After being completely redesigned for 2011, only one thing kept the Dodge Charger from being a success. Now it's got it: For 2012 models, the Charger gets a new eight-speed transmission that gives the standard V-6 engine a boost in both performance and fuel economy.
The new transmission brings fresh features, like paddle shifters and a Sport mode for a livelier driving experience. There are also a few other changes for 2012 . I tested a Charger SXT with the SXT Plus option package, which included the new eight-speed automatic transmission standard; the previous five-speed is still the base transmission on SE models.
Choosing the base V-6 engine doesn't mean getting a stripped Charger; the V-6 can be loaded with as many gadgets as the V-8-powered Charger R/T, though experience suggests you might not want some of them.
The SRT8 is the top-dog, high-performance model, and it's reviewed separately. See all four trim levels compared here.
8 + 6 = 31
The new, optional eight-speed automatic transmission paired with the six-cylinder engine results in an impressive 31 mpg highway rating, up from 27 mpg with the five-speed automatic. Official EPA ratings are 19/31 mpg city/highway, 23 mpg combined, with rear-wheel drive. With all-wheel drive, which is a $2,350 option on the SXT, the rating is 18/27 mpg.
That 31 mpg rating was easy to reach on an 80-mile highway trip, according to the in-car mileage computer. A longer 200-mile drive on mostly highways resulted in 27 mpg according to the computer and 26.5 mpg according to my calculations -- still impressive, considering I didn't take a leisurely pace.
Base SE trim levels come with the five-speed automatic that was used exclusively in the 2011 model year; it's most easily identified by the traditional Park/Reverse/Neutral/Drive gear selector. The eight-speed automatic is a $1,000 option on SE trims and standard on the SXT. It uses a less-conventional shifter that's identified by the lack of a pull-down PRND gate. You pick gears by tapping the selector forward or back rather than by moving the whole stalk through a gate.
The unique shifter was awkward to use until I realized it takes a significant pull or push to get the car into Drive or Park. When I pulled lightly, I ended up in Neutral, stuck between Drive and Park. Other editors found the gear selector awkward, and one said he thought it felt cheap, like the pieces were going to break off.
Included in an optional Rallye package ($1,595) on the SXT Plus are paddle shifters and a Sport mode, along with other features like unique wheels, suspension and sport seats. Sport mode is purely a transmission function for faster shifts that also holds gears longer, for spirited driving. It works well in that regard, but the paddle shifters don't give much more control over the transmission when downshifting. I often wanted to downshift another gear but was locked out of doing so.
Dodge's eight-speed transmission is a must-have to wring the most from the standard 292-horsepower V-6. Compared with the old five-speed, it's a worthy upgrade not only for the improved gas mileage (1 mpg in the city and 4 mpg on the highway) but also for the enhanced driving experience. The engine's already-peaky power is more accessible with the new transmission, which reduces the time it takes for the car to get up and go, especially when downshifting to pass on the highway. The engine revs faster and hits its peak power sooner for improved acceleration. Upshifts are seamless and quiet, with nary a sign of the gear hunting so common among transmissions with six or more gears.
As noted by other editors, the 3.6-liter's accelerator pedal isn't very responsive to inputs in regular or Sport mode. There's a lag between hitting the pedal and seeing engine speed jump. I'm sure that's great for fuel economy, but not having much immediacy in the throttle doesn't give confidence for performance driving. In contrast, Ford's optional EcoBoost four-cylinder in the 2013 Taurus is a more responsive engine with a ton of guts that doesn't require winding out to redline, as does the Charger's V-6. The turbocharged Taurus engine is rated 22/32 mpg city/highway, 25 mpg combined, besting the Charger's 23 mpg combined rating. Note, however, that EcoBoost is a $995 option; the base Taurus is priced almost even with an eight-speed Charger SE.
