Featured Articles

Dodge Becomes The Brand To Watch

Posted in auto industry, Dodge, Featured, News by Kurt Ernst | February 21st, 2011 | 10 Responses |

Ralph Gilles, Dodge's President & CEO

If you would have asked me my opinion of Dodge just a few months back, I’d have been pretty indifferent about the brand. They made some decent cars, like the 5.7 liter Hemi V8 Charger R/T I reviewed last year, but let’s be honest: they also built some real crap. A 2006 Caliber, for example, was the only rental car I’ve ever returned before leaving the parking lot. It was perhaps the worst execution of the modern automobile since the late ‘80s Chrylser LeBaron, itself a pinnacle of bad. That said, recent events have begun to change my perception of the brand, and I’ll come out and say it: I can’t wait to drive the 2011 Challenger, Charger, Avenger and Journey.

A pair of cars I can't wait to drive.

First, I reviewed the 2011 Dodge Durango a few weeks back. I was expecting just another boring mid to large size crossover / SUV, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I liked driving it. Yes, I hated the infotainment system and I’d have preferred the V8 over the V6, but I was very impressed with build quality, ride comfort and even handling. Unlike the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Durango actually remained planted in corners and (in my mind) had a more comfortable interior. If you need the off-road capability of the Grand Cherokee, the Durango won’t do it for you. If your idea of off-roading is the occasional trip to the beach, or driving a graded dirt road now and again, the Durango is the better choice. If your shopping for a mid to large sized SUV, it really does need to be on your short list.

2011 Dodge Challenger 392

The limited edition Challenger SRT8 392

Next, I got to meet Ralph Gilles, President and CEO of the Dodge brand, at a Southern Automotive Media Association lunch. Far from your typical CEO, Mr. Gilles is a car guy who has a genuine passion for cars, driving and racing. He took us through the changes in the Dodge product line for 2011, and his enthusiasm for the changes was unmistakable. The Challenger, in his words, “drives a thousand pounds lighter”, thanks to stiffer shocks, lower springs, quicker steering and more negative camber. The Charger’s interior was benchmarked against some of the best cars in the world, not just the best cars in its class (and yes, this shows). The suspensions on the Avenger, Journey and Grand Caravan have all been redesigned to improve handling, so it’s clear that Dodge is repositioning itself as an enthusiast-oriented brand. That’s a very, very good thing.

The interior of the 2011 Journey. Image: Dodge

Nowhere was the “new Dodge” more evident than in the Journey, their midsize crossover. Previously, the Journey was the store-brand vanilla ice cream of the crossover segment, and sales figures back that up. For 2011, Dodge gave carte blanche to a young designer for the interior, and the end result is amazing. It’s now best-in-class, and not by a small margin; think Lexus materials, fit and finish and you get the picture. All but the base (“Express”) models get a new Pentastar V6, good for 20% more horsepower than last year’s Journey, mated to a six speed automatic transmission. All Journey variants get a tighter suspension, better tires and improved sound insulation, which should help the Journey get more attention than it has in the past. I promise to get you a review as soon as I can get my hands on one.

Challeger's interior is similar to last year; the money went into the suspension.

I had an opportunity to speak with Gilles one on one, and it wasn’t the typical journalist – CEO conversation. I avoided asking questions he wouldn’t answer (like when we’re getting the Fiat 500 Abarth) and opted to speak with him as one car guy to another. He elaborated on the handling of the Challenger, which now understeers far less in corners than previous models. Push it hard into a corner, lift off the throttle and the back will rotate in a controllable fashion (called “lift throttle oversteer”), just like a Mazda MX-5. At 4,100 pounds, I still think the Challenger is a little oversized for a track car, but I’m more than willing to give it a go.

The Charger's interior is a huge step up from last year. Image: Dodge

He was most energized when talking about Sergio Marchionne, and it’s abundantly clear that Fiat’s CEO has put new life back into Dodge. Marchionne is referred to with more than a little reverence, and the relationship between Fiat and Chrysler is obviously healthier than the relationship between Daimler and Chrysler ever was. Having worked for both the Germans (who typically set product strategy in Germany, since Germans know best) and the Italians (who actually solicit feedback from other markets before making product decisions), I just nodded my head and smiled. Been there, done that.

