by David Zatz in November 2014 (5)
In 1991, the fastest four-door sedan sold in America was the Dodge Spirit R/T, a five-door, four-cylinder, intercooled-turbo sedan with 224 horsepower.
Today, the cheapest Dodge Charger roughly matches the old Spirit R/T speed and gas mileage — with 70 horsepower more — requiring much less effort, far superior cornering, a luxury-car ride on rough roads, and relatively rock-solid reliability. It's as easy to drive as any family sedan on city streets and winding country lanes, yet you can get an instant rocket-launcher boost with full throttle, especially if you use the paddle shifters to downshift at the same time. And that's the bottom of a line that has four different engines.
The new fastest-Mopar-sedan is the 707 horsepower Dodge Charger Hellcat. Even that car, with more than three times the power of the late (and nearly unknown) Spirit R/T, is pretty easy to drive, as long as you treat the pedal gently; and unlike many lesser cars, the ride is neither stiff nor harsh, far easier to live with than the old Magnum SRT. Dodge has truly come a long way.
There were two segments to the Charger experience: a two hour drive, split between two drivers, and track time at the Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, near the American Public University System's headquarters of Charles Town. But first, we went through a quick presentation of what's new for 2015, in an airport hangar — and we'll keep our presentation of that brief, too (you can always scroll past it for our ride-and-drive). More detail is in our 2015 Dodge Charger page; look out for a link to our specifications page, which compares each generation of Charger.
Jeff Gale told us about the unique SRT hood (the Hellcat adds heat extractors), how the rear pillar was adapted from the 1968 Charger's “flying buttress” look, and showed us the difference in exhaust tips — fascia-mounted for the V6, exhaust-mounted for SRT and Scat Pack. The SRT also has a three-piece factory spoiler (one piece on the trunk and one piece on each fender).
Mr. Gale noted that they wanted seamless lighting, using the graphic form of the 1969 Dodge Charger rear. They pulled the lighting to the corners to shorten the apparent length. The new wheels include a low-gloss “Brass Monkey” finish which was hard to engineer. Overall, the aerodynamics are better, and the car feels lighter.
Ryan Nagode, head of interior design, talked about how the Scat Pack and Road & Track package used the Performance Pages from SRT. The entry-level cabin was particularly upgraded, and the rear was tested with car seats.
Charger communications chief Kristin Starnes said, “If there's one thing more exciting than having the Hellcat engine, it's putting it into a four door sedan.”
Bob Boberdorf, head of Dodge car marketing, noted the prices, saying that the business case for the Charger Hellcat was difficult (a 707 horsepower four door sedan), then noted that Dodge buyers were, on average, nine years younger than the industry average; Charger buyers are 17 years younger than the full-size car segment average (43 vs 60).
Charger Line Executive Steve Williams noted that the V6 used the Chrysler-built 845RE automatic (essentially a ZF design with modifications to make it easier to build at Chrysler), while the V8s used the HP70 and HP90. The car has a new driveline, rear suspension cradle, CV joints, and four-point cradle mount.
Darryl Smith, chief engineer of the Charger and Challenger SRT, said the custom designed IHI supercharger went up to 14,600 rpm, pushing through 30,000 liters of air per minute at its peak; the engine develops 411 lb-ft of torque from just 1,200 rpm. The transmission was toughened up with, among other things, wider gears. The intercooler goes through 11 gallons of antifreeze per minute and can cut the incoming air temperature by 60°F. The exhaust goes from quite to loud via an electronically controlled valve, and has a 2.7” diameter throughout.
Finally, Matt McAlear, Dodge Charger brand manager, said that the SRT provides the Track Experience training, while the Scat Pack does not, and pointed out that the $63,995 price (in line with smaller, less capable Ford and GM cars) includes the gas-guzzler tax.
The Charger has an impressive range of power (and cost), but there don't seem to be any losers. I've driven punishing hard-suspension, bone-jarring cars with far less power than the Charger Hellcat, and “sports cars” with slower acceleration than the Dodge Charger SXT, with its 3.6 liter V6 (which does a consistent 0-60 in 6.6 seconds).
The 2011-14 generation was a major improvement over the first Chargers (and 300/300Cs). They felt lighter, though they were heavier; the interior looked pricier and was more comfortable, and the interiors were quieter. The 2015 has similar changes: they feel lighter, though they are not; the interiors are plusher and quieter, and there are all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos (including “performance pages” on the Scat Pack and SRTs). The basics of the car remain the same, but improvements to the suspension, sound insulation, and interiors were fairly strong.
We tested the Road & Track version of the Charger R/T (yes, the R/T R/T). This has numerous tuning changes from even the ordinary R/T, which is unlikely to have the same suspension and transmission tuning as the V6 — which was unavailable for testing, though I suspect it would have been good on the track (especially given the performance of the vans, but more on that later).
Killing off more of the old Mercedes-inspired “dead feel” is a major upgrade for this generation, and one wonders what the next generation will be like, given that they're likely to have a Maserati-based front suspension.
