of the car are the five-speed shiftable automatic, huge trunk, GPS navigation system, stereo, head-turning style, performance and power seats for both driver & passenger. Perhaps a little more luxury in the cabin, but overall Dodge built a winner! The new Charger rocks, plain & simple!" — Kriste W, August 29, 2005
"The Hemi is great. On a trip to Lake George, 2,000 miles round trip I averaged 24 mpg. Not bad for this much power. Fun to drive. Easy to pass pretty much anything. Very comfortable. Pricy at $35,000 but worth it. My employee discount (I'm an electrician at the brake factory) was $500 — for taking the DC loan. My favorite feature is the Hemi V8. It's always the center of attention, everyone who saw it had something nice to say or a Hemi memory of their own. Just a few complaints — the rear spoiler should come with colors other than orange or yellow (Daytona option). Radio controls on the steering wheel, but cruise control is not." — Randy, August 27, 2005.
"This is my daily driver, and I run between 1,000 to 2,000 miles a month. The car drives like a dream, plenty of power in all speeds and handles well. I love the suede seat inserts, radio with the subwoofer is awesome, the nav system is great and the autostick is nearly perfect. I love this beast!" — TB, August 23, 2005
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