Dodge's HEMI-powered Charger is put to the test.

They say that competition breeds excellence and a lack of it breeds mediocrity, which could be a sign of trouble for Dodge's latest Charger sedan. Despite the availability of hundreds of vehicles in the United States, the Charger's non-luxury, rear-wheel drive sedan segment remains essentially bare.

Aside from a brief overlap with the Pontiac G8, the Charger has been unchallenged in the segment since the "original" launched back in 2006.

That kind of isolation can lead to some serious laurel resting, so we decided to check up on the redesigned-for-last-year 2012 Charger R/T.

What is it?

Now in the second year of its new redesign, 2012 Charger R/T represents a modern interpretation of the classic American muscle car. The Charger's new four-door layout may not be historically accurate, but the nameplate's spirit lives on thanks to the availability of a V8 and rear-wheel drive. Of course those looking for a little more efficiency or sure footedness can also opt for a V6 and all-wheel drive.

Although not a clean slate redesign from the Charger that roamed the earth between 2006 and 2010, the latest model rides on a heavily updated version of Chrysler's LX platform - now called LY - and also sports new styling both inside and out.

Those kind of improvements are just what the Charger needed as it was clear there was a genuinely good car hiding beneath its low-buck facade.

What's it up against?

We've made it pretty clear that the Charger doesn't have any direct rivals, but there are other options for those wanting a plus-sized sedan with power to spare, including the Ford Taurus SHO and Nissan Maxima. Although Dodge hopes you won't be peeking in the Chrysler showroom, you could also land a the Charger's platform mate, the 300, for a few bucks more.

If driving dynamics aren't really your thing, you could also lump in the Hyundai Azera, Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon.

How does it look?

At first glance, you might mistake the 2012 Charger for the last generation of the car, but take a closer look and you'll appreciate the subtle details of the new design. The Charger's "shark nose" front fascia has been revised to include more curves and creases, maintaining the car's aggressive look while adding a much needed dash of refinement.

We could take or leave the Charger's pronounced door scallops, but we can at least appreciate Dodge's attempt to incorporate more of the original Charger's design into the latest incarnation of the car.

You couldn't pry the Charger's rear end design from our hands, though, as we love its retro-inspired taillight design. The Bo and Luke Duke-approved design is the kind of character that was missing from the last-gen Charger and those 173 LED bulbs look fantastic all lit up at night.

We like the look of the Charger's 20-inch wheels, but someone needs to tell Dodge's styling department that chrome went out of fashion many, many years ago. A set of aluminum wheels are also on offer, but that reduction in bling will set you back another $995.

And on the inside?

Although you might confuse the 2012 Charger for the old car from the outside, we doubt anyone will make the same mistake from the inside. Whereas the old Charger felt as if it was designed with a strict budget in mind, the new car feels just about up to luxury car standards - both in terms of material quality and overall design.

From behind the wheel of the 2012 Charger you'll appreciate an all-new gauge cluster design. Gone is the old car's multi-binnacle setup, replaced with a much cleaner layout featuring a tach and speedometer with integrated temperature and fuel gauges. If you need any more information than that, trip data is displayed via a center-mounted LCD screen.

Keep your eyes moving to the right and you'll notice a much-needed center stack redesign. While the old car felt as though it was ripped right out of the 1990s, the 2012 Charger feels at home in the modern era.

Our test car was fitted with Dodge's latest infotainment system, which includes a large 8.3 inch LCD screen. We found the touch screen system - which controls entertainment and navigation fictions - easy to use with a shallow learning curve. However, we hate the fact that Dodge followed in Ford's footsteps by ditching physical heated seat buttons for virtual icons.

On the plus side, the Charger does retain a conventional volume/power knob for the radio, which has become all too rare these days.

The Charger's Garmin-supplied navigation system makes for familiar environment, but the graphics already seem outdated. More and more automaker are offering navigation features like 3D maps and Google functionality, while Charger buyers are left to follow a little pink line.

But that's about the only visual letdown in the Charger as the overall design is much more pleasing than the outgoing model. A silver inlay - which some may be surprised to find is made of actually aluminum rather than plastic painted to look like metal - adds to the Charger's contemporary flare, and details like contrasting stitching can be found throughout the cabin.

And, perhaps more importantly, those new surfaces are just as easy on the skin as they are on the eyes.

The last Charger was a sea of cheap and hard plastics, but virtually every inch of the new car is made of soft, high-quality material. Combine those upscale materials with features like heated and cooled cup holders, optional radar-based cruise control and memory seats and the Charger truly is knocking on the door of luxury car territory.

But does it go?

Performance has always been a Charger strong suit, and that holds true for the 2012 version of the car. Our tester was fitted with Dodge's 370 horsepower 5.7-liter HEMI V8 which, despite its age, is still one of the sweetest engines on the market.

Plant your foot on the go-fast pedal and the Charger pulls off the line like a true muscle car should. Power continues to build through the revs, with the big HEMI more than willing to spin right up to its red line. The SRT may be the pinnacle of the Charger line, but believe us, you'll probably be satisfied with the grunt of the R/T.

The HEMI is now entering the seventh year of its long-term relationship with the Dodge's Mercedes-Benz-source five-speed automatic, which means the two are well acquainted, but sparks are hardly flying. The V8-powered Charger could certainly benefit from an extra gear - or three - but that will soon be sorted when Chrysler drops in its eight-speed automatic.

The five-speed gearbox isn't a total write off, though, as it still provides smooth shifts and can be manually controlled by steering wheel-mount paddle shifters. You can occasionally find the unit between gears when performing passing maneuvers but, on the whole, the five-speed is not an issue to live with on a day-to-day basis.

The Charger's heft prevents it from crossing over into sports car territory, but we were pleasantly surprised by the sedan's handling. The previous Charger was a bit of a softy even in R/T guise, but the new car feels much stiffer and better planted. Steering feel is also improved, benefitting from better weighting and a more direct response.

We weren't able to fully unleash the Charger R/T on a proper race track, but the car's four-wheel disc brakes never let us down during spirited driving.

On the whole, it's safe to say the Charger R/T is a true driver's car.

Why you would buy it

If you have a budget of about $30,000, need the room a four-door sedan and care about having fun while driving, the 2012 Dodge Charger R/T could be the perfect purchase. Nothing else on the market delivers what the Charger R/T does at this price point.

Why you wouldn't

If you've never aimed for the apex of an on-ramp, the 2012 Dodge Charger R/T probably isn't the car for you.

Leftlane's bottom line

It's hard to argue with the Charger R/T. For a little more than the price of a full-loaded mid-size sedan you get V8 power, rear-wheel drive and a menacing look that can scare small children.

We might pause due to the impending launch of an eight-speed automatic, but we doubt we would ever second guess putting a Charger in our own personal garage.

2012 Dodge Charger R/T Road and Track, base price $33,995. As tested, $36,710.

Navigation/Rear Back Up Camera Group, $795; Driver Confidence Group, $995; Destination, $925.

Words and photos by Drew Johnson.