2008 Dodge Charger SRT-8 test drive
With a 345 horsepower Hemi engine, the Dodge Charger R/T runs from zero to sixty in a bare six seconds. The SRT-8 version uses a bigger Hemi, at 6.1 liters, with heavier-duty internal hardware, bigger ports, extra-heavy-duty cooling, and no cylinder-deactivation system, adding up to a whopping 425 horspower — impressive even compared with the new VCT Hemis that can push out 390 hp.
Acceleration is strong but not always predictable, with a transmission that is sometimes slow to shift and doesn't kick down as rapidly as the high-revving engine would like. The engine makes decent enough power in low rpms, but really comes into its own at higher engine speeds, with a full-bore roar. Under full throttle, the SRT-8 feels as though it has far more brute force than cars with similar sprint times, such as the Lexus GS450h, albeit less than all-out sports cars like the Corvette. In case you were wondering, it does 0-60 in around five seconds, 0-100-0 mph in the mid-16s, and stops from 60 mph in 110 feet.
The 6.1 Hemi roars loudly into life and has a fairly loud, deep note, making it clear that it means business. Inside the Charger, though, it is not at all annoying, as it is in some cars with performance-sounding exhausts; the rumble isn't overpowering and the engine is quiet at idle and high speed. On the highway, the Charger has little wind noise. It also feels completely stable and in control. Acceleration comes immediately; then the transmission downshifts, and the Charger shoots forward.
The Dodge Charger SRT-8 has the heart of a lion, but is quite capable of purring like a kitten when driving around town. Many people live in areas where day to day driving is not so much a matter of hitting the gas as the brakes, and where heavy acceleration only means equally heavy de-acceleration moments later. Fortunately, the SRT-8 is far better equipped to handle this kind of traffic than the 426-Hemi-powered 1968-71 Dodge Chargers were; the engine will quietly, calmly idle or growl ever so slightly as needed. Unlike many cars of equal or far less power, the throttle control is intelligently designed — you only get full thrust when you want it. This is one car that seems equally at home being driven gently and being driven hard; smooth starts and gentle acceleration are both easy.
The Charger SRT8 has a surprisingly nice ride, despite its impressive dry-road cornering and its power; it's hard to break the rear tires loose for longer than it takes to chirp them. Though big, the Charger easily deals with tight, fast turns. Yet, unlike the Magnum SRT-8, which could be punishing to drive on some roads, the Charger was forgiving of bad roads, concrete pavement, and potholes.
Part of the reason could be the tires, which were Eagle GS-As (rather than the previously standard Supercar F1) - the same model used on the Neon Sport and PT Cruiser GT, but with a for more aggressive 245/45R20 size - filled to a mere 32 psi rather than the rated 51 psi. Around town, the tradeoff is well worth it — the Charger felt docile, comfortable, even ordinary, with a ride not unlike a standard 3.5-liter Charger or a Chrysler 300M; yet it still easily out-cornered those worthy vehicles. But an owner could just as easily pump up the tires - assuming that Chrysler had no reason other than comfort and perhaps fewer warranty issues - and get the full performance out of their SRT-8, at the cost of a visit to the chiropractor now and then, and maybe a few loose fillings.
The SRT8 also has specially tuned dampers, spring rates, bushings, and anti-sway bars, a half-inch lower ride height, and 20 inch wheels that allow the use of big Brembo four-piston calipers and vented rotors (360 x 32mm discs up front, with 350 x 26mm in the rear). Styling changes include front and rear fascias that cool the brakes and reduce lift, a hood scoop, a spoiler, and an SRT badge in the blacked-out grille; it's in silver, black, and red. The interior has grippy seats, a special steering wheel trim, dark-faced gauges, and an LED display for oil temperature or pressure and tire pressure. The differential and axles have also been upgraded. More on the engine is here.
With so much power, the traction and stability control systems become important in bad weather or on dirty or wet roads. There can be unexpected lack of acceleration and stuttering as the systems work; on the lighter side, the systems really do work and normally do not interfere.
In the hands of a professional driver, the sheer amount of tilt you can experience in a Charger SRT8 is amazing - as is the speed with which it flies around a skidpad, with electronic controls off. Turn them on, and the throttle automatically cuts back to a sane level to get you around the turn as fast as you can go without losing control (even with the stability control system ostensibly shut off, the computer will intervene if it feels things are really out of control - but it’ll intervene with a lighter hand). Steering is heavy but tight; you can usually feel every pound of the Charger’s two-plus tons. This is no “rice rocket;” it feels remarkably solid, if not small or light.
The Hemi engine may be strong, but it's also quiet, with a near-silent idle and an almost perfect sound under full power. It doesn't emit a constant bass burble or drone, but it's there when you need it, and it sounds and feels terrific. The Charger SRT-8 always seems ready to leap forward at a moment's notice without any effort, even though it takes a moment for the transmission to get into the spirit of things. Acceleration is so effortless, the roads suddenly seem filled with slow vehicles. It is nothing at all to get to 40, barely an effort to get to 65. By the time the engine gets tucked in, you're going faster than the speed limit.
