Bo and Luke Duke never had it this good.
For seven television seasons, the Duke cousins were seen weekly tearing up the back roads of fictional Hazzard County, Ga. The show had several other memorable characters, including shapely actress Catherine Bach, who was generally seen wearing impossibly tiny shorts that spawned the fashion statement named for her character: “Daisy Dukes.”
But the show’s real star was “General Lee,” an orange, 1969 Dodge Charger. While running moonshine and outrunning Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, the Duke boys beat the snot out of General Lee. It spent more time airborne than Michael Jordan and kicked up more dirt than a rodeo bull.
Bo and Luke would have fallen in love with the 2011 Dodge Charger R/T that I recently tested. I’m not sure how well the current model can fly, but I’m convinced it would have run away from General Lee on the dirt roads the Dukes tore up weekly.
That’s because the Charger I tested was equipped with all-wheel drive. As luck (in this case, bad luck) would have it, the week I tested the Charger seemed like the only week this winter when it didn’t snow.
Nevertheless, there were enough sloppy roads and parking lots to convince me that AWD is a real asset on the Charger. It isn’t available on the three SE models and adds around 200 pounds and $2,150 to the cost of the four R/T versions.
I’d say the feature is worth it, whether you drive in the snow belt or — like Bo and Luke — on the dirt roads of the sunny south. My colleagues in the New England Motor Press Association seem to agree. They recently gave the Charger R/T AWD their “2011 Winter Vehicle Award.”
The Charger’s AWD system is technologically impressive. It features a transfer case that automatically transitions between rear- and all-wheel drive as driving conditions dictate. And when the Charger is operating in RWD mode, its front axles can free-wheel to improve fuel economy.
In practice, the Charger’s system delivered terrific traction, but not as seamlessly as the best AWD systems I’ve tested. Drivetrain drag was occasionally evident during slow-speed maneuvering on dry pavement (while parking, for example). And I sometimes heard or felt the front axles engaging and disengaging.
The AWD system also takes a slight toll on fuel economy. The EPA says the rear-wheel drive Charger model can travel one city and two highway miles farther on a gallon of gas.
But that’s not an unreasonable tradeoff for the extra go-anywhere grip provided by AWD. The system’s initial cost and extra weight also seem reasonable.
That’s mainly because all R/T models come with Chrysler’s vaunted Hemi V8 engine. In this case, it is a 5.7-liter version that delivers up to 370 horsepower and 395 pounds-feet of torque while burning regular-grade fuel. The engine can deactivate half of its cylinders in cruising situations, helping it earn a decent EPA highway rating of 23 miles per gallon.
The potent engine and extra grip help the AWD R/T overcome its additional weight. I didn’t have a rear-wheel drive R/T with which to compare it, but published reviews of that model suggest that it has around the same 5.7-second zero-to-60 mph time I clocked with the R/T AWD.
Bo and Luke certainly could use that kind of “giddyup” to evade the sheriff, but even law-abiding citizens should be tickled by the R/T’s thrust. In these days of high-mileage, eco-friendly fuel misers, it’s hard to imagine anyone who gives a hoot about driving not appreciating the visceral thrill of having so much power underfoot.
Unlike some of its muscle car namesakes, the current Charger isn’t a handful when it strays from the straightaway. Great steering feel and response, quick turn-in and tenacious cornering make the Charger R/T a blast to drive fast on twisting back roads.
Yet its suspension is compliant enough to deliver a comfortable ride on roads pocked by potholes and frost heave-generated washboards. In fact, the Charger’s ride comfort may have impressed me more than its acceleration and handling. I expected the big sedan to be quick and cling to corners, but didn’t think it would also ride as comfortably and quietly as a midsize luxury sedan.
The crowning touch to the Charger’s appeal is a completely revised interior that is as elegant and accommodating as anything in its class. We’re talking light years ahead of Chrysler’s recent offerings in terms of ergonomic design and aesthetic appeal.
Where else can you find genuine brushed aluminum trim and heated/cooled cupholders in a full-size performance sedan for less than $30,000?
The R/T Plus AWD test car costs more, but its starting price of $32,320 seems like a steal. Even with an extra $5,000 in options, it still seemed like a great value because at that price the fantastic 2011 Charger R/T Plus AWD seemed to come with everything except Daisy May Duke in the passenger seat.
LOCAL CHARGER COLLECTORS
If you’re interested in getting an up-close and personal look at a 1968-70 era Dodge Charger like the famous General Lee, get in touch with the Portland Motor Club at 775-1770 or portlandmotorclub.com.
The facility features a collection of Chrysler muscle cars including a 1968 Charger R/T and a 1970 Charger R/T SE with 440 Six-pack engine. Among the other Chargers there are 1967, 1971, 2007 and 2008 models.
Membership Director Kal Rogers says car enthusiasts should contact the club to make an appointment for a tour. Tours are regularly given to customers using the detailing services also housed on the premises (portlanddetailing.com). A video tour depicting the Chargers and more is available on the club’s website.
Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at