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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”