If an automaker is lucky, it has an iconic model in its past that can be updated or revived to become popular again. Ford has its Mustang and Dodge has its Charger.
Like the Mustang, the Charger was a rear-wheel-drive coupe. It was one of the fastest, most stylish muscle cars of the late 1960s, especially the 1968-70 version, and was much roomier than the Mustang.
Kids wanted a fast Mustang V8, but older hot car buyers wanted the more practical Charger with a big V8. The Charger was turned into more of a luxury coupe after 1971 because of the faltering muscle car market.
The rear-wheel-drive Charger was dropped after 1978, although the Charger name was put for awhile on some Chrysler Corp. cars like the special version of the small front-wheel-drive Dodge Omni. Memories of the 1960s muscle car version were kept alive because a 1968-70 Charger was featured in the popular "Dukes of Hazzard" television show, which ran from 1979 to 1985 before hitting the rerun circuit. Every kid seemingly had a model of the "Dukes of Hazzard" Charger.
No Retro Look
The redone 2005 Mustang coupe looks much like the 1967-69 Mustang, but the early 2006 Charger from DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler group doesn't resemble the old Charger muscle car.
For one thing, the Charger now is a sedan with four wide-opening doors. Why not bring back the coupe body style? Because large 2-door coupes just don't sell anymore.
"Today's buyer of a car such as the Charger wants 4-door utility, along with strong acceleration and sporty ride and handling," said Mark Mallie, a Dodge marketing brand manager associated with the Charger.
However, the new Charger has been cleverly styled to look more or less like a coupe, with such things as a sloping rear roofline, steeply raked rear window and short trunk lid.
Dodge dealers have been anxiously waiting about a year for a new sedan. Chrysler got the successful 300 sedan about a year ago, and Dodge was given the Magnum station wagon at the same time.
The Magnum has been popular, but many Dodge customers are sedan buyers. In fact, Dodge says its dealer initially have placed 27,000 orders for the Charger.
To keep costs down, the Charger, 300 and Magnum share a chassis and powertrains. In fact, the reputation of those two models should help Charger sales because it has their proven components.
Dodge says the Charger "celebrates all that's good about American muscle cars in a thoroughly modern way." Regular colors are offered, but nostalgic Charger buyers can get a few bold "high impact" retro colors, including "Go ManGO!" and "Top Banana."
Big and Roomy
The new Charger is a big, brawny looking car, with the longest wheelbase in its class. Its attractive interior has small sound system controls, but otherwise is very user-friendly. The rear seat is especially roomy.
The trunk opening is high, but there's an enormous amount of cargo space. Folding rear seatbacks on most trim levels enlarge that area.
The aerodynamic Charger's nose leans into the wind and it has a bold "crosshair" grille and a beltline below the side windows that drops as it moves rearward—then kicks up in the rear door to draw attention to its muscular rear fenders and large back tires.
The beltline also emphasizes the car's rear-wheel-drive layout, which was used by the old Charger and other classic 1960s muscle cars.
Road and Track
Driving the Charger hard with its available HEMI V8 at a challenging new Chicago area road racing track showed that the car can do fast laps because it has direct steering and good handling and braking, with a linear pedal feel. The power steering is a little light and it's no 5-Series BMW sports sedan, but most American sedans wouldn't have done as well.
Later, I drove the Charger with the HEMI on Chicago area roads and found it had a good ride over bumpy roads, although the steering also was a bit overassisted during normal street driving.
The majority of Charger buyers (65 percent) are expected to be males aged 40-59 with a $75,000 median annual income. About 75 percent are expected to have older children, some of whom might be driving Mustangs.
Lots of HEMIs
"We expect that about half of Charger buyers will order the HEMI V8," Mallie said. "And they won't all be males. While some women don't know about the HEMI's power-producing features, they associate the HEMI name with quality."
The Charger comes with a 3.5-liter 250-horsepower V6 that delivers decent performance or the ferocious 5.7-liter 340-horsepower HEMI, which produces 350 horsepower with the optional Road and Track performance option. (A 6.1-liter 425-horsepower HEMI now offered for the Chrysler 300 and Magnum arrives next year for the low volume Charger SRT8.)
The base Charger SE V6 costs $22,320, and the HEMI-powered Charger R/T lists at $29,520. That's about $4,000 less than the more upscale Chrysler 300 with the HEMI.
Various Option Packages
The Charger SE also can be had with an SXT package. It contains such items as aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an 8-way power driver's seat, a chrome grille, fog lights and an upgraded sound system.
Offered for the R/T is the Road/Track Performance option. It adds that 10 extra horsepower, performance steering, 18-inch all-season performance tires, stiffer suspension, automatic temperature control, power adjustable pedals and heated performance front seats.
The ultimate Charger is the R/T with the Daytona R/T option package. It makes available the wild retro colors, flat-black graphics and decals, 18-inch Michelin performance tires on polished aluminum wheels with retro black accents and a high-performance exhaust system with a special throaty exhaust note.
The HEMI has a 4-cylinder deactivation feature for slightly better fuel economy. It delivers an estimated 17 mpg in the city and 25 on highways. The V6 provides 19 and 27.
A responsive 5-speed automatic transmission with an easily used manual shift feature works with both engines. But there's no manual gearbox, which could be had in the old Charger muscle car, because Dodge feels there would be little demand for it.
More Comfort Wanted
Dodge says today's car buyers want far more comfort and convenience items than did Charger customers in the 1960s. That's why even the Charger SE has such standard features as air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD radio, a tilt-telescoping steering column, power windows and mirrors, cruise control and locks with remote keyless entry.
Standard safety items include anti-lock brakes and electronic stability and traction control systems. Head-protecting side-curtain airbags are available.
Is the new Charger a worthy successor to the old Charger muscle cars? It sure is, and nevermind the two extra doors.