Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dodge Charger R/T V8: first drive

Ford has been successfully promoting the Mustang for decades off the back of that car-chase sequence in Bullitt, all seven minutes of jump-tastic, reverse burnoutery of it. But never Dodge, the maker of the taupe-coloured Charger which McQueen harried through the streets of San Francisco, and which ultimately exploded into a ball of fire.
Words: Pat Devereux
This feature was originally published in the January issue of
Top Gear magazine

The reasons for this are relatively simple. The Mustang has generally stayed true to its muscle-car heritage - two doors, enormous engine, rear drive and butch styling. So it makes sense to work the historically cool angle. The Charger has not. I'm not quite sure who's to blame here, but the Charger has been something of an iconic-badge-wearing dog for the last few years - anaemic engines, indifferent styling and, worst of all, four doors.
But now, post-bankruptcy, Dodge - the sporty brand in the Chrysler family - has been feverishly working to bring the mojo back to its core models. And it's started with the Charger. Let's start with the bad news: it's still got four doors. Now the good news: it's got new engines, a reworked chassis, more aggressive styling outside, and a fit and finish inside that feels a world more solid than the rattle and humdrum quality of the outgoing model.

The range of engines now starts with the 292bhp Pentastar V6 and rises to the 370bhp 5.7-litre V8, as fitted in the R/T models. Starting out in the V6, the big car - it weighs 1,796kg and measures over five metres stem to stern - didn't feel underpowered or make too much noise as we thrashed it up and down the San Francisco hills. In a massive, Bullitt-style leap ahead, the steering wheel now also feels connected to the front wheels instead of a large amount of fresh air. We aren't talking European levels of quality here, but the gap's definitely narrowed.

Likewise, the interior quality and design, overseen by a Mercedes-Benz employee who came as part of the ‘merger of equals' and decided to stay when Merc pulled out, is a much less offensive place to be. Instead of poverty levels of spec and grey Tupperware plastic quality, there are now some OK-looking instruments and a more than reasonable look and feel. It's still only a six out of 10, but that's already 100 per cent better than the old car.

The V8-powered cars really show what the new Charger can do. Blasting them around the Infineon Raceway, they had plenty of grunt, plenty of poise and made a great noise when thrashed. The brakes felt overworked and the handling was soft, but it was all hugely predictable. Just like it all should be on a proper muscle car.
Now, if they could just find a way to get rid of those two rear doors, that Bullitt remake is long overdue...

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