Cars like the new 2008 Pontiac G8 GT and 2008 Dodge Charger R/T were once supposed to be every American's birthright. Brawny, V8-powered, relatively affordable rear-drive cruisers that can blow through a couple of big Western states in an afternoon at 90 mph — their drivers staring at the horizon through Ray-Bans, steering with one hand and smoking a Pall Mall with the other.
You know, big, fast American cars. They're not hybrids, they don't run on biodiesel and they rumble and roar through dual exhausts. And they do the sort of epic burnouts that inspire Bruce Springsteen songs.
These aren't sedans you buy for their utility. After all, any four-cylinder, front-drive AltiCamAccord6 will match them commute for commute. Nope, the new Pontiac G8 GT and Dodge Charger R/T are cars you buy because they speak to your born-in-the-USA soul. Well that, and because you can't afford a BMW M5.
So what if one of them comes up from Australia and the other is assembled in Canada with a Mexican-made engine and German transmission? One of them is the best "American" V8-powered performance sedan for about $35,000.
To find a winner we spent more than a week testing these cars in and around Southern California. They were run on the highway, in the canyons and on the test track. We used them and abused them. Here's what we learned.
The Shadows They Cast
First of all, these are not small cars. But the Charger is even bigger than the G8. Slightly.
From bumper cover to bumper cover and across its steel unibody structure, the Charger stretches out 200.1 inches long. That's only 4 inches longer than the G8, which is also built around a steel unibody. But the Dodge is also a half-inch taller and its 120-inch wheelbase is 5.2 inches longer than the Pontiac's.
On top of that, the two cars have very different proportions, with the Charger having a long hood and short rear deck in classic muscle style, and the G8 having a relatively short hood in the Euro sport sedan tradition. Also the G8 appears even lower due to its ground effects and deep front spoiler. When the two are parked side by side, the Charger appears even larger than it is relative to the G8.
It also drives bigger.
Comfort and Speed
Remember back when it was DaimlerChrysler? Well, so does the Charger R/T. There's a lot of Mercedes in the Charger's engineering, especially in its suspension. Dodge plucked its coil-sprung, short- and long-arm front and five-link independent rear suspension right from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. As a result, the Charger rides a lot like, yep, a Mercedes.
Always composed and comfortable, the Charger R/T's ride motions are a study in control. Hit a pothole and the soft P225/60R18 Continental ContiTouringContact radials politely report back that something has been encountered and summarily smothered. Until the Charger (and its LX-platform brothers the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum) came around back in 2005, virtually no American car rode this well. Three years later we take its mannered ride for granted, even though we shouldn't.
Just because the Charger is rear-wheel drive doesn't mean it's at home in the twisties. Hard cornering in the Charger is all about plenty of steering input and body roll. The steering is relatively slow and absolutely numb, but the front tires scream and squeal enough to let you and the world know they're struggling under the weight of this 4,135-pound sedan. The Dodge's stability control system (which can't be completely turned off) is too sophisticated to ever let the car get truly out of shape, but the Charger is engineered for on-road poise, not heroic speed.
The Charger R/T's comfort first/performance second tuning was apparent in its modest 0.79g skid pad orbit and 62.3-mph traipse through the slalom.
Speed and Comfort
In contrast, the G8's suspension could be a direct lift from the BMW 5 Series. It isn't, but the G8's MacPherson strut front and four-link rear suspension with progressive-rate coil-over shocks is very similar to the BMW's traditional 5 Series design. As a result, the Pontiac G8 GT rides a lot like, yup, a BMW.
So the G8 GT is biased toward performance over comfort — it will drift its tail in a nice controllable arc all day. The initial turn-in from the variable-ratio steering is spot-on instantaneous, and the brief understeer is easily overcome with throttle. That's just the sort of compromise most everyone here prefers.
Sure it rides more stiffly than the Dodge, but that hardly means it's uncomfortable. Hit a pothole with one of its more aggressive, lower-profile P245/40R19 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires and the car seems to instantly slice the hole open with a stiletto, filet it and then proceed to consume it — with relish. The steering feels much quicker than the Mopar's and the tires feel sutured to the road.
The G8 whipped around the skid pad with 0.85g of grip and then screamed through the slalom at nearly 66 mph. That's not only clearly better than the Charger, but comparable to the BMW 535i Inside Line tested back in June, which whirled to 0.89g on the skid pad and galloped through the slalom at 65 mph.
On a mountain road, the G8 GT will simply run away from the Charger R/T. And since the G8's stability control system can be turned completely off, its driver will be having more fun, too.
In braking, the G8 also dominated the Charger — the pattern here is pretty obvious.
The Pontiac stopped from 60 mph in just 109 feet, with fade becoming apparent after five or so stops. Like the Charger, the G8 GT is fitted with a disc brake behind every wheel and controls them with an antilock system. Interestingly, while all four of the G8's discs are ventilated, the rear pair is slightly larger in diameter than the fronts. It's not a big difference (12.64 vs. 12.76 inches, a measly 3 millimeters) and the fronts are clamped by twin-piston calipers while the rears get single-piston units, but it is an interesting engineering choice.
