The Charger: Beefcake and Brains

It's not the hot rod of old, but this resurrected model still burns rubber -- and it's comfortable, smart, and relatively easy on the gas, too

Call me a sucker, but I like the controversial new Dodge Charger. As with the new Pontiac GTO, it doesn't have a whole lot in common with its famous muscle-car namesake -- the classic late 1960s Charger, perhaps best-known for starring as General Lee in the old TV show (and recent movie) The Dukes of Hazzard. Many aging Baby Boomers are miffed that the new Charger is a four door instead of a coupe and doesn't have the radical "coke bottle" styling of the original.

But the new Charger has a lot going for it. It's based on the Chrysler 300 and Magnum models -- both big successes. In the first 10 months of this year, DaimlerChrysler (DCX) sold 119,219 Chrysler 300s, up 37% from the first 10 months of 2004, while Magnum sales have soared 66%, to 27,765.

The new Charger was only introduced in May, and the company has already sold 30,840 of them. With a little luck, next year's sales could approach 100,000 units -- and match the original Charger's sales in 1968, by far its biggest year.

The new Charger may be a rear-wheel-drive muscle car aimed mainly at guys who remember the original, but it could easily serve as a speedy family sedan. The big, rectangular windows provide excellent visibility.

The interior space is boxy and almost austere, especially with the understated slate-gray leather upholstery in my test car. There's tons of hip and shoulder room and, though headspace is only listed at 39 inches (and a mere 36.2 in. in back), the car didn't seem cramped: I had plenty of room to crank the seats up and raise the seat back upright. The car also has a decent-sized trunk and a good safety rating.


  The fun quotient is pretty high, too. My test car, a Charger R/T, came with a 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower, Hemi V-8 engine. Believe it or not, that's the midrange Charger engine (read on for stats on the even more powerful SRT8). The R/T nonetheless has tremendous pickup (390 ft. lbs of torque), even though it weighs 4100 lbs., nearly 1,000 lbs more than a Corvette Z06 (see BW Online, 11/9/05, "Corvette Z06: Fast Wheels for Strong Hearts").

The main downside, as far as I'm concerned, is that even the most powerful versions of the Charger come with only a five-speed automatic transmission. As with most automatics these days, you can do the shifting yourself if you want (I often did) -- but it's not the same as manhandling a big, gutsy manual shift and clutch like the one on the new Pontiac GTO (see BW Online, 10/6/05, "This GTO Needs More Retro").

The sound system in my test car -- a six-speaker Boston Acoustics setup with a subwoofer and 322-Watt amp that costs $535 extra -- really rocked, too. More than once I found myself sitting in the driveway with the engine running as I waited for the song to end. That's partly because the car also came with Sirius (SIRI) digital satellite radio -- another $195, including a year of free service -- with its fabulous rock and jazz programs.


  As for price, it's slightly misleading when Chrysler's publicity people brag that the new Charger offers "superior performance at a great price." True, until the end of November there's a $1,000 cash rebate. And the basic versions of the car, which come with an entirely adequate 250 horsepower, V-6 engine, are quite inexpensive.

The SE starts at $22,995 and comes loaded with technology, including electronic stability control, antilock brakes with automatic brake assist, traction control, and power windows and mirrors. For $25,995 you can get the SXT, which has the same engine and also boasts the Boston Acoustics sound system, power seats, and leather interior trim.

But the price mounts fast if you want that "superior performance" -- and the price points are ingeniously structured to lure driving enthusiasts into spending some real money. At the very least, you have to pay up for the Charger R/T, which starts at $29,995.


  For another $1,695, you can add a Road/Track package that includes performance-wheel tires, suspension, and steering, as well as some comfort options, such as heated seats. For a bit more, there's the Daytona version, with cosmetic add-ons such as a retro paint job (Top Banana yellow) and front and rear spoilers.

If you really want superior performance, you have go for the mother of all Chargers -- the SRT8, which starts at $35,995 and comes with a massive 6.1 liter, 425 horsepower Hemi V-8 that the company says makes it the quickest Dodge sedan on the market.

This model has all sorts of upgrades, including a special engine manifold, cylinder heads and connecting rods, a reinforced engine block, extra large, piston-driven disk brakes, special Goodyear (GT) supercar tires, and a raised rear spoiler. An additional $1,245 gets you an 11-speaker sound system with even more output than the one in the R/T.


  Back in the day, hardly anyone actually bought the Charger with the biggest available engines -- a 440 in., 375 horsepower Magnum or a 426 cubic in., 425 horsepower Hemi V8 -- because it was such a gas guzzler. By contrast, the new Hemi-powered R/T is rated to get 25 miles-per-gallon on the highway and 17 in the city, largely because a sophisticated engine-management system runs the car on only four cylinders when you're cruising and don't need full power. Mileage is only slightly better in the base models with the smaller engine, which are rated at 27 mpg on the highway and 19 in the city.

The bottom line: If you're looking for a car like the Chargers of yore, this ain't it. But it's a good-looking performance car with a lot of practical advantages most muscle cars don't have.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.