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Dodge offers muscular midsize sedan

In a pack crowded with Ford Fusions, Chevy Impalas, and Toyota Camrys, the Dodge Charger stands out with muscular styling. In a pack crowded with Ford Fusions, Chevy Impalas, and Toyota Camrys, the Dodge Charger stands out with muscular styling. (CHRYSLER LLC)
By Mike Hanley
Cars.Com / February 7, 2009
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If you follow NASCAR, you know that the Chevrolet Impalas, Ford Fusions, and Toyota Camrys driving in circles at tracks around the country are custom-built race cars designed to look something like the passenger cars you can buy at your local dealership.

The same thing applies to Dodge's entry in the series, the Charger, but of all the models out there circling the track, it's most in tune with NASCAR's way of doing things: It's a large rear-wheel-drive car that's available with a Hemi V-8. I tested the high-performance SRT8 trim level of the Charger, and it seems especially well-suited to satisfy NASCAR enthusiasts or anyone else who loves the thrill of a big V-8 engine.

There's something about the Charger that makes it look angry. Whether it's the angled headlights or the big crosshair grille, the Charger has that get-out-of-my-way look. That look is only enhanced in the SRT8 version, which has a hood scoop and a more aggressively styled lower bumper with air inlets to help cool the front brakes.

Like the Chrysler 300 (with which it shares a platform), the Charger has short side windows that enhance the car's low-slung appearance. The Dodge, however, features different sheet metal and is highlighted by a pronounced bulge extending from the rear doors to the rear quarter-panel. The rear of the SRT8 has bright-finished dual exhausts and a small wing that Dodge says aids high-speed stability; it increases downforce through the way in which it directs air passing over the car. The wing, however, blocks rear visibility somewhat.

In the Charger SRT8, it's easy to go from civilized to unruly behavior in a second; all you need to do is jam the gas pedal to make the 6.1-liter V-8 change its tune from a muted burble to an all-out assault on your ears - accompanied, of course, by a burst of power. Do that once and you'll immediately have respect for the engine's 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. Whether you're puttering around at city speeds or moving along at a highway clip, the SRT8 is never at a loss for power, and Dodge says it can run from zero to 60 mph in a little more than 5 seconds. That's quick for a two-ton sedan.

The big V-8 pairs with a five-speed automatic transmission that features Dodge's AutoStick clutchless-manual mode. The automatic makes seamless shifts during leisurely driving, but can knock off a couple of quick, firm downshifts when you step hard on the gas. Tapping the gear selector left or right initiates downshifts or upshifts, and while the response is quicker than what you might find in a model of lesser performance, there's still too much shift lag.

Another performance feature of the SRT8 is its front and rear Brembo brakes. These performance brakes shed speed quickly at the lightest touch of the brake pedal.

The Charger SRT8 has a unique suspension setup that features special shock absorbers and springs, larger stabilizer bars and a half-inch-lower ride height. While the sedan's ride is fairly firm, the suspension allows for quite a bit of travel. This isn't the case with all performance cars, and it makes for a more comfortable ride than expected - even on older, worn-out roads.

The SRT8 feels most at home on the highway. The car tracks admirably once you've chosen your line, and it feels especially stable, too. It's also rather quiet in the cabin, with only a hint of wind noise. It's definitely made for cruising.

As you might have guessed, the SRT8 wasn't made for winding roads. The sport suspension keeps the Charger flat during hard cornering, but this is a big car that has to be muscled around bends in the road. It doesn't reward the driver in the process, because the steering doesn't offer much feedback. Also, the position of the rearview mirror and the car's upright A-pillars impede visibility when you're driving on curvy roads.

Dodge updated the interior for the 2008 model year, with changes including a restyled dashboard and more soft-touch surfaces. Along with the new Ram pickup truck, the Charger has one of Dodge's better interiors in terms of materials quality, panel fit, and refinement of the controls. The brand still has some rather unrefined interiors, like the one in the Caliber, but the Charger does refute the claim that Dodge doesn't offer any nice cabins.

My impressions, however, may be the result of testing the top-of-the-line SRT8 model, which starts at $38,670 and had an as-tested price of $44,375. Upscale features included standard dual-zone automatic air conditioning and an optional entertainment and navigation system.

The SRT8 has front bucket sport seats with large side bolsters on the bottom cushion and backrest. The seats have power adjustments and are quite comfortable. The rear bench has form-fitting seat cushions in the outboard seats. The large front sport seats intrude on backseat legroom slightly, but adults can still get comfortable back there.

The Charger's trunk offers 16.2 cubic feet, which is similar to what other full-size sedans like the Buick Lucerne (17 cubic feet) and Hyundai Genesis (15.9 cubic feet) offer. If you need room to carry large items, the Charger also has a standard 60/40-split folding backseat, a feature that's less common in large cars than it is in compact and midsize models.

The Charger SRT8 has standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system (they're a $1,025 option for the base Charger).

Side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags are grouped together as an option, too.

In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset crash test, the Charger received a Good overall rating, the highest possible score. The Charger was also subjected to the IIHS's side-impact crash test, and a model without the optional side airbags received a Poor overall rating, the worst possible score. As of publication, side-impact test results weren't available for Chargers with the optional side airbags.

Times are difficult, to say the least, for the Detroit Three, but things are especially rough for Chrysler, whose sales were down 30 percent in 2008; Charger sales fared comparatively better, down 18 percent.

A difficult sales climate for Chrysler, however, means good deals for car buyers as the automaker is offering a variety of discounts like employee pricing, cash rebates, and financing deals.

The high-powered SRT8 trim level might be harder to find with significant discounts, but if you have confidence in Chrysler's future, it's not a bad time to buy a Charger.

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