Free from the shackles of Daimler-Benz, the new Dodge Charger harks back to its Americana roots, Richard Whitehead finds
Road Test: Dodge Charger restores its national pride
As the USS Ronald Reagan powers its way out of San Diego harbour on its way to the Mediterranean, another symbol of American power is also on show on the quayside of this Californian naval city.
Just a stone's throw on the starboard side of the USS Midway, now a floating museum, a squadron of Dodge Chargers is assembled in formation on a pontoon. Although dwarfed in scale by the superstructures of these aircraft carriers, the cars still appear substantial in size and attitude, the way they have always meant to be.
This feels like a new era for Dodge, and the yards of the US Pacific Fleet are a fitting place for the rebirth to begin - American again, and full of pride to fly the flag of Americana.
For more than a decade, Dodge had been stymied by the confines of an uneasy allegiance between Chrysler, its owner, and Daimler-Benz. The American eagle's wings were clipped by Germany's drive for order and corporate processes that couldn't comprehend the ethos of the muscle car - a concept unheard of in prim and self-effacing Europe.
And now, albeit still with a significant European holding, this time in the shape of Fiat's 25 per cent stake in the car maker from Auburn Hills, Michigan, things seem back on track. Chrysler executives are openly more confident about this US-Italian tie-up, for it is based on distribution rather than the sharing of parts and brand strategies. Fiat wants a way to sell its small cars in America and seems happy to let the United States brands cut free and do what they do best in the market they know best.
As a result, the new Charger is closer to the template of its Sixties and Seventies heyday than it is to its predecessor. Gone are the concepts of design-by-committee and Americana-for-the-world. In their place is a vehicle its countrymen will be proud of, that feels good, looks fantastic and drives how a muscle car should.
The new Charger makes a myth of the idea that the previous edition was one of the angriest cars on the road; the design changes relegate its predecessor to angsty at most because the 2011 edition is filled with rage.
Dodge's designers looked at the second-edition Charger, which ran from 1968 to 1970, for their inspiration, and emerged with the scooped-out bonnet and doors that characterised that generation. Also, the top of the punched-in crease that becomes the shoulderline of today's edition evokes the Coke-bottle shape of the early incarnation.
A sea of 162 LEDs bring anger to the tail lights, probably the tamest point of the previous model, and really hark back to the long, lateral sweep of historic Chargers.
Since 2006, the interior has provided a real cause for criticism. Designed and fitted with as much style and charm as a rec room aboard the Nimitz, it undid all the good work of the body style. Every type of shiny plastic known to man was incorporated into the cabin, with hard, cold surfaces, nasty joints, tasteless contours and cut-price fabrics. Thankfully, this is not the case today, with a completely new look bringing the Charger into a modern world that demands style, finesse and quality.
A muscular sweep of the fascia is the centrepoint of a cabin that features a completely new dash, gauges, wheel and switches. A 11cm touchscreen comes standard and can be upgraded to 22cm of navigation system that works beautifully. Real aluminium is used to bracket the dash while soft padding is prevalent - vital touches that were missed altogether on the previous model.
Although there is an abundance of space and height for all drivers and passengers, it is clear from the seating that this piece of Americana is designed for the home market. The chairs are soft and built for the average American back, which tends to be much wider than its international counterpart. Hence, there is very little lateral support to be had as it might pinch the fuller figure.
There is a school of thought among US car designers that their products should be built for the long, wide roads of the hinterland, so such support is generally unnecessary. This is also characterised by the Charger's suspension, which is great for the straight, but can feel like it's wafting through bends. This is a heavy car - significantly heavier than the last generation as a result of compliance to stricter crash regulations - and has never had a reputation for pinpoint cornering, but tighter, quicker steering makes it feel more manageable.
The age-old 5.7L V8 Hemi sounds like it has for generations and works much the same way. With 370hp and 535Nm of torque, it holds no surprises, although new sound damping and materials stop the signature duk-duk-duk sound of the muscle car engine from pounding the cabin, as was previously the case. It also cruises with less effort, given a number of aerodynamic tweaks.
But in spite of the open-road nature of this big, heavy muscle car, it is surprisingly adept in the city. Taking in a lap along Nimitz Boulevard and North Harbor Drive, through downtown San Diego and along the spit of land that forms the city's bay to the picturesque naval town of Coronado, it deals well with stop-start traffic and its new form raises more than a few glances.
In the city where Tom Cruise shot to fame in Top Gun, where there is a Harley-Davidson on every street corner, and where the pride of the Pacific Fleet is moored, ready for action, the new Charger feels at home. No longer is it a Wolfgang in sheep's clothing, as it was during Dodge's German era; today, it is as American as hot apple pie.
The Dodge Charger and Durango will be available in the UAE in April.