Among the retro muscle cars, the 2011 Dodge Charger is an odd duck. It takes its inspiration not from the 1979 "Dukes of Hazzard"-era car, but from the less aggressive-looking 1966 model. Fortunately, it draws much less on that earlier design than, say, the new Chevy Camaro does on its progenitor, or Dodge's own Challenger does on its first generation.
Properly appreciating the Charger does not require a knowledge of the model's past. It stands on its own as a full-size sedan with a macho style. Its rear-wheel-drive configuration sets it apart from other nonpremium sedan competitors, which have all gone to front-wheel drive.
That configuration may give it some muscle car credibility, but its 3.6-liter V-6 assuredly won't. Firing up this variable valve-timed engine makes hardly a noise. Buyers craving a rumbling V-8 will need to move up to the Charger SRT, its 5.7-liter Hemi making it the real successor to the muscle cars of yore.
Getting into the 2011 Charger for the first time, this one in Rallye Plus trim, I was immediately struck by the luxury feel of the cabin. The seats in particular, covered with thick leather and power-adjustable, were quite comfortable. A smart key allowed for a push-button ignition. The dashboard design was simple and unmarred by legions of plastic buttons.
This last point was made possible by the monster 8.4-inch LCD in the center stack. Not only wide, but tall, the interface designers used the lower edge of this touch screen as a menu strip holding icons for access to navigation, stereo, the phone system, and climate controls. This menu eliminates the need for an array of buttons underneath the screen, although Dodge was smart enough to keep a set of physical climate controls.
Touching the navigation icon, I was greeted by the familiar look of a screen I had seen many times before on Garmin navigation devices. Yes, Dodge integrated Garmin navigation software with its infotainment system, which in most ways turned out to be a very smart move.
The Garmin system stores its maps in flash memory, making for very fast reaction times. These maps show 2D and 3D views, although they're lacking the elaborately rendered buildings and topographic features seen in systems from some premium automakers.
Address entry, via an onscreen keyboard, is as easy as with any Garmin device, but the system does not deactivate letters that could not follow those previously entered. And although the car does have a voice command system, you cannot use it to enter an address. The system also features the usual Garmin points-of-interest database and the option to enter addresses by intersection and coordinates.
But where the Garmin system really shines is its route guidance. When approaching a freeway junction or off-ramp, it does an excellent job, showing a graphic with the lanes and even an approximation of the signage over the road. And rather than merely routing to a street address, it even guides the car to the appropriate side of the road, something not all in-car navigation systems do.
Sirius Travel Link can display a list of gas prices from nearby stations.
Dodge included Sirius Travel Link in the Charger's infotainment system, accessible from a somewhat mysterious plus icon on the menu strip, with a variety of data such as weather, nearby gas prices, and the always-useful movie listings. The listings for gas stations and movie theaters both send addresses to the navigation system at a touch.
Of course there is an icon for the Bluetooth phone system, which also shows a paired phone's contact list on the screen. And the voice command system does recognize contact list names. One weird thing about the Charger is that there are two voice command buttons on the steering wheel, one for the phone system and one for other infotainment functions.
The menu breaks out audio sources with icons labeled Radio and Player, the former covering broadcast and satellite. Dodge includes most of the modern options for digital audio, including Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, iPod, and even SD card.
As with many car systems, the iPod interface shows the music library with artist, album, and genre categories. But this system will also parse the MP3 tracks on a USB drive, giving a similar music library interface rather than the simple folders-and-files display of other systems. Even more impressive, an integrated Gracenote database will show album art for tracks it recognizes, and even dynamically clean up the track data.
CNET's Charger came with the premium audio option, a 506-watt Alpine system with nine speakers. I enjoyed the sound from this system, which had a fat quality that sometimes overwhelmed the detail. Vocals in particular came through with depth, but some more delicate sounds could get trampled. Bass came on strong from tracks that called for it, but the interior build quality was good enough to avoid rattling door panels.
With its Gracenote database, the Charger's stereo can organize music.
The Charger's build quality looked solid all the way around, in fact. Because of a simple, curved design, the top of the dashboard looks like a large expanse of soft plastic. A seam or shelf would have broken up the monotony.
Dodge's new Pentastar engine also feels like a quality bit of engineering, but it is last decade's technology. With its variable valve timing, this engine produces 292 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, not an overwhelming amount for this big sedan. Run to the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic, power comes on moderately, far short of bone-crushing intensity. Again, Dodge makes the SRT version for that type of thrill.
This 3.6-liter V-6 is a new engine for Dodge, but the company promises a direct-injection version soon.
The Charger will get a modernized drivetrain over the coming few years. Dodge has promised a direct-injection version of the Pentastar engine, which should give it more power and possibly better fuel economy. And the new eight-speed automatic, available in 2012 models, will definitely achieve improved fuel economy.
This 2011 model is rated at 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. With a mix of freeway, city, and some hard-charging mountain driving, CNET's car rang in 19.8 mpg, although I observed the trip meter heading into the mid-20s while freeway cruising.
Lacking the power of the SRT, the Charger felt like a nice, competent driver. It was responsive to the accelerator and the suspension soaked up bumps well. Dodge uses a hydraulic-electric power-steering system, which felt a little numb but turned reasonably well. The Charger is a little too long for parking in the city, but easily maneuverable on suburban streets.
The five-speed automatic is its Achilles' heel, as Dodge stretched the gear ratios for low engine speeds in top gear. As a result, second gear gets stuck doing a lot of the real work. Bombing around mountain roads, using the transmission's manual shifting capability, second gear was good for everything from 5 to 60 mph. That left little power for exits from tight turns.
Move the shift lever from side to side to change gears manually.
In the corners, the somewhat long wheelbase of the car led to less-than-nimble handling. The suspension was stiff enough to keep the car from showing excessive roll, but it felt strangely rubbery. Not being able to modulate power properly through the turn, because of the gear ratios, made maneuvering through the turns unsatisfying.
Manually shifting this transmission requires moving it from side to side. These shifts have the typical lag of a torque converter, making it necessary to predict when the shift will actually happen. The transmission does not have a Sport mode, and when left to shift automatically it heads to its highest gears whenever possible to reduce fuel consumption.
The interior build quality and the new infotainment center were welcome surprises in the 2011 Dodge Charger. Garmin's excellent navigation software is well-integrated into the navigation system, and the stereo includes a good selection of audio sources. The voice command system is somewhat limited, and I don't like having separate buttons for the phone and vehicle voice command systems.
With variable valve timing, the engine is good, but isn't the latest in performance technology. The transmission is particularly in need of improvement, its gearing being fine for freeway cruising but little else. However, the whole power train does boast very good highway fuel economy, and the car proves a competent driver for typical needs.
|Model||2011 Dodge Charger|
|Power train||3.6-liter V-6, 5-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-memory-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional, with voice command and address book|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Alpine 506-watt 9-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$34,955|