February 27, 2011

Test Drive: High-flyin' Charger redux can go in the snow

Bo and Luke Duke never had it this good.

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Dodge’s redesign of the Charger pays homage to the company’s iconic 1968-70 model with styling cues such as its “Coke-bottle” silhouette and the scalloped lines on its hood and flanks.

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The 1969 Charger was the real star of the “Dukes of Hazard” TV show.

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WHAT IS IT? 2011 Dodge Charger R/T Plus AWD, a full-size performance sedan that has it all.

WHAT’S IT COST? Charger starting prices range from $25,170 for an SE to $37,320 for a Charger R/T Max AWD.

WHAT I LIKED BEST: New look and enhanced comfort; great performance.

WHAT I LIKED LEAST: Daisy Duke was nowhere to be found. 

WHO’S IT FOR? Bo, Luke and anyone else who wants a large, comfortable, well-equipped and high-performance sedan.

IMPORTANT NUMBERS: 5.7-liter, Hemi V8 370 horsepower, 395 foot pounds of torque. Fibe-speed automatic. 120.2-inch wheelbase. 4,450-pound curb weight. 15 city/23 highway mpg (EPA). Zero to 60 in 5.75 seconds (stopwatch). 15.4 cubic foot trunk.

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.

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Inside, the 2011 Charger typifies the impressive interior upgrades found in all of the new and redesigned Chrysler Group models.

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The new Charger looks good from all angles – even from above.

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Even the details go back to the ’60s.

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