This weekend, my wife and I chose to rent a car on our trip from D.C. to Pittsburgh for a wedding reception (the couple were married in Greece). Although we have 3 cars of our own (2 of them new), we like to mix things up on long trips (and save the wear and tear on our own vehicles) by driving someone else’s vehicle. In the past, we’ve had a Buick LaCrosse, Dodge Magnum, Mazda3, and a huge Dodge Ram truck (we went to Kentucky with that one). We’ve been impressed with some, and disappointed with others.
This time, we rented a 2006 Dodge Charger SE, with no additional options. It was Silver Steel Metallic with Slate Gray cloth interior. When the rental agent asked if I wanted a Dodge Magnum or Charger, I was torn, but since we had the Magnum before, I chose the Charger. I’ll say up front that it definitely has a masculine stance (except for the Galant-like butt), and you recognize quickly how large of a car it really is when seeing it next to an Accord, Malibu, or even Impala.
The size of the Charger is really apparent when you get in and try to back out of a parking spot (or pull into one). The car is wide, long, and high. In addition, the styling cues that make the Charger such a looker also make it such a pain to back out. It’s only slightly better in rearward visibility than the Dodge Magnum (which is itself much like driving a hearse with semi-transparent curtains, not that I have driven one). I had to get used to the little side mirrors after driving only my Ridgeline (big, square mirrors are nice), but by the end of the trip I was almost passing with ease.
Speaking of passing, or just moving, the V6 engine had enough oomph, but it came too late after punching the pedal. There was a good 1.5 seconds (or felt like it) until the throttle really kicked in, whether it be in the city or on the highway. The power really came later in the rpm band, and I blame it almost entirely on the transmission. This 5-speed gearbox is just simply not up to par. In fact, through the whole trip, I complained to my wife about the “4-speed transmission”, and just now learned all Chargers come standard with a 5-speed. Fooled me! For anything other than downhill, the tranny kicks down (often with jolts) to move this near 2-ton beast, and it wasn’t like the V6 was pleasant to listen to either. There was a noticeable and constant whine in the engine, and a gasp when I let off the throttle. It definitely wasn’t a Hemi (although the R/T model is over 2 tons!) and the drive through the Allegheny mountains was more of a pain than a pleasure because of the constant gear changes. I’d expect this out of my Ridgeline because it’s geared to tow, but not out of a muscular Dodge Charger.
As far as the ride goes, the Charger absorbed most small bumps and road imperfections well, but there was little communication between the road and myself. There was a quite a bit of understeer, but not nearly as much as with my wife’s 2005 Malibu (stupid Electronic Assist). I got used to the firm, precise steering in my Ridgeline, and even in my Acura TL-S to some degree. Even our 1997 Pontiac Grand Am has better steering than this Charger. The suspension was definitely Buick-like (sorry GM, I know you’re getting better) as the car rolled too much in turns and bucked on potholes too often. I didn’t have tremendous confidence cruising at high speeds on the PA Turnpike because of the proximity of the median and the Charger’s habit of moving when it encountered a bump. I can only assume that the R/T’s suspension mods would take care of these problems.
Finally, let’s move to the interior. The trunk was enormous. Enough said. I didn’t sit in the back, but I didn’t get any complaints from the 2 adults sitting back there from the hotel to the Bradley House and back, except for the crazy amount of dog hair the previous renter had left for us (we were dressed in formal attire). The driver’s seat did nothing to keep me in place around turns. The bottom was too narrow and the top was too wide, and it didn’t cup nearly enough (or at all). I understand upgrading a model or two would solve this problem. The interior was well laid out, but some knobs and switches were a little flimsy. The faux chrome steering wheel insert shifted back and forth, the turn signal moved way too far to be convenient, the headlight knob clicked oddly when turned, and oh dear goodness, what is up with the cheesy, preschool toy-like visor mirrors. It looked like Dodge pulled some mirrors out of their kid’s toy box and glued them to both visors. They stuck out a quarter inch and really did not fit in with the otherwise sharp interior.
One point of usability to Dodge. Please, please, please, MOVE THE CRUISE CONTROL STICK AWAY FROM THE TURN SIGNAL AREA!!! I don’t know how many times my hand slid off the steering wheel to hit the turn signal and it brushed the cruise stick. I had to remind myself that this stick wasn’t the turn signal and I probably angered some kind Pennsylvanians (aka, retired people with slow reflexes). By the way, I’m a native Pennsylvanian, so I’m allowed to say that, I think.
One kind note to Dodge is a thanks for the feature that allows me to tap the turn signal stick (when I can find it), which flips the turn signal indicator on 3 times (follow me on this one). When you’re passing, you don’t want to have to remember to turn off your turn signal, so you just tap the stick and it blinks 3 times, which should be enough time for you to move over a lane.
Overall, for roughly $23,000, you can get a large, powerful, sleek, well-designed “muscle” car rather than a more expensive import (when comparing features), but I wouldn’t settle for the SE if I were you. Go for the Hemi, you’ll be glad you did. You’ll get better bucket seats, more power, and better suspension (and hopefully smoother throttle and gearing). Also, since it’s domestic, you can expect to knock off thousands and buy for invoice (or less) without much negotiating (I never pay more than invoice for any car, and neither should you!). Although the Charger has a bold design, it would suit quite well as a family car. Of course you can always wait for the Dodge Challenger to arrive in a few years to satisfy your 2-door Hemi lusts, but you’ll need to get in line for that one!