Thumbs Up: Drives a thousand pounds lighter than it is
Thumbs Down: Transmission is still just a five speed
Buy This Car If: You’re looking for America’s best blue-collar muscle sedan
Let’s say you enjoy road trips, the kind of which occasionally take you to a different time zone, just for a weekend getaway. You probably want a car that’s roomy, with enough space for four adults plus luggage. You want a car that’s fast, since the faster you get from point A to point B, the sooner you can enjoy some downtime. You want a car that’s good on gas, since time spent refueling is time not spent driving. Finally, you want a car with some entertainment value, just in case you decide to occasionally take the scenic route.
In short, you want a car like the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8. Like its cousin, the Chrysler 300 SRT8, the fastest Charger really is a jack of all trades muscle sedan. It will carry you cross-country at triple-digit speeds in supreme comfort, yet deliver reasonable fuel economy (by 6.4-liter V-8 standards, anyway). Should you decide to drive the occasional canyon or mountain pass along the way, the Charger SRT8 will surprise you with both its grip and its relatively nimble handling. We’d stop short of calling the SRT8 a sport sedan, since there’s only so much you can do to disguise its bulk, but it is a legitimate grand touring muscle sedan.
Dodge revised the exterior styling of the Charger for the 2011 model year, and we say that’s a good thing. The old Charger was a decent-looking car, but it was too plain to stand out in a sea of full size sedans. Last year’s restyling changed all that, and the Charger is again as distinctive as it early 1970s ancestors. Slab sided doors are gone, replaced by scalloped character lines that run down the length of the doors. Blend-into-the-background tail lights are gone, too, replaced by the Charger’s boldest styling element: its one-piece, LED tail light assembly. We’re fans of the look, which makes the Charger visible for miles on the highway at night, but critics have panned it for being just a bit too bold.
Perhaps that’s why we like the car as much as we do: because it’s bold. The Charger, especially in SRT8 trim, doesn’t blend in with the crowd. It’s not socially acceptable at the garden club, or the tennis club, or (especially) the country club. It’s the type of car your Greenpeace friends will hate you for owning, but if you’re shopping for a Charger SRT8 you probably don’t care about any of that. You understand the simple joy of a well-executed burnout, and you’re not averse to the occasional track day just to demonstrate that big cars need love, too. If you understand and embrace these points, the Charger SRT8 will not disappoint.
Restyle aside, some design themes from the previous generation car carry over. Front fenders carry a similar muscular flair, most noticeable from behind the driver’s seat. The trademark crosshair grille returns, blacked out for sinister effect on SRT8 models. Even the shape of the headlights, though updated, will be familiar to fans of the previous generation cars.
There’s one styling element that’s both a plus and a minus: the Charger, even in SRT8 trim, looks like a cop car. While a certain percentage of the population will automatically yield the left lane when they spot you in the rear-view mirror, another segment of the population will freeze like a deer in the headlights, slowing almost instantly to sub-legal speeds. If motorists understood the basic concept of keep right, pass left, this wouldn’t be an issue, but common sense on the highway is about as rare as common sense in politics.
Inside, the Charger SRT8 has more of a sporting feel than the Chrysler 300 SRT8. The dash of the Charger is crafted from the same soft-touch vinyl, but the instrument surround is plastic molded to look like dark, engine turned metal (or very coarse carbon fiber). It’s not as pleasing as the acres of genuine carbon fiber in the 300 SRT8, but it is quite a bit more cost effective, and the Charger variant is meant to be more affordable. The center stack is dominated by the Charger’s touchscreen infotainment system, which deserves praise for it logical menu layout and intuitive operation.
Instruments have a more sporting feel than the gauges on the Chrysler. Tach and speedometer numbers are angled forward to denote speed, but the small and widely spaced numbers on the speedometer are difficult to read. We found ourselves setting the driver information display to show the car’s speed, just to be on the safe side.
Front seats are superb for both spirited driving and long road trips. By our estimation they’re a little wider than the seats in the 300, although this could just be a byproduct of the press-fleet Charger’s higher mileage. Ventilated suede panels keep driver and passenger in place during high speed cornering, and the seats are both heated and fan cooled for comfort. As with the Chrysler 300 SRT8, the front seats are among the most comfortable you’ll find for long hours behind the wheel.
Rear seats are road-trip certified, as well. The same suede panel inserts are used on rear seats, which get heat for cold weather comfort. Head and leg room is abundant, unless you get stuck in the center seat. In fact, it’s best to think of the Charger SRT8 as having four very comfortable seats and one place reserved for children and emergencies only.
Under the hood is Chrysler’s 6.4 liter Hemi V-8, good for 470 horsepower and 470 pound feet of torque. In SRT8 trim, it’s mated to just a five-speed automatic, but expect that to change in upcoming model years. While the five speed gets the job done, a more contemporary seven or eight speed gearbox would help with both performance and fuel economy. As for performance, the run from 0-60 takes around 4.7 seconds, impressive for a car of the Charger’s size. Despite this, the car’s cylinder deactivation system helps return better than expected fuel economy. The EPA says to expect 14 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, and we saw an indicated 16.5 mpg in mostly city driving.
The Charger SRT8, like it’s 300 SRT8 cousin, provides far more entertainment value behind the wheel than you’d expect it to. Accelerate hard from a stoplight, and the big V-8 yields a satisfying growl that’s never too loud or too quiet. With the traction control on, wheelspin is limited and launches feel a bit sluggish. Turn the traction control off, however, and the Charger briefly lights the rear tires before accelerating with authority. Stability control on, the car is almost docile in corners, but turn the electro-nannies off, set the suspension to “Sport” and the Charger is an entirely different beast. Despite the car’s size, there’s decent communication from the front tires through the steering wheel, and the car has an impressive amount of grip in corners. Massive rotors, both front and rear, ensure that the Charger SRT8 can stop with the same urgency it accelerates with.
Chrysler supplied the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 for our evaluation. Base price on the car was $47,720, including a destination charge of $925 and a Gas-Guzzler Tax of $1,000. Options included the $745 Driver Confidence Group (blind spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, side mirror courtesy lamps, heated and folding side mirrors, back up camera, rain sensing wipers, SmartBeam headlamps), the $795 Adaptive Cruise Control Group (adaptive speed control, forward collision warning), the $995 Power Sunroof and the $150 245/45ZR20 Performance Tires for a total sticker price of $50,405.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Chrysler 300 SRT8 would sticker for $53,035.