by Daniel Stanfill
Have you ever owned something so good you wouldn't replace it, no matter what?
In my past is a 1970 442 Holiday Coupe with a 455 and Hurst Dual Gate shifter, two Triumph Spitfires, a 1982 Trans Am, and a 1989 Corvette. The best car I have ever owned, and the best performance car I have owned, is the Chrysler 300M. This car has a balance of real world handling, easy speed, and driving precision that I have not found in any other car.
There will eventually come a time when this old friend will need retirement. Since I have just driven the new 2011 Charger R/T, I have evaluated it against the diverse ownership experience of this typical enthusiast, and against other cars that have recently failed to make the cut as the successor to my greatly loved 300M.
The Genesis sedan is a phenomenal car. With the 4.6 V8, the Genesis sedan gave up little or nothing to a 2009 Challenger R/T with the track pack. The prior model XJ8L or Vanden Plas were cars about which I would change nothing. After driving all of these cars, sometimes extensively, I have driven home in my 300M thinking it is simply better.
The feel and road manners of the 300M are what I have come to expect of an outstanding car. The technology in the M is relatively hidden, so the car posses a simple elegance that I appreciate even more in this day of ridiculous iDrives, screens, and huds. Had DaimlerChrysler put that other star on the hood, doubled the price, and sold this as the first front drive big Benz, it may well have sold twice as many units.
So now comes the 2011 Dodge Charger. It was rushed to market by Fiat, and was apparently designed largely by temps. Still, when my son pointed it out and we went to see it, we found that the visual impact of this car is superb. Certainly, this car is not done justice by photography and there is potential for a massive market impact. At lunch today, the 18 year old engineering student ask me "Who is going to buy the Challenger now?"
We had the opportunity to road test a white Charger R/T with a sunroof and tan leather interior. The Smoky Mountain Foothills are a wonderful environment for driving, and the road behind the dealership is one of my favorite drives. So, with this opportunity to do my duty for the Allpar community, I consented to a test drive.
No Allpar member will reluctantly consent to look at this car. The white paint glistens so smoothly in the setting sun it looks color sanded. The proportions of this car are right. The nose looks different in person, lower and more integrated than related through photography. The camera doesn't work on this car. The wheels are the right size and look. Save your money, you won't need rims. The tires are Firehawk GTs. Under the hood, the car has a clean, almost stark appearance. All fluids levels are visible at a glance, and the dipsticks won't require a rolled up shirt sleeve.
Inside, this car is on a different level. It is not nicer than an XJ8 Vanden Plas or the Genesis Sedan premium package. It is, however, everything a Dodge Charger should be. This car is right. The tan leather seats fit right. The leather surface feels right. The dash and door surfaces look and feel right. Both front seats have sufficient room for this 6-2 215 guy without moving the seat full aft. I can set behind myself in this car. The dash and instruments are classic American, no pretenses necessary or wanted.
The large touchscreen is washed out by the low setting sun when at six behind you, but the car design allows for this. Four large knobs are employed to allow for primary control of the sound and HVAC without using the touchscreen or steering wheel controls. What a novel idea! The touch screen controls have themselves reached new levels of usability. Many of us in the reading glasses crowd will be able to operate all the controls at night without glasses. Jaguar is the only other manufacturer I've seen that gets this. (Wonder why the Acura RL didn't sell?)
The success of the Charger interior can be illustrated by the failure of the Challenger and RL interiors. The RL's market was professionals who would buy an understated fifty thousand dollar car. Acura then applied so many tiny buttons and controls that the target market could not easily operate the car.
The Challenger presented, to me, the last hope of a modern culmination of the 442 Holiday Coupe. Yet, Chrysler, with an overly limited vision of the potential market, choose an interior presentation I would not accept. The 1970 Olds was a nicer car, to me. The 300C Heritage edition was very nearly as nice a car as the contemporary XJ8, but I could not have that interior in the Challenger.
The Charger avoids these traps. It is attractive and usable to any one who would consider it, and allows its owners more choice of their own presentation. The 2011 Charger has raised the stakes on the new 300C.