The tires tended to chirp or squeal for a second on acceleration and quick turns, but consistently grabbed the road, and between the fat, wide, sticky tires and the active suspension with traction control, we never sustained a squeal or broke the tires loose, despite the considerable power up front. On the highway, the Charger felt completely stable and in control. The standard electronic stability program helped the Charger to keep its footing even when we tried to knock it off kilter, and helped on wet roads.
The AutoStick transmission was less than ideal at times. First, since it’s an adaptive automatic, it took a while to get used to our driving, so for a few days the transmission seemed reluctant to move up to the appropriate gear, hurting gas mileage and the feel of the Charger; this problem slowly disappeared over the course of a few days as the transmission computer figured out how we drive. When cold, shifting took longer than it should have, with a noticeable delay when moving from Park to Drive, or from Drive to Reverse.
The manumatic mode works shows some intrusive cost-cutting. While the original AutoStick mode had its own spot on the gearshift, it now shares the Drive position with the full-automatic mode. On the lighter side, you can activate AutoStick more easily; on the darker side, you still have the odd side-to-side shift (rather than the more natural forward-back movement used by Hyundai and others), and getting out of the system is a little harder. Instead of just bumping the stick back into place, you have to press it to the right and hold it there for a few seconds before going back to full-automatic. Fortunately, after the transmission gets used to the driver, most people probably will never need AutoStick mode except in competition, when not having to wait for a downshift will save a second. On the highway, the brief delay before kickdown is unlikely to have much negative impact.
Inside, the Charger has been spruced up a little since its introduction; the doors are no longer a huge, chunky plastic nightmare, the gauges are surrounded by brightwork rather than dull aluminum-colored plastic, and the cruise control has been moved to a more sensible location than Mercedes’ favored 1970-turn-signal spot. Numerous other small touches conspire to make the interior somewhat Spartan but no longer as low-rent as it was when launched. The changes are minor in that nothing was moved around; but they are major in the impression made. No longer does the $30,000+ Charger look like a base model rental, though it has a long way to go before leading its class.
Visibility is good enough in all directions except for a massive rear quarter blind spot similar to that of the Intrepid. We appreciated the ease of using the sun visors - some cars make them hard to get out of their default positions - and we especially appreciated the sliding system which gives the sun visors "virtual length." Headlights on all models are fairly powerful; ours had the high-intensity discharge lights which are very bright indeed, and well focused.
The SRT-8 version of the Charger
adds thick red stitching on the leather seats, replaces chrome trim with a dark faux carbon-fiber, and replaces the standard 160 mph speedometer with an even more generous 180 mph one. The even, blueish-white backlighting (of the Indiglo style) is highly visible during the day and even more
so at dusk and at night.
Inside, there was plenty of room for four, with good headroom in all seats. Access to the rear seats was easy, and our obsese relatives complimented both front and rear seats; the SRT-8 has side support, but it’s no longer designed so that thin people literally fit into the seats and larger people... don’t. Accompanying the greater support of different body types is a standard tilt/telescope steering wheel that moves up, down, in, and out for the ultimate in adjustability; it adjusts manually but has no detents, so it can be set exactly as you like it.
Unlike the Magnum and earlier LX models, the current Charger’s cruise control uses a modern right-hand ministalk, as popularized by Toyota; it’s easy to get used to and to operate, and unambiguous in its operation and placement. What’s more, when a speed is locked in, “cruise set” appears momentarily in the trip computer.
The headlight control is on the dash, and allows for selection of running lights, headlights, automatic operation, or no lights at all. The ignition is also on the dash; our test car had the fancy electronic key, which is still placed in the dash but has no metal key, just a plastic stub that includes the key fob (lock/unlock buttons). A metal key is stored inside this for emergencies. The foot-operated emergency brake allows for firmer setting of the brake than a handbrake, but the easy-release hand pull was replaced by an annoying press-again-to-release system.
Inside the gauges, taking up the bottom third of the circle, were black areas which hide the various warning lights and the PRND (transmission gear indicator) and odometer. The SRT-8 includes a trip computer with performance measures, gas mileage/distance to empty, outside temperature and compass, and an easy way to set driver preferences (see the video to run through them all).
We found the seats to be excessively firm, but seats are always a matter of personal preference. The leather-and-suede seats gripped and breathed well. Storage spaces included map pockets on the front and rear doors (one of which is a good place for the fat owner’s manual), a tray under the climate control, a slot next to the gearshift, big illuminated cupholders, a glove compartment and large center console, and an overhead sunglass holder. The center console includes Chrysler's clever coin holder as well as a power outlet. The trunk was huge, as one would expect from a full-sized car, even one with four hundred horses.
Minor conveniences included the folding outside mirrors, touch-on dome lights, rear climate-control vents, universal garage-door opener, and dead-pedal.
