Base price: $22,295
Price as tested: $31,495
Whenever I head back to the family homestead, the final leg of my journey takes me down Poole Avenue, which served, when I was a young driver, as the neighborhood dragstrip. It's a wide ribbon of smooth asphalt, mostly straight, but for the kink at one end that's now guarded by an oversized hunk of Armco.
Lest you wonder where this story is going, that dogleg is still known, 30 years after the fact, as Woody's Corner, for the man who often wound up running off the road there, once punching a hole through a kitchen wall. Despite his problems with braking, Woody was, for much of my youth, the meanest, badass street racer ever seen in Central New Jersey . He dominated the highways with a classic Dodge Charger. He made enough money betting on the car to buy himself a service station, not so much to have a job as to be able to keep working on his beloved coupe, with its menacing, 426-cubic-inch Hemi.
I long ago lost touch with Woody, which is too bad because I'd love to know what he thinks of the new Dodge Charger, which has just gone into production. We've certainly heard from plenty of other Mopar fans; TheCarConnection.com has never received as much mail as it has concerning the '06 Charger.
If you ignore the short-lived and excruciatingly inappropriate Dodge Omni Charger, of 1982, it's been 28 years since Chrysler last bolted the Charger name onto the back of an automobile.
To say this reborn muscle car is controversial would be a major understatement. A sizable majority of the correspondence has been intensely negative, the universal bone of contention being Chrysler's decision to switch from the classic coupe to a sedan body style. Raised to admire and fear Woody's '69 Charger 500, I have to admit my own skepticism. But after spending a long day on both the track and highway, most of my concerns have melted away.
In contrast to the original car's long, low wedge, the 2006 Charger sits tall, with a stubby nose and tail. The shape is understandable, considering the new Dodge shares platform with Chrysler's edgy 300 sedan. But these are no look-alike four-doors.
With its bold cross-hair grille, you'll recognize the new Charger from a couple hundred yards back in your rearview mirror. The hooded headlights enhance the bold, in-your-face look of the front end.
From the side, the new Charger is a bit more curvaceous than the angular Chrysler 300. Like Chargers "back in the day," the new car features a long hood, obviously necessary with the big HEMI packaged underneath. The roofline stretches taut to create an almost coupe-like profile. The beltline kicks up midway through the rear doors. It adds to the Charger's sporty appearance and gives it just enough of the classic muscle car's wedge to make the '06 model seem primed for action.
If there aren't any radar cops around, you'll be most likely to see the Charger from behind, says Jeff Gale, who headed the design team, "so we wanted it to look pretty cool from behind." Like the Chrysler 300, the new Dodge has a tall, wind-cheating rear end, quite unlike the original Chargers. The Daytona edition adds a spoiler for additional downforce, though its nothing like the huge wing that hit the street more than 35 years ago.
Gale's team worked hard to update the classic, muscle car interior for modern times. Gauges are well-placed and easy to read. We were particularly fond of the chrome trim rings on the Daytona package.
The seats are comfortable and in the higher-line models, incredibly supportive, even during the hardest driving. Best of all, there's plenty of room for five, though rear seat passengers will need duck a bit getting in and out to accommodate that coupe-like roof.
At first glance, the interior is handsome, with a distinctive two-tone color scheme. But sit behind the driver's seat for a few hours and you realize it's also the car's weak link. Dodge, by corporate definition, is designed to appeal to the Joe Lunchbucket crowd, and to Chrysler planners, that's meant a fairly spartan level of refinement, with too many chunks of hard plastic, with a variety of different shades and graining. In reality, Dodge is beginning to appeal to a decidedly more affluent and sophisticated crowd, folks who'd like the level of sophistication found in an Audi, or at least in the Chrysler 300.
Oh, and a personal request for a grab handle for passengers. They'll need one if you push this car close to its limits.