For a full-size sedan, the Charger is outside the norm with its rear-wheel drive. The Chevrolet Impala, Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera are all front-wheel drive, while the Taurus is front-wheel drive with optional all-wheel drive. Those concerned about winter driving can opt for the all-wheel-drive upgrade on the SXT, but it's not available on the SE. Our Charger SXT's rear-wheel-drive configuration was most apparent in its sporty driving dynamics, assisted by the optional performance suspension and 20-inch wheels that are part of the $1,595 Rallye Appearance Group. The SXT's handling is sporty in everything from mild to moderately spirited driving, with good steering feedback and not much body roll. When pushing the car hard, though, the squealing tires make it apparent that the car is still far from the confidence-inspiring SRT8 and its adaptive suspension.
There's some road noise with the package's high-performance all-season tires, though ride quality is still very comfortable. Combined with the 31 mpg highway rating, that means the Charger is an excellent road-tripper.
Interior and features
When the Charger was redesigned for 2011, the biggest improvement over the old design was its interior, which had higher-quality materials, a more contemporary design and new features. For 2012, the interior remains unchanged and competitive. The Taurus' higher trim levels have an edge, however, with an interior that borders on luxury.
Unlike the Taurus, which is deceivingly massive on the outside but small on the inside, there's no shortage of space inside the Charger. It has generous legroom for front occupants and a comfy backseat for adults. I'm a slender 6 feet tall, and I fit in the rear with enough comfort for more than a stint around the block.
All my passengers' attention instantly went to the massive 8.4-inch display, and rightfully so. The optional 8.4 Uconnect is one of my favorite systems to combine stereo, climate, vehicle information and navigation functions. It's a large, easy-to-read and easy-to-use touch-screen that responds to inputs quickly with no lag.
What's not great is the Garmin-based navigation system. The glitches haven't been ironed out after two model years, and the system infuriated multiple staffers. Streets are scarcely labeled, the screen zooms out jerkily and leaves massive blank areas while it loads, and the display often glitches and gives up entirely. I eventually gave up and used my phone's navigation.
Our test car was an early-built model equipped with navigation but lacking a backup camera. An electronics supply shortage caused by the tsunami in Japan affected the equipping of the bigger screen, navigation and backup camera, so not all 2012s will have the same packaging. Some 2012 SXTs were built with the smaller 4.3-inch system instead of the standard 8.4 system; a discount will be applied to those models. The 8.4-inch screen is standard on SXTs, and the $995 navigation option includes a backup camera.
The bundling of features continues with the Charger's blind spot warning system that's part of the $900 Technology Group, as well as the adaptive cruise control that's available on SXT Plus models (not regular SXTs) along with a forward collision warning system in the $925 Adaptive Cruise Control Group.
Choosing the SXT Plus is a $2,000 upgrade over the regular SXT. It adds leather seating, LED interior lighting, heated and cooled cupholders, heated front and rear seats, 12-way adjustable seats with four-way lumbar, and a security alarm.
As crash-test ratings go, you won't get much more reassurance than the Dodge Charger boasts. It earns the highest overall scores from both of the major crash-test organizations: The Charger is a Top Safety Pick at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the Charger earned five-star overall ratings for both rear- and all-wheel-drive configurations.
Our test car also had a couple of active-safety options: the blind spot and forward collision warning systems. The features have their usefulness at times, but I found them to be excessively active with their beeps, lights and warning buzzers. It felt like an overly cautious mom was riding in the passenger seat yelling, "You're too close to the other cars!" when there was clearly enough room.
The assists can be turned off -- try that with your mom -- and you won't be completely wasting money by not using the features, as they come in two different option packages. Forward collision warning is part of the Adaptive Cruise Control Group that also includes a heated steering wheel, while the blind spot feature is part of the Driver Confidence Group ($1,495) that also includes HID headlamps, backup camera, heated power mirrors and rain-sensing wipers.
Dodge Charger in the market
With its rear-wheel-drive configuration, the Charger offers a unique combination of sporty driving characteristics (with the optional suspension) while delivering lots of room and 31 mpg when equipped with the V-6 and eight-speed transmission. Among all the boring point-A-to-point-B sedans on the market, the Charger will stand out.