by David Zatz in November 2012 (4)
When the first Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger were launched, performance was pretty much restricted to the Hemi V8 models; the V6-powered 300 and Charger were slower than the cars they replaced. Even when the new Pentastar V6, with 292 horsepower, was added, the Charger V6's performance didn't quite match its looks.
Then the ZF eight-speed automatic was installed. This is the same automatic some of the world's most expensive cars use, and now we know how they make those acceleration numbers. With the eight-speed, the V6 dropped a seconds or two from its 0-60 time and added four miles per gallon to its highway ratings. What's more, the engine feels more like the Hemi than it has any right to. 0-60 times are fairly close; from around 7.7 to 8½ seconds with the five-speed, they are now claimed at 6.6 seconds, which, incidentally, is identical to that of the 2006 Charger R/T. In short, Hemi-like acceleration — V6 mileage and cost.
We didn't necessarily believe those numbers. Chrysler PR has been known to make mistakes now and then with numbers, and 6.6 seconds just seemed too fast for a heavy V6-powered rear wheel drive sedan. Well, we were able to easily do 0-60 in 6.8 seconds in far from ideal conditions, without preloading the engine (revving it with the brakes on), manual shifting, or any other tricks — indeed, if you must know, by coming out of a parking area, over a little road dirt, at a 30° angle from the main highway. At a drag strip, it should be easy to get to 6.6 seconds. With highway mileage of 31 mpg.
The eight-speed works its magic in several ways. First, it's simply a very efficient transmission, with attention paid to extremely fast shifting, superior efficiency, light weight, and low power loss throughout the design (in some ways very conventional, using tried-and-true planetary gearsets). Second, by having all those gears, the engine can be put into its optimal speed range for efficiency, hill climbing, or acceleration, depending on what the driver demands (which is one reason why CVTs are used on cars where gas mileage is the priority). Third, and perhaps most important, the range of gears is very wide, so that first gear comes lower than in the Mercedes five-speed, while the final gear is higher; so it accelerates more readily, yet cruises more efficiently. In between, the faster shifting does wonders for acceleration times and efficiency alike.
The electronic shifter is an affectation; this one is clearly electronic, without a defined position for each gear. The driver has to push a button to get into any moving gear, which can be annoying and seems unnecessary. There are no predetermined places for a gear, so you can kiss your muscle memory goodbye; instead, there are three detents in either direction, so from Drive to Reverse you move up two detents. These positions are close together, and more than once I found myself searching for Reverse. The bigger a hurry you're in to get into the right gear, the longer it'll take to do it.
The gearshift has its own own gear indicator, duplicating the one in the dashboard display. When you shift into Park, there's a longer delay, presumably as the transmission does internal checks and things before it shoves the little Park sprag into place. (By then, of course, you're supposed to jam the emergency brake into place. You do use it, right? You don't ignore it because once your Uncle Fred had the brake cable freeze up on his 1982 Buick, right?) Other gear changes are usually instant, but if you overshoot Reverse and end up in Park, it'll take a couple of seconds to get in and out again.
While the transmission shifts faster than the blink of an eye, literally, the computer making the decision about gearing sometimes takes longer. You can use the up/down buttons ("paddles") on the steering wheel to change gears, with a 1-second-or-so delay each time. I understand that for the paddles; the driver restores automatic control by holding onto the upshift for a few seconds. If the system didn't allow a little time to figure out whether the paddle was being held down, versus just slowly being pressed for an upshift, it could be very frustrating. Though one way to deal with that would be to have some other way to restore automatic control.
There's a bit of kickdown lag as well. The eight-speed can easily drop down by several gears at once, and no doubt it does, but in our 2012 Charger Blacktop, it worked exactly the same way as it did with the five speed: floor it on the highway and the engine kicks up to around 3,500 rpm, which gets you going, and if you keep your foot down, it revs up to 4,500-5,000 rpm, where peak acceleration is. The lag might be built in to avoid upsetting drivers who sometimes floor the pedal without wanting to be kicked in the butt by the seat, or to make sure you really do want to fly down the highway, or to preserve the rest of the car (and save money on axles); but it does cut the fun factor and make the Hemi (and, more to the point, the SRT8) more attractive to leadfoot drivers.
In short, you get (5.7) Hemi-like acceleration... after a delay. Though that delay seemed to get shorter and shorter as we drove and it got used to us.
The Sport mode, not available on all models with this transmission, boosts the target engine speed from around 1,200 rpm — at which point the Pentastar is, unbelievably, still responsive — to around 2,500 rpm. That's probably at or very close to its peak torque, so you get a much more responsive, almost jumpy feel, but it does tend to gulp down fuel that way. The control for getting into and out of Sport mode is sensible enough: pull back the shifter, and it switches between Normal and Sport.
When you're driving normally, you don't notice all the shifting, and indeed you probably aren't going through all the gears, due to the gear-skip feature. You're just always in the right gear at the right time.
As for cornering, the sport suspension preserves the smooth ride, but allows for taking turns at practically insane speeds. The Charger gripped the road surprisingly well around fast, long turns and short, sharp ones; the electrohydraulic power steering felt natural, and while Charger still feels (and is) heavy, the excessively-heavy feel of the first generation is gone. It's an achievement for a car this big to ride this well and yet take turns as sharp, and as quickly, as it does, with nary a squeal from the tires.
