We pull out of Detroit’s Metropolitan airport in a Dodge Charger SRT8 so shiny-apple red that it glistens. The $49,000 sedan has a full tank of gas, 470 horsepower and a trunk big enough for our entire luggage.
My traveling companion and I are heading four hours northeast, to the shores of Lake Huron. After all, what better place to shake down Dodge’s four-door sports machine than the roads of Michigan?
Consider it a road trip to celebrate that America’s car companies still make stuff. Good stuff, too.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Chrysler Group LLC’s products interested me little. The Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring were embarrassments. Yet since emerging from bankruptcy and forming an alliance with Fiat, the company has seen a turnaround.
May 2012 U.S. sales were up 30 percent, according to the company, the result of refreshed and re-energized lineups like the Chrysler 300 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Yes, and the Charger. When it was first released in 2005, the rear-wheel-drive sedan delivered equal amounts of bad attitude and cheap plastic.
It was tough enough to serve as the go-to ride of Michael Chiklis’s bad-guy detective in The Shield. But as a car you’d take a road trip with? Not comfortable or luxurious enough by a long shot.
The shape was unlike anything else on the road, with that stubbed nose and bull’s-eye grill, curving roof and squat stance. As identifiable as a bull dog, you only needed to see the car in silhouette. (That’s helpful, as heaps of Chargers are driven as police cruisers, a fact I’ll be reminded of frequently on Michigan roads.)
The Charger has seen big changes in the last few years, with a tweaked exterior, far better interior and refined driving behavior. The $26,300 base model has 292 horsepower and gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway.
The top-line version I’m driving, the SRT8, starts at about $48,000 with a 6.4-liter, Hemi V-8 with 470 pound feet of torque, and a reverberating, bad-boy rumble that comes with it.
Except when it doesn’t. Minutes into our drive we’ve already hit road construction. I roll up the windows and the Hemi’s roar and the road-work jack-hammering disappear. The car is remarkably quiet.
Detouring around Detroit, we wend our way around pickups hauling bass boats and aging American brands which no longer exist: Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury.
The Dodge brothers got their start in Detroit in the early 1900s, and the company was bought by Chrysler in the late 1920s. (My test car’s window sticker notes the engine is made in Mexico, the transmission in Germany and that it was assembled in Ontario, Canada. So much for Chrysler’s ad campaign, “Imported from Detroit.”)
When cruising on the highway, the Dodge deactivates engine cylinders to help minimize gas consumption. Even so, miles per gallon on the SRT8 is only 14 in the city, 23 on the highway, poor enough that the car gets slapped with a $1,000 gas guzzler tax.
Those who love a great tide of torque, especially from 35 to 65 miles per hour, will find the bug Hemi engine worthwhile. Tap on the gas pedal and the engine comes to full alert.
We pass through the outskirts of Flint, the town which gave birth to General Motors and once employed some 80,000 auto workers. Not anymore. Depressing thoughts of dilapidated factories fade as Michigan’s horizon opens up.
We’re headed for the so-called Sunrise Coast, where the Au Sable River pours into Lake Huron. The region has beaches, hiking trails, boating and fishing. After stopping for snacks, including local deer jerky, we leave the main road for secondary routes.
I’d prefer a six-speed manual to the Charger’s clunky five-speed automatic. Otherwise the extent of the car’s available technology impresses. The navigation system, adaptive suspension and back-up camera come standard. Options include moisture-sensing windshield wipers, high beams that switch to low when another car passes and adaptive cruise control.
Unfortunately, functions like heated and cooled seats and, more pertinently, the sport button are operated by the touch-screen. They’d be better served by physical controls on the center console.
The bucket seats are firm but comfortable and, as a full-size sedan, the car boasts ample room in the back. It serves far better on long trips than its muscle car roots would suggest. There’s civility in this beast.
Finally we reach Lake Huron providing an infinite vista of water, resembling a calm sea. We glide past LuLu’s Sunnyside Cabins with a neon sign glowing in the dusk, and a parade of cars for sale, by owner, at the side of the road. (A 1970s Trans Am appealed.)
Checking into our hotel in Oscoda, the receptionist tells us how the closure of the local Air Force base and recent recession had hurt the town. “But tourism is starting to come back,” she said, brightly.
The next morning, I gas up and a half a dozen patrons tell me they love the car. In Oscoda, a Charger SRT8 is as hot as a Ferrari.
Perhaps, though, it’s becoming too civilized. I spy a private patch of asphalt in an abandoned parking lot. Switching off the traction control, I jam on the gas and turn the wheel. The car spins in mad doughnuts, deep smoke pouring from rear wheels.
No fear of taming the beast. It’s just right.
The 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 at a Glance
Engine: 6.4-liter, Hemi V-8 with 470 horsepower and 470
pound feet of torque.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds.
Gas mpg: 14 city, 23 highway.
Price as tested: $49,810.
Best features: Hemi roar, modern comforts.
Worst feature: Old-school five-speed automatic
Target buyer: The driver who wants comfort and civility
with a dose of muscle-car madness.
Muse highlights include Richard Jaroslovsky on technology and Patrick Cole on philanthropy.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)