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2011 Dodge Charger R/T car reviews / road tests

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Also see Daniel Stanfill's detailed Charger test drive.

The Dodge Charger looks like pure muscle from every angle, especially with the black-and-red interior; it's a good thing they make a Dodge Charger Hemi to fulfill the promise. The Charger R/T provides good old-fashioned head-snapping power at will, especially with all wheel drive giving it an extra boost.

The new modern-retro treatment grabs the eye of even the most jaundiced people. From the back, as Ralph Gilles said, the Charger has a "light signature" unlike any other car; from the front, optional tightly-focused high-intensity headlamps add sophistication (and prevent blinding of other drivers) while the aggressive nose keeps the Charger standing out.

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The Charger is luxurious muscle, relatively smooth-riding, with a solid feel, consistent with the original - more 300x than Road Runner. No cramped cockpit and back seats here, no compromises for the sake of beating Mustangs and Camaros; instead, Charger has a full-sized interior, which, with the V6, makes for a good all-around family sedan. You can sit upright, and your head will not come near the roof; you can store things in the trunk; and you can put three people into the back seat. The black and red interior is sporty and attractive; the tan leather of our second test car gave the interior a more upmarket, luxurious look.

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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 jams you back against the seat, as it should, but cruising at highway speeds feels like crawling. What's missing is the speedy feeling (while cruising) that leads Consumers Guide to say "It's okay, but not as refined as the best imports." That said, at practically any speed, if you hit the gas, the transmission drops down a gear, the engine shoots into its power band, the exhaust and intake roar with that ol' muscle-car tone, and you get jerked back into your seat. All is as it should be.

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The car feels heavy, but not ponderous, and not nearly as heavy as the previous version felt (it is, in fact, heavier now, but the suspension was retuned to make it more enjoyable to drive). Most of the smaller stuff was filtered out, while the bigger stuff was not jarring or nasty; and there was no "boom" sounding when bumps or potholes were hit. The ride is, not surprisingly, less forgiving than some lower-performance models (even Jeep Patriot), but it's still plenty forgiving and comfortable.

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Just because you don't feel every bump and pit in the road, it doesn't mean you're flopping around. We took the curve from 80 West to 287 South so fast it seemed like other cars were standing still, and for good measure stomped on the gas halfway through. We wouldn't have tried that with rear wheel drive (the Dodge boys like to get their cars back in one piece) but in the Charger R/T AWD, all that happened was we were pushed back in our seats while the speedometer leapt up. The Charger leaped straight forward when full throttle was applied and the wheel was centered; the AWD greatly assisted in the ability to take sharp turns under power, and the Charger gripped the road surprisingly well around fast, long turns and short, sharp ones.

Nothing we could do short of suicidal stupidity could shake the Charger; yes, from a full stop we could stomp down and squeal all four tires at once, but it's just a momentary noise, not necessarily easy to get, and over and done with quickly, with full traction just behind. The stability control is there to rescue you from wet pavement, patches of ice or sand, and extremely foolhardy decisions, but a typical driver will never feel it working. With the all wheel drive, most people will probably never encounter stability control; it takes a lot to make it kick in.

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The ride insulates the driver from the more granular vibrations of the road, cutting some road feel but boosting "refinement." Those who like to a more connected feel, as in the pre-Daimler cars, have few options at Chrysler, though Volkswagen's version of the Dodge Caravan has it. In fairness, reviewers refer to "connected" in German cars and "unrefined" in Chryslers and Dodges; perhaps in ten or twenty years, when the phrase "not as refined as ... " drops from Dodge reviews, they can bring it back.

The engine sounds exactly as it should - quiet at idle, roaring with a va-VOOM when you hammer the throttle down. Wind noise is low, as is road noise on asphalt; on concrete there's some noise but not as much as usual.

The transmission took some time to get used to us - ah, the joys of adaptive automatics - but then it stopped shifting oddly at times, and became part of the background. It shifted smoothly and quickly, kicking down rapidly when needed for passing power, and generally acting as we would in its place. Those who prefer manual overrides can use the AutoStick system, which is oddly set up as a lateral motion (right goes up a gear, left drops down).