The Blacktop package is more impressive than you'd think: with black paint, black leather seats, and black painted wheels, it is one mean looking machine. People gave it a second look as it went by, despite being quiet and not at all rumbly; there's just something about the all-black clothing that makes it stand out, particularly with the gleaming chromed lug nuts and caps standing out against the black wheels. Nothing else, save for lights, relieves the blackness of the car.
From the back, the Charger's unique, bright tail lamps are a clear indicator that this is not just "every other car." The company put a lot of money into that display, which, among other things, required separate rear sidelights. From the front, optional tightly-focused high-intensity headlamps add sophistication (and prevent blinding other drivers).
The "sport" bucket seats were far more comfortable than in the last Charger (and 300C) we tested, adding both comfort and support. The Charger is luxurious muscle, smooth and solid. No cramped cockpit or rear seats; Charger has a full-sized interior, which makes for a good all-around family sedan.
The ride is well cushioned; the interior is surprisingly quiet. The impression of speed is not as strong as with noisy, rough cars; full throttle pushes you back against the seat, but cruising at highway speeds is deceptive due to the strong sound insulation and suspension cushioning. If you want to feel like you're in F1 racing at 75 mph, you'll have to go with the Fiat 500; Charger makes 75 feel like 45.
New for 2012 is the full color, larger-screen status center between the tachometer and odometer. This color screen was already used in the Dodge Journey, and it was a bit odd that the premium large cars had an older black and white screen — equally readable but not as snazzy.
The Blacktop's gauges use a new "modern" typeface which is all but impossible to read, blending 60 and 80, though most drivers will figure out the positions quickly enough. It remains somewhat difficult to place speeds like 45 mph, given the extra large size of the numbers and lack of clear minor markings; and the miles per hour intermingle with the kilometers per hour, because of their size and, mainly, their extra width. Clarity can presumably be sporty too...
The ergonomics of the Charger are otherwise good. Numerous little touches make life easier — like having the navigation system provide turn by turn directions in the status panel between the speedo and tach as well as on the big screen; duplicating the climate control on the touch screen while keeping physical buttons and knobs; having both volume and tune knobs for the stereo (duplicated on the steering wheel); showing the park assist in the dash; and letting you control the radio/iPod/CD/hard drive via the steering wheel, physical buttons, and touch screen (with limits, which we'll get to later). Both front and rear were similarly well adorned.
For more, including detailed notes on the stereo, navigation system, iPod and SD-card control, safety systems (including rear cross path and blind spot detection), see our 2011 Dodge Charger review.
The Dodge Charger SXT starts at $29,320, well above the SE model ($26,320); the extra $3,000 buys you the eight-speed automatic, satellite radio, phone control, and assorted features. The price premium is probably worth paying just for the eight-speed.
The Charger SXT includes the usual front seat airbags, side curtain airbags, antilock four wheel disc brakes, reactive head restraints, eight-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, vehicle information center, and tire pressure monitor. Other standard features are Hill Start Assist (keeps you from sliding downhill from a stop), all-speed traction control, ready-alert braking (anticipates a crash and puts the pads closer to the rotors), rain brake support, keyless entry and starting, and remote starter. (The R/T, with the Hemi engine, is only $1,500 more.)
The SXT Plus package costs $2,000 (putting the cost above the Charger R/T), and adds Nappa leather seats, four-way lumbar adjustment for both front seats, heated second row seats, alarm, heated and cooled cupholders, extra lighting, chromed aluminum wheels with 235/55R18 tires, and a rear stabilizer bar.
The Blacktop package ($1,495) includes a sport mode for the transmission, paddle shifters on the steering wheel, sport bucket seats, 245/45R20 tires on those black-painted wheels, 9 amplified speakers with subwoofer and 500-watt amp, black grille, and performance suspension.
The Driver Confidence Group ($1,495) includes a driver's side dimming exterior mirror, blind spot / rear cross path detection, backup camera and alert, HID headlights, and rain-sensitive wipers.
The convenience group ($575) adds memory-equipped power adjustable pedals and steering column, and memory for the radio, seats, and mirrors. Adaptive cruise adds $925, and includes a heated steering wheel. $995 buys a navigation system with traffic information and rear backup camera; $695 buys a power sunroof. The total ended up being a whopping $37,500. That's considerably less than the 300C we recently tested, which was similarly equipped but had AWD and the Hemi.
63% of the car is currently made in the US and Canada (it's assembled in Canada); the transmission is currently imported from Germany, but Chrysler will be making those in Indiana within a couple of years. The engines can come from Michigan or Mexico; our test car used a Mexican engine, bringing the percentage down, but more engines are to be built in the US in the future. The government has not yet crash-tested the new Charger, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has, and they rated it a Top Safety Pick.
The 2012 Dodge Charger Blacktop is an attractive package, with mean (but not over the top) muscle-car looks, an engine that can be thrifty (though not so much around town) and is more economical than many cars in its class, and acceleration equal to that of the past Hemi V8 models. Equipping it with more or fewer frills moves the price around quite a bit; it's a good package as it comes. Those who prefer something more genteel can opt for the 300, instead; either is a fine choice for a big car that moves fast.
ZF 8-speed • Dodge Charger • Patrick Rall's Review of the 2012 Charger Blacktop
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