Alex warned me
Once upon a time there was a Dodge Charger. The American-made coupe debuted in 1966 and enjoyed quite a career, even getting its fifteen minutes of fame starring in the amicably silly TV series, The Dukes of Hazzard. By the end of the 70's the oil crisis and the increasingly stringent environmental regulations effectively terminated the entire muscle car market, including the Charger. After 1975 the model was practically identical to the Chrysler Cordoba, only to be finally replaced by the Dodge Magnum in 1978.
After three decades of comatose absence the Charger returned from its grave to enjoy a second chance at life, and it is doing just fine, having just undergone a spectacular and comprehensive redesign this last model year. Its resurrection is mainly due to the automotive nostalgia conquering the Unites States, even though it obviously is a kind of an odd-one-out at that. The ties and roots are less conspicious than, say, in the case of the Ford Mustang which is a shameless remake of the original. Dodge also has a proper modern historical car, the Challenger which was launched in 2008 and shares its mechanical underpinnings with the Charger.
The main difference between the original Charger and its modern day counterpart is the number of doors. The four-door layout of the contemporary model yields fundamentally different body proportions which designers attempted to rectify with a sloping roofline and a bulging shoulder over the rear wheels – alas to little avail. You can almost hear the heated quarrel between the designers and the marketing people as you walk around the car. The former obviously wanted to recreate the coupe whereas the latter were wielding sales statistics showing the overwhelming popularity of sedans. They no doubt reminded designers of the huge box office flop the 2002 Ford Thunderbird turned out to be: while it was an intriguing take at the original, it failed majestically and was discontinued after only three years despite being elected Motor Trend Car of the Year at launch.
Chrysler, the parent company of Dodge, was at that time owned by Daimler AG, and the overall concept must have been to emulate the success of the Mercedes-Benz CLS as a four-door coupe with the Charger, sort of like a family-sized muscle car. The only Charger variant which could rightfully be called a muscle car was, of course, the top-of-the-line Charger SRT8, powered by a 425 PS 6.1 V8 HEMI. Most Chargers were equipped with 3.5 V6's which made the 1.7-ton vehicles swift, albeit certainly not sporty. The upside of this compromise was the fuel consumption which, at around 12 l/100km, was more than acceptable in US terms.
It was one of these V6-powered Charger SXT models that me and my friend Alex, a well-known figure in automotive circles, drove around in the Western parts of the USA. We covered some 5700 km in two weeks, driving along the coastline from San Francisco to Long Beach, cruising Route 66, visiting the Grand Canyon, the land of the Navajo, the meteorite craters in Arizona, Lake Powell, the Hoover Dam in Las Vegas, the Death Valley in the Yosemite National Park and a bunch of other places. We experienced desert heat, mountain blizzards and torrential downpours, and I am sure the car has seen these before. It was a rental car, ready to be retired. We had to beg the company to let us have it.
We had reserved a car before departure and when we arrived in San Francisco and walked up to the counter, fatigued from the long flight, the attendant smiled a great big late night smile and told us the Charger was no longer available. He was happy to give us another car for the same fee, though this is a no-brainer, guys. I started whining and then fell asleep standing. Next thing I know the man has managed to find us a red Charger. He was not happy about it. The car was past its retirement mileage, but it was still street legal for another 45 days so we could have it if we absolutely wanted it.
'We' didn't absolutely want it, 'I' did. Alex had driven such a car before in Canada and not only did he not absolutely want it, he was specifically against it. But friends will be friends, I could have whatever rocked my boat. We walked around the weathered cruiser, marking off all the dings and scratches to make sure we wouldn't have to pay for the repairs later on, and we drove off to San Jose, arriving in the wee hours. We spent the next day catching up with our jet lag, and then we started off and kept driving and driving. The Charger proved to be a trusty companion, although it had its weird moments.
After this long prologue, let the used car review begin, and do so with a walkaround – which is what we did after we slept until about noon on the first day. First impressions: it's large, flat, boxy and aggressive. The prominent chrome mask, practically a trademark of Dodge vehicles, the double headlights under a single cover, the narrow side windows, the long arch of the roof, the solid rear are all handsome features, yet the overall impression of the Charger is somewhat strange, the silhouette reveals unconventional proportions. The car tries to look like a coupe while it is in fact a spacious five-seater. This makes the hood too short, and the cabin too long.
Forget all the marketing yada, the Charger is no coupe. It is a sedan and quite a fascinating one at that. You could even call it unique; the Charger certainly looked different when it was introduced in 2006. Chrysler had a nice run of models around then, with both the Dodge Charger and the Chysler 300C enjoying warm reception on a domestic market dominated by Japanese and Korean brands. Both models, as well as the Dodge Magnum (a.k.a. 300C station wagon) shared the same LX platform utilising Mercedes-sourced front and rear suspension, steering gear and an ActiveShift automatic transmission.
Opening the solid rear doors you arrive in a spacious interior with comfortable seats and minimum visibility, due to the narrow windows. Even though it was a rental car it had all the amenities American automobiles cannot do without – motor driven side windows and wing mirrors, adjustable lumbar support on the front seats, and a highly effective, albeit manually adjustable, air con. The multimedia unit featured a CD-player, hands free functionality and satellite radio. There was no sat nav, though, and ours kept going crazy from time to time, keeping us entertained throughout the trip. Cruise control was standard specs, of course; Alex would drive long stretches using this to control his speed. The entire interior is grey, alleviated somewhat by metallic effect panels – the overall atmosphere is less than ideal.