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The steering is fairly precise and well tuned, and it's nice not to always hear the drone of pavement. Concrete does come through, as noise if not as vibration, and bumps are well damped but still felt.

The Charger sticks to the road like glue, and while I wouldn't expect the rear-drive R/T to deal with sudden bursts of acceleration quite so well, it should be equally capable on unpowered or moderately powered turns. 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. What's more, parking is made fairly easy by an absurdly tight turning radius - the big car doesn't take nearly as much space to turn as you'd think. Perhaps that's because they designed around the SRT8's tires, but either way, it's a handy feature.

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The ergonomics of the Charger are quite good as well, and are a major advantage over competitors, particularly the Camaro. The seats - front and rear - are comfortable for long trips, though perhaps not as well cushioned as some prior models; the controls are all easy to follow and read. The cruise control is back on the steering wheel, on the right; the trip computer controls are on the left.

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).

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For passengers in back, the chrome ring accents around the rear vents and on the seat backs and doors helps class the place up, while a folding center console/armrest holds drinks and gizmos; there are also map pockets on the doors and the front seatbacks. Our test car had equally well-adorned doors in front and back, complete with chrome insets; short doors that open all the way up make getting into the back easy. For added storage, you can easily fold down the rear seats (in a 2/3 arrangement so you can still have on or two passengers with a single long object sticking out from the capacious trunk). More storage is in the two-level glove compartment, made more useful by the redaction of the owner's manual into an easily read highlights book and a USB thumb drive for the usually-ignored bulk of the book. (There are also iPhone apps and such.)

One terrific addition is remote access to the windows; click Unlock, then hold it down, and the front windows both roll down until you release the Unlock button on the remote. You can do it from your office on the way out to the parking lot, or from your house on the way to the car.

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Rear cross path detection and blind-spot detection, both of which can be shut off, work as expected, and alert the driver with yellow lights in the mirrors and audible alerts. There are blind spots in the Charger, though you can usually twist and turn to get reasonable visibility, so these systems, annoying as they sometimes are, can be very helpful, too. We tested these out in a busy parking lot, and they are surprisingly sensitive, able to spot cars before the driver does.

Our test car had lights for the door handles and map pockets, which were dim enough to be ignored - yet had their own rheostat (not to Chrysler: save your money and just leave the lights on). Even the standard Charger R/T AWD has attractive details like the vehicle info center, chrome trim rings around the gas cap and trunk release, and accordian-door-covered cupholders; and every Charger has that fancy tail with separate sidelights.

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One feature which I personally am not fond of, but which many like, is the keyless ignition and locks. Press the underside of the driver's door, and if your keys are in your pocket, it will unlock; press the underside of the passenger door, and all the doors unlock. The trunk has no physical key, but the fob button will pop it open (all the way) and so will a button inside, lined with chrome (as is the gas cap cover -- hurray, a Dodge with a locking gas cap!) Once inside, a starter button takes the place of the ignition switch. Unlike most cars, the Dodge both gives you directions (on the status display) and tells you what mode the car is in - off, accessory, and run - with lights above the switch. That's a good addition to an option I'd just as soon do without.

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Another minor but useful example of forethought is the cruise control. Most cars tell you when the system is on, or when a speed is locked in; the Charger partly lights the "on" icon when you first turn the system on, and fully lights it when a speed is locked in, so when you cancel cruise, you still see the light (dimly). There's also a light to tell you when your parking or headlights are on, which I can live without.

Standard on these cars is the status area between the speedometer and tachometer. Dubbed the Vehicle Information Center (VIC), this display always shows the compass heading and outside temperature; if the car is warmed up, it'll also show you when you're running on four cylinder mode (by flashing the word "ECO.") You can decide what else it will show - your current speed, for example. In the past, you also set vehicle preferences using it and buttons on the steering wheel; now, you use the touch-screen, which makes it easier to go through the menus and tell the car how you want it to lock, turn its lights on, etc.

