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Dodge reinvents new Charger as a hotrod family sedan

Dodge reinvents new Charger as a hotrod family sedan

I wonder what Rudyard Kipling would think about the new Charger muscle car that Dodge has resurrected. I've just driven the beast on twisty Appalachian backroads and at Virginia International Raceway near the Virginia-North Carolina border. In between giggles, that famous Kipling cadence echoes in my brainpan:

"If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too..."

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that "If," Kipling's immortal stiff-upper-lip manifesto for schoolboys, was hanging in every office that mattered at Dodge. One look at the 2006 Dodge Charger and you know that it took plenty of moxie to get this project past the powers that be. Something tells me that the phrase, "You're gonna have to trust me on this one," now chimes like a Dodge Charger theme song.

That's because the rebirth of the Charger after 26 years in the nether world is such a flagrant, decisive, irreverent yet fun-loving marketing move that only a supreme sense of collective self-confidence could have ever made it happen. The Charger was the epitome of 1960s muscle car righteousness; and today's Charger is the obvious heir to the lapsed entitlements of the Dukes of Hazard. Some folks will love the car for its performance, others for its value; but everyone will cheer Dodge for the sheer chutzpah of unleashing this kind of automotive image statement upon an unsuspecting world.

It's not as if Charger is without precedent, however. Last year, the Chrysler folks stunned a complacent auto market with the runaway success of its 300-series sedans. Driving straight out of old Dick Tracy and Batman cartoon strips, the Chrysler 300 and "Hemi"-powered 300C have drawn oohs and ahs and accolades for daring to upset the apple cart of sedate sedan styling. On the 300's heels, a sinister Dodge Magnum has transformed the humble station wagon into a hotrod sensation. Now, the 2006 Charger is attempting to charm family car shoppers—and to demoralize automaker rivals—yet a third time.

Here's a little test: close your eyes and imagine an affordable, full-size family sedan. What would it look like? Ford's brand-new 500, perhaps? Chevy's Impala? A Toyota Avalon?

Until today, you'd be right on all three counts. But now, there's Charger. Check out the predatory, aquiline beak, incorporating a brute crossbar grille. Note the long hood and sweeping roofline that kicks back onto a pert, upswept truck-lid. Consider how the bulging rear fenders resemble coiled legs of a sprinter crouching into starting blocks. And those wheels! Big 17- and 18-inch platters set deep into the bodywork, dominating the four corners. This is a family car with a built-in self-esteem upgrade.

It's also a family car that represents a full spectrum of pricing and rear-wheel-drive performance levels. For $22,995 (base price), the Charger SE offers a 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 and amenities ranging from five-speed automatic transmission with AutoShift, air-conditioning and CD audio to anti-lock braking, traction- and stability-control. The $25,995 Charger STX retains the V6 and 17-inch wheels but adds numerous comfort, conveniece and styling enhancements.

Dodge's iconic 5.7-liter "Hemi" V8 finds its way into the Charger R/T for $29,995. Leather upholstery and 18-inch wheels accompany 340 hp and 390 foot-pounds of spine-tingling torque. A performance package consisting of 10 extra hp, stiffer suspension tuning and beefier brakes brings the Charger R/T Performance up to $31,495. This segues naturally into the legendary Daytona R/T in hipster colors like "Go Mango," "Top Banana," SubLime" and "Plum Crazy"—plus black-out graphics, rear spoiler and rowdy exhaust note—for $32,495. Come midsummer, the Charger SRT8 will roll out on 20-inch wheels with a 425-hp, 6.1-liter "Hemi" V8 underhood at a price as-yet unannounced.

For daily commutes and highway cruising, the V6 Chargers are comfy, spacious and surprisingly fuel-stingy at 19 miles-per-gallon/city, 27 miles-per-gallon/highway. Suspensions on the SE and SXT models are biased towards pliant and plush. Power steering, meant to be effortless, is perhaps a bit too fast and over-assisted. Roominess is excellent. Four great-big adults will find little to complain about over long hauls, and even a fifth can tolerate the rear-center seat for moderate distances. The trunk is big and boxy and consumes 16.2 cubic feet.

In addition to the 90-100 extra horses and 140 extra foot-pounds, the V8 "Hemi" Chargers all feature fuel-saving MDS (multi-displacement system) technology. During low-load (e.g., highway cruising) conditions, MDS imperceptibly disables four of eight cylinders, resulting in more economical V4 power. When you mash the accelerator, glorious V8 performance is restored in milliseconds. But the real point is mileage ratings of 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway, which are pretty enlightened for a hotrod. On a racetrack and lonely backroads, the Chargers R/T and Daytona offer much sportier handling and steering feel. The Performance Group option provides the stiffest, flattest cornering yet. What's particularly fun about this 2-ton V8 sedan is the integration of handling, horsepower and rear-wheel-drive. When stability control is cut back to "partial mode" and gears are selected manually via clutchless AutoShift, a Charger R/T Performance or Daytona can scorch a whole bunch of miles with tail-happy power slides.

The brakes, of course, have their work cut out for them; but the entire package feels inordinately fun and unquestionably safe all at once. The kids may sway like reeds in a breeze on that broad rear bench seat, but they'll be laughing too hard to notice. They ain't skeered; they're having the times of their lives in a "Go Mango" Daytona with Dad or Mom at the wheel. But for manufacturers peddling rival family sedans, it's another matter altogether: They skeered; really skeered.

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