If you’re the type of driver that inclined toward cars like the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro or Dodge Challenger but regularly need to bring along more than one adult friend or strap kids into car seats, Dodge has an alternative for you. In many respects, the Dodge Charger is the family pony car. After spending a week with a 2016 Charger SXT Black Top Edition, I can attest that it has the feel these drivers would be looking for.
2016 actually marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Charger nameplate, but unlike the Mustang’s 50th a couple of years back, Dodge doesn’t seem to be celebrating. Perhaps that’s because this lineage has been far more inconsistent and interrupted. The Charger was never really a direct competitor to the Mustang, being a considerably larger midsize coupe rather than a compact like the Ford. In the 1970s it evolved into a personal luxury car to compete against the Chevy Monte Carlo and its ilk. After going away for a few years, the name came back in the 1980s as a higher performance variant of the compact Omni 024 hatchback.
Once that rebadged economy car went away in 1987, it would be nearly two decades before the Charger was revived again. This time, Chrysler applied the badge to a big rear-wheel-drive sedan based on its then relatively new LX platform along with the Chrysler 300 sedan and the Dodge Magnum wagon. The LX architecture that continues to underpin the 300 and Charger today was developed from a Mercedes-Benz architecture that debuted in the mid-1990s.
It’s not a bad platform by any means with fully independent suspension and options for either rear or all-wheel-drive. Perhaps the biggest downside is that it’s not as svelte as some more contemporary designs with curb weight of around 4,000-pounds for rear-drive V6 variants and running up to nearly 4,600 for the supercharged V8 Hellcat. The plus side is that the LX cars have a very solid feel and the independent suspension helps them handle better than their mass would suggest.
The Charger got a redesign in 2011 with an all-new interior that featured improved ergonomics and far better materials and build quality. The rework adopted many elements of the 1999 Charger R/T concept including the coupe-like greenhouse and scalloped doors reminiscent of late-1960s models. A 2014 refresh gave the Charger a more modern face and tail lights that incorporate LED accent lighting. The mix of these elements works well together and gives the Charger a racier attitude than the 300 or frankly even the two-door Challenger that also shares this platform.
My tester was an SXT, the second of four main trim levels available on Charger, just above the base SE. Powered by Fiat Chrysler’s excellent 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and eight-speed automatic transmission, this one certainly doesn’t qualify as a muscle car, but neither is it a slug. With the standard 292-horsepower and and 260 lb.-ft. of torque or 300-hp/264 lb.-ft. from the Rallye package, it will sprint up to 60 mph from a standstill in the mid-six second range, easily out-hustling the big V8-powered models of the 1960s. If you need extra muscle, you can always step up the model range to one of several Hemi V8 options ranging from the 370-hp 5.7-liter to the supercharged, 707-hp 6.2-liter Hellcat.
The V6 provides more than enough grunt to squirt through gaps in traffic for passing maneuvers and have a generally enjoyable time in everyday driving. It’s not as quick as a smaller, lighter V6 Mustang or Camaro but neither of those cars can comfortably take your spouse and another couple out to dinner or your work friends out to lunch. The long 120.2-inch wheelbase means plenty of leg-room for three adult in the back seat although those over about six-foot-two might find head room a bit tight with the sloping roofline of the Charger.
The example I drove was finished in TorRed paint and the optional Blacktop package that swaps out the standard 18-inch alloys for black 20-inch wheels and gloss black accents on the front, rear, mirror caps and interior. The combination of that red and the black wheels is anything but subtle, but it definitely amps up the sporting character of the car. The Blacktop group also tightens up the suspension a bit but not to a degree that most drivers are likely to find uncomfortable.
The leather covered seats and steering wheel are comfortable and supportive even for longer drives. You can’t get a manual gearbox in modern Chargers, but the steering wheel paddles will trigger quick gear changes when turning into a tight curve or making a rapid pass. The controls are well laid out and there are two memory positions for the driver’s seat and mirrors.
As someone that has driven Mustangs for much of my adult life, the Charger absolutely feels larger than the Ford and yet it still exhibits the sort of character you might expect of a sport coupe. It’s not the svelte nimble feel of a Miata or Scion FR-S but neither is it the lumbering, floating aircraft carrier of big American sedans of yore. The EPA rates the V6 Charger at 19 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and 23 mpg city and I averaged 24 mpg over a week of driving.
The Charger SE starts at $28,000 and the SXT adds $2,000 to that sticker. All-in my tester came to $36,765 with delivery charges. The closest direct competitor to the Charger is the Chevrolet SS, which starts at $46,000 and unlike the defunct Pontiac V6 from which it was developed, it’s not offered to Americans with a V6. If you don’t need the muscle of a V8 but want the style and feel of a rear-drive American coupe with more room, the Charger is a great option to consider.