By Lary Coppola
No other car’s boldly aggressive styling says, “Don’t mess with me” with such eloquent menace as the Dodge Charger. From the belligerent, forward-leaning crosshair grille, and scowling headlights, to the shoebox-sized side windows, the Charger is the perfect police cruiser. Cops love it because its simple presence has drivers pulling over — even without the lights flashing. Civilians love it for exactly the same reasons — it’s truly an intimidator.
The Charger was redesigned in 2011, and while the changes for 2012 are subtle, three letters sum up the most important change to the 2012 Charger lineup: SRT. Dodge shoehorned its 6.4-liter 470-horse V8 under the hood and married it to a five-speed automatic with paddle shifters — plus two-mode adaptive dampers, huge Brembos, well-bolstered seats and big sticky tires mounted on 20s. Yeah, baby…
For 2012, the Dodge Charger lineup has been simplified to include SE, SXT and R/T models, as well as the aforementioned high-performance SRT8. All models offer technology, performance option packages to help buyers equip their Charger to satisfy their personal needs and tastes. The right options will make your V-6 Charger look just like the Hemi V-8 version — right down to the spoiler.
This review will be confined to our test vehicle, the 2012 SXT.
Walkaround: While Dodge styled its retro-looking Challenger after the first generation, 70s original, it looked further back (1968-’70) to the second-generation Charger to define the new body’s characteristics.
Most obvious are the scooped-out hood and doors, although the scoops run deeper and are more exaggerated. The top of the indented crease runs along the top of the doors and becomes a shoulder line that broadens outward, defining the rear fender — just like the late-’60s Charger. The taillights consist of more than 160 glowing LEDs — a modern day concession to the ’70 Charger. Aside from those styling cues, the overall look is decidedly non-retro, while sporting just enough vintage design to satisfy classic Charger aficionados — even as a 4-door.
Dodge has employed aerodynamic tweaks in an attempt to address the top reason buyers rejected the previous Charger — fuel economy. A raked-back windshield, hidden wipers, restyled exterior mirrors, lower nose, deeper chin spoiler, and wheels pushed out toward the corners, all contribute to a reduced drag coefficient.
All Chargers boast dual exhaust tips and the option of up to 20-inch wheels (17-inch aluminums are standard).
Interior: Dodge also addressed one main complaint about the previous Charger — its cheezy interior materials.
Seating surfaces are no longer econobox quality, and dashboard plastics sport a new leather-looking grain. All the pillars are now covered in headliner fabric instead of plastic, and the aluminum trim on the dashboard is real. A 4.3-inch touch screen is standard and controls the radio, climate, and vehicle settings. Opt for navigation, and the display becomes 8.4 inches, and features Dodge’s Uconnect Touch system with integrated Garmin navigation, voice recognition and SIRIUS Traffic. With natural voice commands, the Uconnect Touch enables users to input street addresses and navigate to points of interest. SIRIUS real-time traffic monitoring notifies the driver or enables the Garmin navigation to re-route past congestion.
A new, standard, smaller-diameter tilt/telescopic steering wheel, wrapped in soft leather, contains buttons for the audio controls, cruise control, and trip computer. Also standard is an 8-way adjustable power driver’s seat with 4-way adjustable lumbar support; heated front seats; 276 watt, 6-speaker audio system with remote USB port; audio input jack; and an auto-dimming rear view mirror with a built-in microphone for Bluetooth cell-phone use.
Noise-absorbing laminated windshield glass and double-paned front side windows help quiet the cabin. The last clue that Diamler once owned Chrysler — the Mercedes–style turn-signal, wiper, and cruise-control stalks — are gone, replaced by Dodge parts.
Under The Hood: The standard powerplant is a new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that puts 292 horses to the highway. The big news is that it’s married to the first electronically-controlled, American 8-speed ZF automatic transmission, which delivers a best-in-class 31 mpg/Highway and 19/City. Paddle shifters are also standard on the SXT.
For those who just can’t resist the legendary Hemi, the 5.7-liter, 370-horse, V-8 is available as an option.
Behind The Wheel: While the six lacks the deep, throaty rumble and torque of the V-8, it does move the Charger with plenty of authority. The new windshield angle also helped resolve the second-most-common complaint: outward visibility.
The Charger rides on the same basic platform as before, and Dodge left the brakes, chassis layout, and the 120-inch wheelbase alone, along with the multilink front and rear suspensions. But the Charger has been retuned to feel smaller, more agile, and sportier despite its full size.
The Charger’s sportier feel comes thanks to a new, quicker steering rack that features electrohydraulic assistance to save fuel. Steering is a little light for my personal taste, but not unpleasant, and does make the Charger feel somewhat smaller than it is.
All-wheel drive (AWD) remains available, but is now a stand-alone option. Previously, AWD meant a raised ride height, but in 2011, Dodge lowered the AWD model’s suspension, bringing its stance nearly in line with that of other Chargers.
Whines: The front doors open so wide, that it’s hard to reach the grab handle from the seated position with them all the way open — which can be a pain in the rain.
Bottom Line: Buyers don’t have to compromise, as they can get the fuel efficiency of a mid-size car in a powerful full-size sedan with distinctive styling. The Charger remains a major badass with an attitude, but now it’s a much better daily driver. Dodge tweaked, but kept, what so many people liked about the classic Charger — the angry, fighting-bull stance, and aggressive attitude. In other words, the slightly retro 2012 Dodge Charger has been refined just enough, to manage its anger quite well.