Road and track
And the limits are indeed quite high. The automaker has upgraded the stock suspension, shared with the 300C as well as the Dodge Magnum wagon. With the Road and Track package, there are larger sway bars and bigger brake pads. The suspension has been tuned to enhance stability, but without building in more harshness. "We wanted you to have fun on the track, but be comfortable, as well, on Michigan roads," explained chief engineer Burke Brown.
During a long drive through North Carolina and Virginia, as well as on the Virginia International Raceway circuit, we had the chance to drive most configurations of the new Charger, starting with the base V-6. And it was our biggest surprise. With 250-horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, it is reasonably peppy and fun-to-drive. That's enhanced by the well-tuned exhaust note that makes it sound like you're driving a muscle car.
But there's nothing like the sound of the big HEMI, its throttle opened wide. The big 5.7-liter V-8 makes 340 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque in the standard package, 350 hp in the Daytona and R/T packages, thanks to a smoother-flowing intake and exhaust system allowing for a little more airflow, according to Burke.
The big 19-inch tires, paired with the R/T suspension kept the rear wheels firmly planted on the pavement. It took some real work to get the tires to spin during our laps on the VIR road course.
To be honest, I can't imagine many muscle car fans who wouldn't prefer a stick shift, though for day-to-day driving, the five-speed automatic, with its AutoStick mode, is a more than acceptable compromise. It's mated to both V-6 and V-8 engines.
The HEMI has become something of a brand of its own for Chrysler, and on the 300 series and Magnum, it now accounts for about a third of all sales. That might seem surprising, considering record oil prices, but Chrysler has wisely integrated its MDS, or Multi-Displacement System. At speeds from 18 to 80 mph, MDS disables half the HEMI's cylinders when power demand is low. It takes just 40 milliseconds to switch modes and, for practical purposes, is invisible to the driver. Yet in normal driving, it's likely to reduce fuel consumption by about ten percent, or two miles per gallon.
Soft but friendly
When my old friend Woody was dominating the N.J. street racers, he had to contend with the fact that the original generation of muscle cars couldn't do much more than go fast in a straight line. The new Charger is a lot more versatile vehicle, as we proved to satisfaction on the VIR course.
The base suspension is a bit soft, especially in hard driving on rough pavement. The R/T suspension is smooth and predictable, even in the tightest and fastest corners. It's easy to let the rear hang out a bit, then power your way around a corner. If we have any complaints, it's with the steering. It has great on-center tracking, but it generally feels a bit light and numb. The brakes were solid on both models, though at times a bit grabby.
Thirty years ago, we didn't think much about safety. I'm not sure Woody even wore his seatbelt. These days, it's as much a selling point as horsepower. The Charger's safety cage yields the same double-five star crash rating as the 300 and Magnum models. The Charger comes with standard tire pressure monitors, ABS, traction control and electronic stability control, multi-stage front airbags, as well as side-curtain airbags.
One feature absent from the option list is all-wheel drive. It has not sold as well as some expected on the 300 and Magnum, though that may have a lot to do with getting showroom salespeople up to speed. "We're going to see if the demand is out there," says Charger's marketing director, Judy Wheeler, noting that it would be easy to add the option later on.
As far as we're concerned, a days driving ends the Charger controversy. In today's world, there just isn't much demand for a coupe. What matters is whether the '06 feels like a muscle car. And it does. We'll see if the rest of the world can get past the styling issue. If they do, Dodge just might have another winner on its hands.
2006 Dodge Charger R/T HEMI
Base price: V-6 $22,295; price as tested with HEMI V-8 and Road & Track package, $31,495
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8, 340 hp/390 lb-ft; 3.5-liter V-6, 250 hp/250 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 200.1 x 74.5 x 58.2 in
Wheelbase: 120.0 in
Curb weight: 3727 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Multi-stage front airbags and side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; electronic stability control with tire-pressure monitors
Major standard features: Air conditioning; power windows/locks/mirrors; electric rear defroster; 18-inch wheels; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering wheel; AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; seven years/70,000 powertrain