Our test car had the MyGIG system, which is chock full of features but less than ideal for a car that really would like your full attention. The stereo controls were pretty good for a system with a screen; but adding a screen usually means sacrificing quick and easy adjustments. The 30 gigabyte hard drive and satellite radio come in handy on long trips, but we sure wish you could get them without all the visual displays, which require numerous presses to do something as pedestrian as adjusting the balance. Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then multiple presses on a virtual equalizer (though you could “click and drag” directly on the image of the equalizer knobs). But why read about it when you can watch our MyGIG video (which admittedly doesn’t include the traffic and Where Am I Now? screens you see below).
Since our car had the video system, you could sit and watch movies on the screen, as long as you were in Park. For some reason, whenever we tried to listen to a movie, the system would make us re-choose video input, and then go into what kind of video input we needed, though we weren't using either of the two auxiliary input jacks. That sort of thing should be automatic, like starting up a video when you lower the screen. Likewise, we could easily transfer music onto the hard drive by selecting the CD and pressing Record, but couldn’t do it by going to Import Music and then pressing the CD icon. We suspect there will be a few updates to MyGIG as time goes on; but it was the first factory installed hard drive system, so it deserves a bit of a break.
Switching forms was complex; press once on Radio Media, and you get choices of AM, FM, Satellite, and Satellite TV (if equipped). It shows a list of presets at that point, four per screen, showing the names of the stations. Press again, and you get hard drive, Jukebox, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video system) - for playing movies over the speakers, complete with spooky-accurate spatial imaging - and, if equipped, iPod control, so that you can use your built in controls to navigate the contents of your high-quality music device. This might be nice for purists who put lossless files (or high-rate AAC) onto their iPods and aren't happy with the WMA format used by the MyGIG system. You can't put iPod files onto the hard drive, but you can copy from many generic MP3 players, and it also records from DVDs - fairly quickly. Regardless, the sound quality of this system was simply excellent with the nine Infinity speakers, regardless of the seating position.
The base stereo in our test car had strong but not muddy bass which could be effectively lowered for talk radio, good stereo imaging, and easy to use controls, but, again, rear passengers had a dull, monaural sound; the optional Kicker stereo in our SRT8 sometimes provided very clear sound, but the subwoofer could be annoying and could not be shut off; nor did zipping down the bass effectively silence it. In this car, let the engine sing its song, and stick with the bass stereo, which is capable enough.
Our test SRT8 had an optional dual driver/passenger heat zone climate control, using Chrysler's infra-red sensor for accuracy. The fan had two auto settings, low and high, for those who prefer lower noise to faster action. Most normal fan ranges were quiet. The air conditioning was weaker than in the base Charger, presumably tuned not to drain engien power; there was no perceptible difference when it was running.
The Charger SRT8 starts at a tad over $39,000, with destination and gas guzzler tax; that includes a huge number of features, including everything on the loaded R/T model. Of note are the universal garage door opener, trip/performance computer, air conditioning, power front seats with lumbar support, tilt/telescope steering wheel, satellite/MP3 radio with Boston Acoustics speakers, cruise, and leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls.
Our test car ran to $45,155. The main culprits were the rear seat video ($1,500), and three SRT option groups. The first, at $850, included remote start, air filter, automatic headlamps, dual-zone thermostatic climate control, heated front seats, and one-touch up/down front windows. The second, at $1,200, included a six-disc DVD player, driver surround sound, 322-watt amp, 200-watt subwoofer, and security alarm; this is great if you love muddy sound that echoes through the town, but if you prefer high fidelity to being a jerk, by all means save your money. The final option group, at $1,285, included the MyGIG system, which puts a 30 GB hard drive behind the dash along with a navigation system, traffic reports, hands-free phone system, and auto-dimming rearview mirror.
There were other options on our car: $590 worth of side airbags (seat-mounted for front, curtain-mounted for front and rear), $250 for optional wheels (the same size as the standard wheels), $225 for the bright red paint, $1,150 for rear seat video, and $470 for satellite TV on that video (you can also watch it up front, when you're not moving). 74% of the Charger was sourced from the U.S. and Canada, the major exceptions being a Mexican engine and German transmission; final assembly was in Ontario. Crash testing yielded five stars in frontal impacts; side impacts were not done. The warranty is good for three years or 36,000 miles — no 1970s-style “Hemi warranty” here.
The price is high, but not given the level of performance and the size of the car. Given the excellent sound insulation, ride quality, power, and cornering, the Charger SRT-8 remains a bargain in that price class. Whether it’s the car for you depends on many factors, including whether you cringe at the gas mileage - 13 city, 18 highway (with a 19 gallon, $80+ tank) - and whether you have places to drive it where you won’t find yourself frustrated. We found our urge to let the Hemi loose sadly unfulfilled much of the time... and when we could let it loose, the quick acceleration didn’t let it roar for very long before we had to choke it back. Next time, we need to schedule a quick road trip to Montana...