American designers have a thoroughly different understanding of what an interior should be like than what we Europeans are used to. Something you would consider cheap and mediocre in Europe is actually considered a pretty successful design overseas. Especially, if you add that the instrument cluster, featuring light-coloured dials, was inspired by the Dodge Viper, at least that's what they say. All surfaces within a hand's reach are covered in a soft plastic pleasant to the touch, whereas areas that are further away feature large panels of stiff, hard plastic – again, customary in US auto industry. After 70 000 km of use the interior showed practically no sign of wear, which is commendable as rental cars are not known for being pampered. We didn't actually ride in the back but we got inside and moved about a bit: there is plenty of legroom but the sloping roof makes for limited headroom, exacerbated by the rear screen reaching almost over your head; there are decals blocking the sun.
Let's go, then! With an automatic gearbox this should pose no issues (although Alex has second thoughts about this, scroll down for his comments). The Charger's old-fashioned four-speed unit worked smoothly with no jerking, except it shifted up too early for our taste, you could not rev the engine high enough. ”Civilian” SXT versions were equipped with a five-speed AutoStick gearbox but I can't blame Dodge for building rental car versions with the simpler and cheaper transmission. I am pretty sure they also modded the mapping to keep things nice and peaceful.
Nice and peaceful, that's the credo of the engine, too. It worked diligently but could not have been further from sporty. This sort of dynamism is a far cry from what you'd expect of a 250 PS 3.5 V6; even 2.0-litre petrol engines could easily keep up with it, suggesting that rental specification cars are sedated. Others have experienced similarly underpowered engines in other rental cars, which suggests that this is an industry-wide trend rather than an isolated incident – and it makes perfect sense, actually. In standard form the 3.5 V6 Charger could reach 100 kph in 9.3 seconds, something our vehicle could not even dream about. Even this castrated engine was plentiful for the American way of driving though. Imagine a land the size of a continent where almost everyone abides by all traffic regulations, including speed limits. That is something to write home about. Highways excluded, of course: here most people go faster than the 70 mph limit and I assume highway police have also set the threshold of their laser guns higher than that.
This underachieving also meant the engine was relatively thrifty (we measured 10.5 l/100km), and we could live with that, we came here to look around, not to race. One thing we could not (nor should anyone ever) get used to, though, was that the Charger was jerking from one side of the road to the other, straight line stability as such was miserable. Add to that a suspension that smoothed out all bumps and a steering which lacked any sort of response, giving us absolutely no feedback from the road. That's the way Americans like it (the Charger is actually considered a car with stiff suspension) but for a European driver this setup leaves very little room for actually enjoying the drive. We certainly didn't enjoy any of it. Whether this shaky stability was due to poor construction, high wear, or a combination of both, it was hard to tell, but it kept us uneasy throughout the ride.
Uneasy would be an understatement for the brakes – sometimes they'd scare the living daylight out of us. Even when cold, pushing the pedal started a quiver in your right foot, meaning at least one, but probably more disks were warped. The shaking got worse as the brakes got warmer. At the end it was frightening. I am rarely scared in a car and never when Alex is driving but there was a stretch of the road that got me really worried. Driving from Death Valley to Lone Pine you have to cross this horrific ridge. Ice or snow is not really a problem here so engineers build the roads steep. Coming down the other side, a brake disk warped so bad that the front literally began to shake upon braking. There were narrow turns ahead of us, and deep precipices to the side. Our calamities abated in the evening when we sat down to John Wayne's desk for some internet time. The famous actor shot quite a few movies in the area – that was before film crews would create virtual environments instead of going and finding a real one.
So here we are again, back at the arrivals hall of the car rental company. Paperwork only takes a few moments and the red Charger disappears in the garage. We check out the brand new cars we could have rented instead of this ancient junk, no surcharge. Do we have regrets? Alex may, I certainly don't. This has been a great trip, and the car took us to incredible places with us sitting in a comfortable seat, looking at the outside world through narrow windows like we were watching a panoramic 3D movie. And since the gigantic trunk was full of food and drinks we even had access to popcorn and soda.
Alex is far less sentimental than me. He likes cars but he does not baby them. He is a prominent figure in our local American Cars and Mercedes communities yet he is currently driving a BMW. So here is his concise, no holds barred list to round off the article.
“There is not much to say here, it has been a while since last summer, and the memories have mixed with those from our 2009 USA-Canada tour.
Underpowered engine, disharmonious ratios: gearbox shifts up as soon as the torque builds up. Cheap materials in the interior, but that's to be expected of an American car. Joy of driving is practically non-existent; the car is as neutral as can be. Straight line stability is extremely poor; continuously needs corrective steering on highways, just like you could see in US movies from the 70's and 80's. On wet asphalt the differential gear will kick in at the slightest push of the gas pedal, resulting in one driven wheel spinning and the car not going anywhere.
Large, easily accessible boot. Seats are comfortable even on longer drives, interior is spacious. 3.5-litre engine has surprisingly good consumption.
The silver Charger had run about 10 000 miles, it was practically a brand new car, as opposed to the red one which was no longer supposed to be rented out to customers. The brakes were crap, the chassis was crap, but my dear friend Jo insisted on this model while we could have easily just rented a splendid Grand Marquis. That's all I can tell you, please switch off your recorder.”