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The VIC display can show the usual gas mileage, average speed, etc.; or it can show interesting data such as oil temperature, antifreeze temperature, transmission fluid temperature, and whether the car is in RWD or AWD. It would be nice if there was a "multiple info" mode which showed more than one of these at a time, since there's room for it; or if the system could alternate among several metrics; or if you could show the the same information in the huge center screen, at the top of what would be the center stack if this car was styled that way (a sweeping chrome outline and use of a different face material defines the gauge cluster as including the screen, which is a neat way of avoiding the visual appearance of a "center stack." The word hardly seems to fit in the Charger since it only includes a cubby and the stereo/climate controls, with their integrated CD and SD card opening.)

The center screen can reflect the climate control buttons (with a little more information), and if you get the rear camera, it provides a panoramic view of what's behind you. This isn't just handy for backing into spaces; you can also make sure you're not blocking a driveway when in tight spots. It also includes the heated seat controls - which show up by default when the system is booted, on the screen that asks you to agree not to be distracted while driving. There are no physical heated-seat buttons (except for the rear seats) but in this case that's probably okay, since you can turn them on as soon as you've started the car.

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For all the automation and comfort, the Charger is still a driver's car, and headlights get a traditional dash-mounted switch with positions for off, parking lights, headlights, and, to the left, Automatic. We appreciate not having GM's "automatic by default, each time" system or Volkswagen's "Who needs parking lights?" system.

Above, the Charger had the usual panoply of dome and map lights, along with a drop-down sunglass/eyeglass holder and the universal garage door opener buttons.

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Dodge Charger R/T stereo and navigation system

Our test car included an auxiliary radio and USB jack, along with a power jack, in the center console; all were backlight, and the aux/USB jack had a clear plastic cover to prevent rubbish from falling in. Above that was a removable change tray, which also had an iPod-sized indentation (with enough room for an iPod Classic and its docking cord).

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If you don't have an iPod, or don't want to subject it to car rides, you can also load up a huge amount of music onto an SD card and plug that right into the center stack. Given how large and cheap SD cards are, that's a great option - probably better than using an iPod. There are only two gotchas - it can't play iTunes Store AACs, though it can play "DIY" AACs (which is a step forward); and if you use a Mac, you have to use a utility (or Terminal) to get rid of all those empty resource-fork files. Neither problem is hard to address, though getting rid of iTunes Store DRM is a nuisance - burn the music to (virtual) CDs, then convert it back in again as "free and easy" AACs. (But keep the originals because conversion degrades sound quality a bit - maybe not enough to notice.)

Our car had a standard Alpine stereo unit (part of the R/T trim), and it was quite good - we tried it with a range of music that is highly dependent on having a quality audio system, including Bachman & Turner and Devo's Something for Everyone, along with classical, pop, and regular ol' whatever's-on-satellite-radio. All came through with flying colors; clarity is quite good and a marked improvement from Dodge's 2010s.

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The iPod control worked well with our iPod Classic and but was faster with an iPod Nano and Touch. It took a long time for the Classic and stereo to get along the first time; Jim Z pointed out that the iPod Classic has to spin up its hard drive, flush its internal cache, and load the data, while the Touch and Nano have no "seek" time delays. It took no time at all to link with an iPod Touch; we did have an issue with the Touch where it wanted to remain in Shuffle mode and wouldn't let us browse except at rare and apparently random intervals. This might be a bug in our first-gen Touch rather than the system itself. Certainly, it worked flawlessly from the SD card.

The system allows browsing of the iPod through the touch screen, showing the names of artists or albums, and even showing cover art (where you have it). You can also move to the next or prior song by using the physical tuning knob, which is a big deal for safe driving; however, you can't set the tone, balance, or fade without going through touch screen gyrations.

By default, once music is playing, the stereo shows the audio screen with the map display inside; the screen is large enough to get away with that, the map ending up about as big as it would be in the old Pacifica's display, or on a portable nav system.
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The optional Garmin navigation system was a wonder - it was the fastest nav system we've ever used, taking input as fast as we could type and adapting very quickly when we ignored its advice. All the usual geegaws were in place, though compass heading was supplied by the gauge cluster display rather than being shown on the screen, and the map always defaulted to the same zoom level regardless of where we'd set it last time. Directions were generally accurate.

