Review: Dodge Charger

One of the side effects of having a little sports car is that there are some times when you need something different. Maybe you’ve got to take your collection of old computers to the surplus store, or help a friend move their piano.

Me? I had to go to Reno, for the second time in three weeks. In my case, the sports car is really ideal for this trip–unfortunately, it was in the car hospital getting a brake rotor transplant. And the trip couldn’t wait.

There’s an upside to situations like this: you get the chance to test drive cars you’re curious about. I’ve been curious about the new Dodge Charger since I noticed that the cops here had traded in their Crown Victoria Police Interceptors for these new muscle-car-styled sedans. So I rented one.

I have only ever before driven one car that performs and acts quite like the Dodge Charger. My first car, a 1979 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight sedan. Actually, that’s not quite fair, because the Ninety-Eight had a 350 engine and a four-barrel carbeurator, and moved like that space ship in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Looks like a fish. Moves like a fish. Steers like a cow.

So yeah, the Ninety-Eight was bad. The Charger is worse.

So what’s wrong with it? Well, let’s start with the interior. It’s huge. Like, you-could-fit-a-college-football-team-in-there huge. I am not exactly a small guy–my shoulders are easily three feet across, and I’m soggy around the middle. I like my elbow room. When a car is so big that I can’t reach the arm rests without incurring a repetitive stress injury, it’s too big for 90% of the people out there.

Then there’s the problem with the blinkers. They stick. You can’t flash them like you can in other cars–even when you don’t lock the lever up, they just keep flashing until you toggle them on and off again. The brights also flash backwards, and the dash is laid out very poorly–the steering wheel completely obscures the view to the top edge of the dials, meaning you can’t tell whether you’re doing 50 or 80mph without ducking your head. Raising or lowering the seats, telescoping the wheel and tilting it gives no relief for this. Add them all together, and you’re in for a painful road trip. Most annoying.

The interior’s not all bad–the stereo’s nice, the climate control is well done from controls to vents, and the seats are very comfortable (though, given how the car handles, they really could use side bolsters, which they don’t have), the window motors are very quick and very quiet, and there’s loads of hidey-holes to stash things in.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the good points stop. This thing is a nightmare to drive. It has the turning radius of a high-speed drunken elephant; the power steering is geared at such a ratio that you have to do two full rotations to pull a u-turn, and it’s such a heavy car that, despite being rear-wheel drive, it understeers like crazy–you go around a corner, and the car just wants to keep going right off the edge, and you have to really fight it to get it to stay on the road. I’m not talking about driving it like a sports car, or even a muscle car, I’m talking shooting freeway corners at the speed of traffic.

It’s also underpowered–a hard thing to do with a 250hp V6 in the base model, but they manage it. It’ll do zero to sixty in a couple minutes, and then do the “highway creep” where, when the gas pedal is half depressed, it becomes progressively more sensitive, meaning that the normal weight of your foot will push you from a sensible driving speed to a ballistic missile speed without trying to–and because of the driving position and the way the windows are angled, it’s hard to notice until you have to suddenly stop, which you can’t. The car is too heavy to suddenly stop, at least not with the small rotors and pads they put on these things. At a certain point you’re committed–at least on ICBMs they include a self-destruct abort switch.

The underpowering and accelerator creep aren’t really the fault of the engine, though. It’s the transmission that’s a real issue. It’s an automatic that’s so poorly geared it makes soggy Cheerios look snappy. It drives *exactly* like the Dodge Van my parents had when I was in high school–this kind of transmission is good on a van, for a variety of reasons. In a sedan seeking to appeal to the muscle car demographic, it’s borderline insane–unpleasant, unsafe, and unforgivable.

Then there’s the suspension. There’s comfortable, and then there’s “boat.” This thing is way into “boat” territory. Spongy, isolating, lots of body roll, it’s everything I’d expect out of a 1970s luxury sedan…except this is a 2011 sports sedan. I’ve driven several of the recent sports sedans, and those of you who are familiar with Buicks will appreciate the enormity of the following statement:

The 2005 Buick Century has a WAY better suspension than the 2011 Dodge Charger.

I asked a cop on coming back from Reno what the deal was. Are these things really better than the Crown Victorias? Do the police versions move better?

His response: “They’re strictly for show. They basically look more intimidating, but there’s no way we could run a Camaro to ground in one of these. The Crown Vic’s could catch everything.”

Good to know our police department’s purchasing division is taking the wishes of us chronic lead-foots seriously, and buying cars that can’t actually catch us.

The hell of it is, it could’ve been a great car. It’s got weird-ass styling that’s eye-catchingly aggressive. Not exactly to my taste, but they do at least add some nice visual variety to the road. But you simply shouldn’t need to do a 3-point turn to change directions on Virginia Street in Reno. You don’t need to do it in a full-sized pickup, you barely need to do it in a 16-foot bobtail, there’s no way in hell you should have to do it in a sedan if you want to avoid scraping the curb with your tires.

All in all, this one’s a loser. If you want a good full-sized sports sedan, check out the offerings from GM, BMW, and Volvo. Dodge this one.

5/10 stars.

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3 Comments

  1. Sounds like the Charger is a traditional US sedan!

    Next time you need a car that size, see if you can get a hold of a Pontiac G8, It might just be a step up. It was designed and built in a country that has a bit more understanding of roads with corners in them than you lot.

    Disclaimer: I live in that country.

  2. I’ve heard good things about the Vauxhall Monaro VXR8, but haven’t gotten to drive one yet. Pontiac is, alas, out of business so you can’t currently get them in the US, but I’ve got my eyes peeled for a chance to test-drive one. If anyone reading is local to the Bay Area and wants to let me put theirs through the paces, let me know! 😉

  3. I suspect the Vauxhall VXR8 is more of a hotrod than the G8 GXP was. It was a shame about Pontiac, there was a strong chance they were going to release the wagon and utility body styles in the G8 line and I was keen to see how well they went over there.

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