The V6-powered Dodge Charger is a genuinely satisfying full-size sports sedan.
With the recent influx of new full-size sedans hitting the market, we figured it was time to take another look at our longtime favorite big'un: The Dodge Charger.
Facing stiff competition from a host of cars that send power exclusively to the front wheels - think Chevrolet Impala, Hyundai Azera, Kia Cadenza, Toyota Avalon - the rear or all-wheel-drive Charger is hardly without its merits.
True, it isn't the freshest face on the block any more, having had its last major update back in 2011. But it recently gained a terrific eight-speed automatic for its standard V6 engine and Chrysler has generally done a pretty good job keeping it relevant thanks to a number of special edition packages.
What is it?
Despite the fact that it still kind of looks like the original (reborn) Charger sedan, the latest model was very thoroughly updated for 2011. It gained an all-new body that includes the automaker's nifty "racetrack" LED tail lamp design, although underneath it still rides on a platform that descends from the mid-1990s Mercedes-Benz E-Class. That's not a bad starting point and Chrysler assures us that the Charger is vastly more modern.
Both V6 and V8 Chargers are available. Opt for the 5.7 and 6.4-liter Hemi V8s and you'll net serious performance, but even the 3.6-liter V6 tested here is no slouch. Boasting a standard 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque, it really came into its own with the addition of a ZF-developed eight-speed automatic in 2012. V8-powered Chargers and the base Charger SE retain five cogs, however.
Although Charger and its Chrysler 300 near-twin remain the only rear-wheel-drive full-size sedan sold by an American manufacturer (bar the new Chevrolet SS performance sedan, which competes with the fire-breathing Charger SRT8), many leave the Brampton, Ontario, assembly line with all-wheel-drive. Such was the case with our test car, which also included a $1,395 Sport Appearance package with 19-inch black wheels and, more importantly, a tune kit that adds 8 horsepower for a total of 300 ponies.
Other options as-tested on our volume-level SXT included a $1,195 navigation/backup camera package and a goofy-expensive $1,500 black-painted roof, which had the fortunate or unfortunate (depending on your perspective) side effect of making our test car look like a police cruiser.
What's it up against?
We've already mentioned Charger's main rivals, but here's a rehash: Chevrolet Impala, Hyundai Azera, Kia Cadenza, Toyota Avalon.
What's it look like?
If the original muscle cars of the '60s and '70s had evolved into the 21st century, they would probably look like Dodge Chargers. Of course, we can only speculate since there was a roughly 30 year gap between the last decent muscle car to roll out of Detroit and the rebirth of the Charger nameplate as a four-door sedan.
The latest Charger looks less like a sedan than its predecessor thanks to its lower roofline and more pronounced rear haunches. But the biggest changes came at the rear, where the old Charger's blocky tail lamps gave way to an intricate single-appearing unit. This isn't an easy look to pull off on a modern car, but it works really well by tying in Dodge's heritage with the modern touch of LEDs. That said, we'd probably pass on the decklid spoiler.
We'd also skip the black roof. It does look kind of cool, but that's the only chilly thing about it. If you're in the sun belt, you're going to roast. For $1,500, you might as well buy a moonroof.
And on the inside?
Conspicuously lacking leather seats (included with several other goodies in the $2,000 more SXT Plus trim), our tester was otherwise nearly a luxury car inside. Dodge's dashboard design is rather plain compared to the Chrysler 300's more intricate look, but at least all of the materials you might come into contact with on a regular basis are high quality. Still, some rivals have brought more stitched elements into their cabins to give them a bespoke look. It would be nice to see such bits on the Charger.
At least the interior is highly functional and comfortable. All five seats have plenty of stretch-out room and the front thrones are even heated (cloth heated seats are a must-have in wintry climates). The thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel shows that this car means business, at least moreso than the typical full-size sedan.
One demerit we've harped on before is the T-shaped gear lever that arrived at the same time as the eight-speed automatic. Shared with the 300 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the lever looks high tech but is frustratingly difficult to use. Here's to hoping someone at Chrysler reads this and decides the madness must stop - after all, did the gear lever really need to be rethought?
Commanding plenty of real estate on the dashboard is Chrysler's excellent Uconnect Access infotainment system (detailed here in our Spotlight On series). Its 8.4-inch screen and essentially lag-free software are huge boons compared to rival units. The Garmin-esque navigation software, meanwhile, works well but feels a little simple for those who like lots of information on the screen at one time.
But does it go?
Tipping the scales at nearly 4,200 lbs., the Charger is hardly a lightweight in the big sedan segment.
Yet what was once a sluggish performer has been reborn thanks to the fast-shifting eight-speed gearbox. Although we might accuse the transmission of making its way into high gears too quickly in order to save fuel at the expense of acceleration, the gearbox does happily slip down a cog or two when called upon.
The V6's horsepower peaks near redline, although the 260 lb-ft. of torque comes on at a slightly more reasonable 4,800 rpm. Luckily, there's still a good deal of torque on hand at low rpms, so there's not much need to mash the throttle for forward progress. But when you do depress the skinny pedal, you're rewarded with a faint, muffled growl that wouldn't be out of place on a car two or three times this list price.
Charger's optional all-wheel-drive system automatically disconnects the front wheels when needed. We saw stellar grip on dry and wet surfaces, thanks in part to the 19-inch Michelin all-season tires. Fuel economy takes a big hit with all-wheel-drive - from 31 mpg highway on the rear-driver to just 27 mpg on our tester per the EPA. We actually saw closer to 29 mpg on an extended highway jaunt, although our observed 18 mpg city fuel economy was right on with the EPA figures.
Those fuel economy figures are even more impressive considering how well the Charger handles. Despite its size and heft, its relatively quick and informative steering combine with a firm but hardly punishing suspension to deliver the ride and handling of a genuine sports sedan. This is a big four-door that really relishes being tossed about on curvy roads. Thanks to its long wheelbase and extensive sound deadening, it's also a quiet highway cruiser.
When you're looking to turn things up a wick, the Sport Appearance Package's Sport Mode is ready to be called upon. Not only does it hold gears a little longer like most sport programming modes, it also fires off slightly quicker shifts. The package also included die-cast steel paddle shift levers on the steering wheel.
Leftlane's bottom line
Charger might not be the freshest big four-door on the market, but it's definitely the choice for enthusiast-type drivers - even with its standard V6 engine. If anything, this motor might make us question just how badly we really needed the V8.
There's a lot to like here between the smooth and sonorous engine, the class-leading driving dynamics and the relatively good value (when the black roof is skipped). That said, we'd like to see some interior upgrades in the near future.
2013 Dodge Charger SXT AWD base price, $31,295. As tested, $36,380.
Navigation/backup camera, $1,195; Sport Appearance Package, $1,395; Black painted roof, $1,500; Destination, $995.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.