The eight-speed automatic is now standard in every car, with the old “guess where I am” Curse-O-Matic shifter replaced by a more sensible design that acts like any other automatic transmission shifter; and there are reasonably large spaces between the gears, so you don't have to divert your attention to avoid overshooting, and it stays where you put it. These common-sense attributes were completely missing from the 2011-14 eight-speed shifters.
Our Dodge Charger R/T drive, from Washington DC to a race track in West Virginia, took around two hours, and included city streets, country roads, and highways — more city streets than planned, since we apparently missed took the wrong exit. The Charger R/T reacted extremely quickly; the transmission seemed to be much more performance-tuned than the V6 automatic (though this may have been part of the Road & Track package, rather than a year to year upgrade). The Hemi's 0-60 time is “less than six seconds,” but that doesn't tell the whole story; the car is more instant-on than ever, from pretty much any speed... though driving the Hellcat makes the R/T seem more relaxed.
Despite being faster than prior models, the Charger R/T is quieter inside than it used to be, and easier to drive. The seats are more comfortable, as well. The new transmission seems to be better tuned than the old Mercedes five-speed, and for that matter better tuned than the same transmission in the V6 cars not long ago. (This is, after all, not the first time they've used it; the eight-speed has been used with the V6 in large cars for some time, and is also in the Grand Cherokee and Durango, not to mention FCA-mates Maserati Ghibli and Quattroporte.)
The first part of our cruise did a good job of testing brute-force acceleration, and proving that the car maintained good control during full throttle lane changes. By the time I took over it had started to rain, and we started to pass police cars at an alarming rate; at one point, while we were pulled over between Charles Town and the raceway for photos, an unmarked silver Charger Pursuit screamed by at what seemed like triple the speed limit, but still fully under control.
Much has been said about rear wheel drive, both good and bad, in the rain and snow. The Charger R/T performed well in the rain, not losing grip or composure during moderately hard turns, and staying true in sudden full throttle acceleration. There was more than enough power for easy and fast acceleration up steep hills, from slow and highway speeds, and in all honesty, I held back for fear of wrapping Dodge's brand new car around a tree. Despite, say, full throttle acceleration from 30 going up a long steep grade — which seemed to have no effect at all on acceleration — I found no loss of traction until I hit the race track, and even then not until the rain let up and the track went from dry to slick.
The engine has plenty of torque at low rpm for easy drivability, making it a good choice for the impatient. This comes at a price — the V6, around 7/10 of a second slower in 0-60 but also less responsive, turns in EPA ratings of 19/31, while the V8 is rated at 16/25. (The highway ratings, at least, seem to be accurate. Push it constantly, and, like any other car, you will pay for it. The cars at the track — all V8s — showed gas mileage in the single digits. Take a Toyota Camry and alternatively slam the gas on full tilt and hit the brakes, and you're likely to get similar results, except without quite the same speeds.)
As you go up in engines, the torque quickly gets higher and the reaction time more immediate; how much of this is due to tuning versus power, is hard to say. The transmission itself is capable of reacting near-instantly, but with the V6, even the paddle shifters seem to have a delay built in. The R/T shifted much more quickly, and the Hellcat apparently didn't need to. We've experienced this before; the Challenger, with a manual transmission and the 6.4 engine, required very little time between mash-the-pedal and push-back-into-seat. With the Hellcat, it's more of a “move the pedal an inch and have your head snap back into the headrest.” Make sure those things are adjusted first...
The 2015 Dodge Charger R/T played the roles of both family sedan and muscle car admirably. You can drive it daintily and gently, and it will feel like a very well appointed large sedan, veering on midrange Lexus. You can also push it hard, and it will act like a real muscle car (where Lexus will still feel like a well appointed large sedan, regardless of fine acceleration numbers — they really overdo the insulation).
The seats were comfortable, possibly more so than in my own Chrysler 300, the cabin was quiet, and everything was easy to operate. The rated gas mileage is about the same as before; the eight speed mainly delivers power more quickly, and I suspect it adds quite a bit of economy at speeds over 65 mph. Aside from the V6, fuel economy is nothing to write home about, though normal for the class.
There are many new electronic features, bringing the telematics up to date, and providing a full-resolution between-the-gauges information display. This is handy for showing turn-by-turn directions, trip data, and such; on cars from the R/T Road & Track and up, this also shows performance information, including realtime horsepower and torque ratings (a peak-hold feature would be handy because you really shouldn't be looking at that while driving at peak power).
If I had to change one thing, it would be city mileage. There are several ways to go about that, but an optional stop-start system seems the most sensible. Really, weight reduction is the key, but that's not going to happen for a while.
The drawbacks of the 2014 Charger have largely been addressed — the awkward, outdated, and moderately slow Mercedes automatic, the remains of the “Mercedes dead-feel,” and above all, the Curse-O-Matic shifter. Even in the rain, the Charger is a fun drive — and an easy one. The Charger does not demand that you remain in top form at all times, that you constantly pay attention to the car or risk death. If you slam on the gas, yes, you get jerked back in your seat, but you also stay in your lane and under control (under normal conditions). As we saw at the track, the car recovers well from errors, too — but that's another story. (Go there now.)
Chargers at the track including Hellcat • Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat and other 2015 Dodge Chargers
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