A pair of 200s were also at the dealership. They were basic models, one a four and one a Pentastar. We didn't drive one, but they are excellent even in base trim. The cloth interiors with base options would be fine with most anyone. I did not need the front seat all the way back on either side. The comments on the Charger interior could be copied and pasted to the 200. If leather seats and sunroof were standalone options, I would take the base model so equipped.
The big Dodge has "Keyless Go." Get in, push the button, and a muted burble is there to make you think it's 1972. Time to go.
This car is good. Very good. The steering is lighter than I expected. Not too light, but light. Also, the steering is quick and accurate. Up the road, I am thinking about my red Spitfire, back home at sea level, so many miles away. That car had two show trophies before my son and I spent about 3 years on significant mechanical upgrades. Balanced engine, alloy steering rack bushings and polyurethane every where we could put it. The steering is razor sharp. I left it with a Charleston pro to tune the Crane ignition and Weber carb. Could it be that this Charger has more accurate steering than the vaunted seven time F production national champion? No, I must be hallucinating. Yet, this Charger can be placed like it is on cybernetic control. Still, it is supple. I see no need for backing off any on the suspension settings for the 300C.
Up the road, the Chrysler Jeep Dodge consultant turns me off the main road. Poor fellow has no idea he just turned me towards the sweeping 90° right-hander and winding country road I have used to validate Comp T/A Z-rated tires, Bilstien shocks, and my host of performance and sports cars.
Autostick is in 4th, entering the turn just over 40, downshift to third. 35 mph here seriously taxes the M since it has standard all season tires now, and God forgive me, Monroe struts (recent strut article on Allpar is dead on). At 45, the Corvette, well before traction and yaw control, threatens to leave the road backwards here.
The big white Dodge rolls to the left, and I let off some throttle. This is highly incorrect technique, but the car is rock solid. It sets a little roll in, and stabilizes. What, the massive understeer does not occur! Slight lean is all. Back under power almost instantly and the nose tucks to the inside. The 300M will do this to, but it is the only big front wheel drive car that will. But we are leaving the turn over 50 in this Charger R/T. No slide, no tire squeal, no drama. Thankfully, no blue lights.
As we spend a few miles on the back road, I'm effortlessly driving the car with my finger tips about ten miles an hour faster than the M's best relaxed speed here. There is no tire noise. The one big flaw of the M is tire noise. I exacerbate the problem greatly with my affection for Goodrich G-force sport tires. Phenomenal tires these are, but they start life with a howl and and progress to an excellent impersonation of afterburners. The Firehawks on the R/T are blessed with the UNI-T technology that has that great speed skate feel, quite ride, and are essentially weather proof. The suspension team bought every advantage they could in the tires. Good work on a great package, guys.
In this environment, the engine doesn't get noticed. There is torque for any need, ready at any request. I don't get the knocks on the transmission in this car. The auto stick works, and the torque is so good in the 25 to 60 speed range, I did not notice a need for more gears. On winding roads, the autostick outperforms paddles. Since the paddles move with the wheel, the console shifter is quicker. The paddles aren't where you need them, so you have to find them.
Later, back in the 300M, I realized that the road had bumps, patches, gravel loose on the road in a construction zone, and all sorts of miscellaneous maladies. I can't understand why none of these conditions were present when I was in the Charger. That Chrysler feel from ten years ago is here, taken to a vastly higher level, yet absent the harshness inherent in the 300M. It is quite simply right.
This is obviously a very fast car. The power and the suspension have very good integration with each other, and this car has remarkable poise and balance. This drive has been a revelation. The car is capable, fast, and agile and, in its own way understated. A Super Bee edition is not necessary to sell this car. At the end of my test, the odometer and trip computer showed 235 miles and 19.5 mpg.
Clearly, this is the best car I have driven.
My thanks go out to Tim Obrien and Rocky Top Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Kodak, Tennessee for their hospitality and providing the generous opportunity to evaluate the new Charger. Also, for the great support they provide in taking my 300M towards 400,000 miles. As Tim, my son Chris, and I were heading out the front door, my phone range. Daryl Beech in Charleston calling. The Spitfire is done and it is very good. I eagerly anticipated the return of my Triumph Spitfire for spring in the mountains. But I had a pain of sadness at the news. I'd rather have the Charger. It's time to let go.
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