I love this retro touch on the Challenger.

I came away from Friday’s meeting seriously impressed with the recent changes at Dodge, and I know there’s some good stuff on the horizon. The Fiat 500 Abarth, for example, will be just as good as you expect when it makes it to this side of the pond. There’s the next generation Viper in the works, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another enthusiast oriented car in Dodge’s portfolio in the not too distant future. My conversation with Gilles ended on this note: after praising him for what Dodge has accomplished in the past two years, Gilles grinned, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “If you think this is good, just wait for what comes next.”

Our Best Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10 Responses

  1. Canrith says:

    The fuel door has always been my favorite part of the new challenger too. But the body lines weren’t far behind.

    Are you going to test the awd charger or the rwd?

  2. Kurt Ernst says:

    I’ll test whatever they give me, but it’ll probably be a RWD R/T.

    • Canrith says:

      Didn’t know if you got an advance warning as to be prepared for something or not. But cool not the less.

      • Kurt Ernst says:

        Canrith, getting press fleet cars is a delicate dance. There are some “A” list journalists who can demand whatever they want, whenever they want. The bulk of us take whatever a manufacturer or a press fleet management company doles out. We can try to request a specific vehicle, but that usually doesn’t work and sometimes guarantees you WON’T get the car.

        There are a lot less press fleet cars available these days, so getting anything at all is a bonus.

  3. Jen says:

    This may be the first time in the history of ever that a sane person has said they cannot wait to drive an Avenger.

  4. ptschett says:

    5300 lbs is the Challenger’s GVWR (i.e. maximum permissible weight of the car when loaded with passengers, luggage, etc.), not its curb weight. My 2010 Challenger R/T only (!?) weighs about 4100.

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Ptschett, good catch and thanks for the correction. The new R/T should weigh about the same as yours, with the SRT8 coming in 100 pounds heavier.

      I think it was a Freudian slip on my part. I’d been seriously looking at the new Mustang GT, but have always loved the lines of the new Challenger. If it weighed 1,300 pounds more than the ‘Stang, it was easy to write it off as too heavy. At 300 pounds, not so much…

      How do you like your R/T, and more importantly what DON’T you like about it?

      • ptschett says:

        Overall I’m happy with the Challenger. I was replacing a ’96 T-bird so to me the Challenger’s extra size and weight isn’t a drawback; I like the Mustang well enough since the new V6 was what made me start thinking about a brand new car, but I never quite managed to find a comfortable seat/pedals/wheel relationship in any of the Mustangs I sat in or test-drove. It’s not my winter vehicle (that’s what my Dakota is for) but it does amaze me how well it gets around on icy roads.

        My biggest gripe is the 1-4 skip shift “feature” that never gets in my way until the times that I really did need 2nd gear rather than 4th (easily fixed, I just haven’t gotten around to ordering the part yet). Also there’s something about the combination of hydraulic clutch and electronic throttle that makes it trickier than I’d expected to get smooth launches when stuck in traffic behind unsuspecting normal people. If I had to do it again I’d still get the manual though.

  5. turbosrt says:

    Im proud of them. They may have made alot of bad stuff but every now and then they would release something special and memorable. Examples are the Dakota which was the only mid sized truck with an optional V8 as well as amazing reliability. Currently at about 256,000 miles on my 96 Dakota and thats after rollbacks, WNY winters, dukes of hazzard jumps, drifting every winter, etc. The Neon SRT4 which dominated its class and even managed to beat cars like Mustang GTs and 350Zs in 0 to 60, quarter mile, and handling tests for thousands of dollars less. The Viper which has always been truly amazing. Reason it sold less than the Vette i think is the car was too violent for most drivers that have that kind of money therefore they bought the much softer vette with traction contol, stability control, heads up display etc.

    Conclusion – Keep it up Dodge and keep making special cars. (Just more of em)

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Turbosrt, as long as Ralph Gilles is at the helm, you can expect plenty more enthusiast oriented product from Dodge. I was amazed by how much progress they’ve made in such a short time.