It’s a good time to be a fan of muscle cars. As you read this, Chevrolet is set to unleash its all-new 2016 Camaro; Ford is readying the latest Shelby-edition Mustang, the GT350, with the most powerful naturally-aspirated engine the company has ever produced; and Dodge has two muscle car models,the Charger and Challenger, both available in 707-hp Hellcat trim, the most potent of three V8-powered hotrod versions.
But these cars are not all about appealing to motorheads. Both the Camaro and the Mustang can now be specified with turbocharged four-cylinder engines, a nod to the current craze for coaxing performance potential out of a fuel-efficient, small-displacement motor. Turbocharging isn’t on the menu at Dodge, but their engine line starts with the company’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, a motor that also powers the brand’s minivans, crossovers, and SUVs.
It’s when you consider family-friendliness that the Charger starts to look interesting: as a four-door sedan, it stands out from the Mustang, the Camaro, and Dodge’s own Challenger as a more attractive family vehicle option.
While a family car with V8 power is awfully appealing to gearheads like us, the idea of buying gas for a daily-driven Charger Hellcat is decidedly less enticing, and that’s where the thriftier V6 engine comes in. The 3.6 may trade power for better fuel economy, but as we discovered in a week driving an all-wheel drive SXT model with the Rallye Appearance Package, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
With 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque (300 and 264 with the Rallye package), the 3.6 is no monster when pitted against the Charger’s 1,900-kg curb weight (a rear-drive model is about 100 kg lighter), but the eight-speed automatic transmission translates that output into decent, if unexciting, acceleration. More satisfying is the nicely-tuned exhaust that makes the engine sound more interesting than its pedestrian roots would suggest.
Punch the sport mode button on the centre stack: the transmission will hold gears longer in acceleration, and downshift more quickly in highway passing maneuvers. Sport mode also sharpens throttle response, giving the illusion of more power.
There’s a fair expectation that a big sedan will be comfortable, and the Charger mostly meets it. The front seats are broad and supportive without being too aggressively bolstered. My quibbles are that the bottom cushion was a bit firm for long stints behind the wheel and the headrest is positioned quite far to the rear, with no fore-and-aft adjustment.
No such trouble in the rear, where the seats are softer and offer plenty of legroom. Rear-seat passengers will note that the closest thing to their heads is the rear window, which extends further into the roofline than in most sedans.
Dodge has made massive progress in interior quality in the last few years, and it shows in the Charger. Our tester’s red-and-black combo looked sharp, and only the hard plastics on the lower dash panels gave away that this car starts out as a relatively inexpensive big sedan.
The Chrysler Uconnect touchscreen display proved as responsive and easy to use here as in other Chrysler vehicles I’ve tested, and the ‘Beats’ stereo that comes bundled in the Rallye package sounded pretty good. Chrysler’s tech extends into the Charger’s gauge cluster, where a colour screen between the gauges displays either trip information or the driver’s choice of a near-ridiculous amount of other data. You can choose to view digital representations of analog fuel and engine temp gauges; they look slick, but the tiny red gauge “needles” are tough to see at a glance. Likewise, the speedometer markings are a bit vague, so I tended to call up the available digital speed readout.
Wide-opening doors make it easy to get in and out, but theonly interior door pull is in the armrest, which ends up very far away when the door is open.
We drove this car from our home in Ottawa on an 11-day road trip to New Brunswick and PEI, and packed the car accordingly; it took some creativity, but we fit two large suitcases and plenty of other gear in the trunk. On the down side, loading cargo requires a high, SUV-like lift over the rear bumper.
In the past, large cars were known for pillowy rides, but that’s not the case here: the Charger rides firmly (almost too much so) on rough pavement, and it was only with the weight of our luggage on board that I found the car comfortable over most surfaces.
One small last nitpick: the foot-operated parking brake stands out here, since Chrysler has moved to electric parking brakes in many of its other models.
For my tester’s $45,550 price tag, the Charger came with niceties like adjustable pedals, auto-dimming driver’s side mirror, power-adjustable steering column, and the upgraded stereo. The technology package included useful safety kit such as blind spot and cross path detection (the latter of which proved very useful in this long car), adaptive cruise control, forward collision and lane departure warning, and advanced brake assist. Navigation and a backup camera were also included, among other items, making this car a strong value for fans of safety and convenience.
All that considered, perhaps the best thing about the Charger is that even in my test car’s relatively basic form, it still turns heads, as the kid riding in the back of the Dodge Dart we passed on the highway and the 20-something guy crossing the street in front of us at a red light can attest. A V6-powered Charger may not be a muscle car like its eight-cylinder siblings, but it’s still got attitude, and that goes a long way when you’ve sacrificed some performance in favour of everyday practicality.