The Charger's brakes are significantly larger than the G8's. Its front pair of vented discs measures a full 13.6 inches in diameter and uses similar twin-piston calipers in front and single-piston calipers in back. But the Charger's smaller, less aggressive rubber and slightly greater front weight bias work against it. It needed 133 feet to do the same 60-0 trick and its long-travel soft pedal didn't inspire much confidence.
What's the point of a V8 engine if it won't kick a car down the track with some suddenness?
Under the hoods of both the Charger R/T and G8 GT are modern riffs on the classic American V8. You know, single in-block cams with pushrods knocking one intake and one exhaust valve per cylinder — just like Henry Ford's old flathead V8 back in 1932.
The Charger's iron-block/aluminum-head Hemi displaces 5.7 liters and is rated at 340 horsepower, while the G8's all-aluminum small block runs 6.0 liters and makes 361 hp. The Charger R/T can also be ordered with a Road/Track Performance Package that ups output to 350 hp, but our test vehicle went without.
That 21-hp difference isn't as significant as it might seem, however. The Dodge's 390 pound-feet of torque is only five more than the Pontiac's peak output. Both of these engines have plenty of low-end grunt, but it's the Pontiac that makes the most of its power.
To save fuel, both cars' V8s are fitted with systems that shut down up to four cylinders during steady-throttle highway runs. Both the G8's Active Fuel Management and the Charger's Multi-Displacement system work unobtrusively and well. Listen real carefully (or just look at the Charger's dash indicator) and you can tell when the systems are active — but if you're driving, you're supposed to be paying more attention to traffic than to slight variations in the pitch of your car's exhaust note.
Behind the G8's V8 rests GM's simply outstanding 6L80 six-speed automatic transmission. This is the same tranny GM puts in the Corvette. It's even geared the same, with 5th and 6th gears both being overdrives.
Left in Drive, the 6L80 executes crisp, quick shifts that keep dang near peak torque traveling back to the 2.92:1 final-drive gears back inside a limited-slip differential. GM has always made outstanding automatics, but this one is the best ever. And it gets better when shifted manually.
With the gearshift lever in automanual mode (no paddle shifters), the powertrain control module will blip the throttle for precise downshifts and hold the gear until the driver is fully ready to upshift again. No, the shifts themselves aren't as quick as a regular manual transmission would be and it's not the transcendent shifting ability of something like Audi's DSG dual-clutch system, but for a shiftable automatic it's among the very best.
The G8's quickest acceleration runs were actually made with the transmission in Sport mode but left to shift itself. With the blast from zero to 60 mph taking only 5.4 seconds and the quarter-mile flashing by in just 13.7 seconds at 104 mph, this is a stupendously quick car.
Quick enough that there's a chance the G8's engine is underrated at 361 hp. Until we get a G8 GT on a chassis dyno, we'll just have to credit its transmission for getting the absolute most from its companion engine.
Needs a Bigger Hemi
Frankly, the Charger R/T's Mercedes-made five-speed automatic feels prehistoric compared to the G8's six-speed. You can shift the Charger yourself using autostick, but the computer steps in if it thinks you're holding the gear too long and shifts. And when left to its own devices, the Dodge's shifts are slower and softer. It's not a bad transmission by any stretch of the imagination...but the 6L80 has stretched our imagination.
The best acceleration runs in the Charger (which weighs just 29 pounds more than the G8) were accomplished by simply stabbing the accelerator and hanging on. The run from zero to 60 mph took a respectable 6.1 seconds, with the quarter-mile consumed in 14.5 seconds at 97 mph.
In fact, the G8 GT isn't just quicker than the Charger R/T, but nearly as quick as the much more expensive 425-hp Charger SRT8. That beast's 6.1-liter Hemi sped it to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and ripped up the quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds at 105 mph.
If there's one place where the Charger has the G8 covered, it's sound. The Charger R/T is nowhere near loud, but the exhaust note has exactly the right burbling tenor everyone wants to hear from a V8. In contrast, there's virtually no sound from the G8 GT's exhaust at all.
Every G8 GT should come with a Post-It note on the dash with Flowmaster's 800-number written on it.
Get in the G8 GT and there are some elements familiar from the Aussie-built GTO of a few years ago. To some eyes, that's all fine. But to others it looks like a throwback to 1999. And only editor Oldham likes having the power window controls stacked together on the center console (though that obviously makes building right- and left-hand drive versions of the car more straightforward).
But the driving position in the G8 GT is dang near perfect; the big steering wheel has a flat spot at its bottom to clear chubby thighs, the controls all operate with precision and every gauge is easily read. And this is a low-cowl car with a generous greenhouse affording excellent visibility.
