Dodge Charger finally highlights its impressive all-wheel drive
A couple of years ago, the two brands introduced all-wheel drive for their full-size sedans, the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. They are essentially similar automobiles with styling and other features to appeal to different audiences.
Although all-wheel drive models have been steadily gaining in popularity, a nagging notion persisted: sales actually could have been better if the cars' attributes had been properly impressed upon the motoring media. They had not, because the cars were introduced in California, in mostly sunny and nonslippery conditions.
They picked a cool -- and usually very cold --venue: the Keweenaw Research Center at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, at the top of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It is nearly as far north as you can get in the United States unless you want to go boating or swimming in Lake Superior.
Chrysler engineers use the research center year-round for tests of drive systems, and particularly all-wheel drive in the wintertime. Usually, there's plenty of snow -- enough to produce high drifts that provide padding for cars that slide off the tracks.
It was not so early in 2013. Fortunately, there was still enough snow and cold weather to satisfactorily demonstrate the all-wheel drive systems.
They are identical on the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Charger, both of which can be equipped with different engine and transmission combinations. For the sake of simplicity, the focus here is on the 2013 Dodge Charger SXT Plus with the all-wheel drive.
The test car was equipped with the company's PentaStar V6 engine, which makes 292 horsepower from 3.6 liters of displacement. It delivers the power through a state-of-the-art eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode.
This is a big car in every respect but one. Because of its sporty profile, the roof slopes downward at the back. It cuts rear-seat headroom to a minimum and forces passengers to duck sharply down to enter. If rear seat headroom is a priority, check out the more generous Chrysler 300.
Except for the back seat headroom, the Charger's outboard passengers have plenty of space. However, anybody relegated to the center position should prepare for punishment with no headroom and no place to plant the feet.
Both the Charger and 300 are rear-wheel drive cars, so the all-wheel drive system was based on that. It adds a differential and front axle to power the front wheels.
As with most cars today, the system relies on a variety of sensors and computer software. In ordinary driving, a clutch disconnects the front axle to enhance fuel economy, which results in a claimed improvement of 1.9 mpg.
The tested Charger AWD comes with an EPA city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of 18/27/21 mpg -- not a bad achievement for a big sedan that weighs north of 2 tons.
If the sensors detect any wheel slippage, or even if the temperature drops below 40 degrees, the all-wheel drive automatically kicks in. It can transfer up to 38 percent of the traction to the front wheels. The switch from rear drive to all-wheel drive, and back again, is seamless and undetectable by the driver.
The best part is it all works as advertised. Even novice drivers can maintain control on snow-covered or icy surfaces, even when only one wheel has traction. Skilled drivers on a test track can practically drive sideways -- a technique known as drifting. Of course, any all-wheel drive vehicle can be tossed off into guardrails with careless driving.
All-wheel drive is more popular in northern climates with nasty weather, but it can also provide comfort and a safety margin anywhere something like a sudden rainstorm makes road surfaces greasy.
With or without all-wheel drive, the Charger is a powerful highway cruiser that pays homage to an era when big rear-drive "Detroit iron" dominated America's roadways. It is quiet, cruises and handles competently, and comes with an array of modern features, including optional adaptive cruise control that maintains a distance from the car ahead.
The test Charger had a base price of $32,290 and, with options, a sticker price of $39,295.
Model: 2013 Dodge Charger SXT Plus AWD four-door sedan.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 292 horsepower.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
Overall length: 16 feet 8 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 105/17 cubic feet.
Weight: 4,151 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 18/27/21 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $32,290.
Price as tested: $39,295.