Words were large and easy to read, and most parts of the screen were "clickable" - putting our finger on the current speed and speed limit (available for most main roads, and turning our speed red when we went "too fast"), for example, gave us a full distance to destination in miles and minutes, along with the compass heading, elevation, maximum speed, etc. (We would have liked a preference for keeping the zoom setting tighter, and one for providing more latitude between the speed limit and the red print, though we can see that lawyers would have a field day with that.)

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Dodge Charger R/T: summary

Overall, the Charger is a great package at a great price. The looks are unique, front, back, and from the side, and if people don't know what it is, they know what it represents. The tail is aggressive, unique, and attractive, a hard combination to match; the front is aggressive and unique. With the Hemi engine, you get strong acceleration; with AWD, it comes with increased control, and thanks to an automatically disconnecting front axle, that control has but a small price to pay in gas mileage.

On the highway, gas mileage is reasonably good, if not anything to brag about, at 23 mpg. City cycle is far worse, with EPA rating the car at 15 mpg; take short trips and it'll be far worse, because the four-cylinder mode only comes when the engine is warm, and you can easily drop down into single digits. The EPA rates the Charger R/T at 16/25 with rear wheel drive, and 15/23 with AWD, despite the clever auto-disconnecting front axle. The 2011 V6 models came in at 18 city, 27 highway; the 2012 V6 eight-speeds clocked an amazing 21 city, 31 mpg highway.

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The 2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD started at $32,320, which includes the Hemi engine and a five-speed automatic transmission. Standard safety features include HID headlights, side curtain airbags for front and rear, front seat airbags, reactive head restraints, stability and traction control, four wheel antilock disc brakes, hill-start hold, fog lamps, rain brake support, ready alert braking, and tire pressure monitoring.

Standard luxury features include the vehicle information center, keyless entry, remote start, eight-way power driver's seat with four-way lumbar adjustment, heated cloth front seats, dual-zone automatic air conditioning with humidity sensor, 8.4 inch touch screen, remote USB and audio ports, 276-watt amp with six speakers sand satellite radio, voice command, cell phone connection, auto-dimming rear view mirror, leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter, tungsten-metallic paint, and tilt/telescope steering column. Standard tires are P235/55R19 all-seasons. You can also put all the windows down remotely.

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If you want to get the high-end Alpine stereo, you can do it with the V6 model - just check off the Rallye option. The price will drop by over $5,000, and gas mileage will climb, but you'll get most (not all) of the same features - albeit with around 75 fewer horses.

The R/T Plus (package 29P), at $2,000, adds an alarm, premium black-with-red leather seats (heated in the back row), eight-way power passenger seat with four-way power lumbar support, heated/cooled front cup-holders, LED lighting accents (including softly illuminated door handles and map pockets), and a bigger alternator.

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The Driver Confidence Group adds the gimmicks, namely, blind spot and cross path detection; rear park assistance and backup camera; rain-sensitive wipers; smart headlights; approach lamps; and auto-dimming exterior mirror. This is a very good deal at around $1,000. Then there was the $575 convenience group of power adjustable pedals, radio/seat/mirror memory, and power tilt/telescope steering column, the $450 Garmin navigation system, and $825 of destination charge, for a total of $37,165. That's a lot, but not for this much car, with this many features. Those who just want the V8 can get the base R/T, and have a car as well equipped as a top of the line 2010 Chrysler. AWD saps gas mileage, but makes the car that much more controllable under pretty much any conditions.

The Dodge Charger, regardless of trim and such, has a five year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty and a three year, 36,000 mile basic warranty; 24 hour towing is included. The R/T is 70% American and Canadian, and is built in Ontario; the engine hails from Mexico, the transmission from the United States. (V6 models get either American or Mexican engines).

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As far as complaints, most are minor. The air conditioning could be stronger; visibility could be better, especially in the 3/4 view where the large pillar gets in the way; it'd be nice to have a standard ignition switch option; and the tachometer goes to 7,000 in a car with a 5,650 redline. That said, the bean counters were kept far away from this car. From the separate sidelight and standard HID headlights (on R/T) to the rear seat liveability, from the cornering to the insulation, this car screams value (not cheap, but value) even before you throw in all the gadgets. I don't know if the Charger has ever been as much of a bargain; and I'm sure it's never been this high in all-around performance.

Also see 2011 Dodge Charger: Finally something to replace the 300M

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