The few complaints are minor ones. The front seats are very well shaped, but the hard-tack leather they're covered in seems to have come from cows fed a steady diet of polystyrene. Some rear passengers found the rear seat's bottom cushion a bit short. So invest in some leather treatment and make friends with shorter people.
In contrast, way too many of the controls in the Charger R/T feel like they're going to snap off in your hand. And while the leather covering the seats is more supple than in the Pontiac, the front seats' side bolstering seems to squish away the moment they're sat in.
The Charger's tunneled instrumentation is easily read and the overall dash design is good. But the Charger's high beltline and low roof conspire to produce a bunkerlike feel inside the interior — there just isn't enough glass around. And the thick C-pillars inhibit some rearward visibility.
Only the Charger is available with a navigation system, and the test vehicle combined that with the neat MyGIG onboard entertainment system. However, we prefer the G8 GT's onboard entertainment system — which is controlled by the steering wheel and accelerator pedal. Both cars were equipped with heated seats.
Although the Charger is larger, the Pontiac offers the larger trunk. The Dodge's rear seat is more spacious, but the G8's is surprisingly hospitable. Despite its wheelbase being more than 5 inches shorter than the Charger's, the G8's backseat can fit over 6-footers without them eating their knees or removing their heads.
Ever since Chrysler introduced the current rear-drive LX platform almost four years ago, it's had the popularly priced V8 sedan market to itself. In fact, about the only competition came from the front-drive half-serious Chevrolet Impala SS and eighth-serious Pontiac Grand Prix GXP. The G8 is its first serious competition, and that will lead to nothing but an improved breed.
Forget for a moment that in every performance category the G8 GT walks all over the Charger R/T. Go ahead and overlook the G8's more aggressive decoration and attractively sinister countenance. Just concentrate your mind on this: The Pontiac is cheaper. Its $29,995 base price is $1,460 under the cost of a Charger R/T, and the as-tested price of this red G8 GT is a thick $3,810 less than the as-tested price of this Charger R/T.
The G8 GT's $32,745 price is a flat raging bargain. And we Americans love bargains — even when the car is built in Australia.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham says:
Winning by default is always a hollow victory.
Until now the Dodge Charger R/T and Charger SRT8 were the only game in town for buyers who wanted a butch, rear-wheel-drive V8-powered sedan that didn't cost stupid money. And they were good. We were all glad to have them. In fact, they're still good and we all owe Dodge and the Daimler boys for proving there's a market out there for butch, rear-wheel-drive V8-powered sedans that don't cost stupid money.
But success always brings new competition along for the ride, and Pontiac is about to eat Dodge's lunch.
The new 2008 Pontiac G8 GT is quicker, it handles better, it looks better, it's more comfortable, it's less expensive and it's simply more fun to drive than the Charger R/T. As much as we still like the Dodge, it suddenly seems overpriced and underpowered. In fact, the 361-hp G8 GT is almost as quick as the 425-hp Dodge Charger SRT8. With this G8 GT, Pontiac just redefined the butch, rear-wheel-drive V8-powered sedan that doesn't cost stupid money.
And this is only the beginning. The coming Pontiac G8 GXP will put them all on the trailer.
But the real winners here are us, the enthusiasts. By year end the list of butch, rear-wheel-drive V8-powered sedans that don't cost stupid money will have gone from two to four. And they're good. And they're from Dodge and Pontiac. And you just gotta love that.
Maybe winning by default isn't so hollow after all.
Sure, these are performance sedans, but they're also big, family-friendly four-doors. With that in mind, our Top 5 features list includes some performance parts as well as some basic comfort and convenience options.
|| 2008 Dodge Charger R/T
|| 2008 Pontiac G8 GT
|Six-speed automatic transmission
|Split-folding rear seat
N/A: Not Available
Heated seats: No matter where you live, heated seats are a bonus. Whether it's a cold morning or long drive home after work, heated seats help make any drive that much more comfortable. They're standard equipment on the Charger R/T; optional on the G8 GT.
Limited-slip differential: Any rear-wheel-drive performance car worth its V8 should have a limited-slip rear end. Instead of the dreaded "one legger" burnout, a limited slip allows you to put all that power down through both rear wheels. It's standard on the Pontiac G8 GT and not even available on the Charger.
Six-speed automatic transmission: With six speeds to choose from, you get lower lows and higher highs. That translates into better launches from a start and improved mileage on the highway. The G8 GT comes standard with a six-speed automatic while the Charger still uses a five-speed.
Split-folding rear seat: This one is pretty basic. You don't buy a sedan for its utility, but every once in awhile you need to get something home that doesn't fit neatly in the trunk. The ability to fold down the rear seats makes that possible 90 percent of the time. On the Charger it's a standard feature, but you can't get it at all on the G8, a strange omission.
Sunroof: Yeah, yeah, this has nothing to do with performance or family friendliness; we just like the idea of opening things up when the weather is nice. It's an option on both cars and they both had one.