The Dodge Charger is one of the best family sedans of 2012, merging style and function. And it makes the most commanding design statement of all mainstream cars. You know it instantly on the road by its don't-mess-with-me face, the sculpted sides and -- at night -- that circuit of racetrack LED taillights. And for 2012, Charger raises the status bar with an optional eight-speed automatic transmission on V-6 models.
The Charger is sold in four models, with power choices of a V-6 and two Hemi V-8s, rear- or all-wheel-drive and standard five-speed automatic. Pricing ranges from $26,420 to $48,220 for the mighty SRT8 with 470-hp, 6.4-liter V-8 (AWD adds $2,150).
The Charger SXT Plus test car is the midrange sweet spot with a starting price of $30,495, which includes the eight-speed, 292-hp Pentastar V-6 and such equipment as keyless lock/unlock and push-button starting, 12-way power front seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and six-speaker Alpine audio system with 276-watt eight-channel amplifier. The sticker with extras was $37,775, not including a $2,500 incentive that runs through June.
The four-way-black tester -- paint, roof, interior and all trim and wheels -- was a head-turner. Even the detailer at the carwash said, "This is a beautiful car," and those guys are unfazed by many attempts at customization they see. I nodded and said, "It's factory." And while it is all covered by the basic warranty, it looks totally custom. All I'd modify is lowering the ride height by 2 inches all around to close up the gap above the tires.
Black on black is trendy now, and the Pitch Black Paint plus Blacktop Package, $1,695, adds the gloss black wheels and 20-inch Firestone performance tires, black leather bucket seats, gloss black grille with black honeycomb, body-color rear spoiler, performance suspension, nine-speaker audio upgrade, Sport mode and more.
The Charger is roomy, well assembled and has a huge trunk and big back seat. With the new Pentastar V-6 and eight-speed automatic, you won't thump yourself on the forehead and say, "Man, I coulda had a Hemi."
The engine has as much pulling power as any self-respecting enthusiast will need -- and that's with a curb weight pushing two tons (3,996 pounds). It has as much launch force as the 5.7 Hemi but not its tire-smoking torque, which is still significant at 260 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm. There's nothing exotic about the engine -- no direct injection or auto start-stop, just the essentials of aluminum block and head, 24 valves and double overhead camshafts. The base Charger with this engine and five-speed automatic is rated 18/27 mpg city/highway. With the eight-speed, mpg jumps to 19/31 city/hwy - on 87 octane. (18/27 AWD). The hood is aluminum.
Brake engagement is smooth and forceful when needed with the upgrade in the SXT performance package. It adds 13.6-inch vented rotors front (up one inch) and a dual-piston caliper instead of a single. In back are 12.6-inch vented discs with single pistons.
This is a car for the big and tall, but it works for all sizes. Chrysler is the only Detroit Three maker who has been able to put the American family car values in a desirable, roomy and functional package. There are no ergonomic problems; all gauges and controls are accessible and logical.
Not everybody wants to stand out with the car they drive. For those who do, the Charger SXT Plus has the appearance of custom with the security of a factory warranty.
Specs Box: 2012 Dodge Charger SXT Plus
--Body style: large, 5-passenger, rear-wheel-drive sedan
--Engine: aluminum, DOHC 292-hp, Pentastar V-6; 260 foot-pounds torque at 4,800 rpm
--Transmission: 8-spd. automatic with paddle shifters and Sport mode
--Fuel economy: 19/31 mpg city/hwy.; 87octane
--Fuel tank: 19.1 gallons
--Tow capacity: 1,000 pounds
--Trunk space: 16.5 cubic feet
--Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.6/41.8/59.5 inches, 36.9 with sunroof
--Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 36.6/40.1/57.9 inches
--Length/wheelbase: 199.9/120.2 inches
--Curb weight: 3,996 pounds
--Turning circle: 37.7 feet
--Standard equipment includes: remote locking, 17-inch alloy wheels, dual exhaust, 60/40 folding rear seat, fog lights, tilt-telescopic steering column, Uconnect Voice Command with Bluetooth, automatic-dimming rearview mirror, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, leather-wrapped shift knob, acoustic laminated windshield and side-door glass, halogen headlights, automatic dual-zone climate control with individual driver/passenger settings, front overhead console with LED dome lamp, HomeLink garage/gate open, 6-speaker Alpine audio system with 276-watt eight-channel amplifier, 12-way power driver and front-passenger seats, including four-way power lumbar, heated front seats and heated power-adjustable mirrors, capless fuel filler, cargo net
--Safety features: 6 air bags, electronic stability and traction controls, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, rain-brake support, ready-alert braking, brake assist
--Base price: $30,495, including $925 freight charge; price as tested $37,775
--Options on test vehicle include: Blacktop Package, $1,695, includes gloss black wheels and Firestone performance tires, leather bucket seats, gloss black grille with black honeycomb, body-color rear spoiler, performance suspension, nine-speaker audio upgrade and Sport mode; adaptive cruise control, $925; power sunroof, $740
--Where assembled: Brampton, Ontario, Canada
--Warranty: 3-years/36,000-miles bumper to bumper with 24-hour towing; 5-years/100,000-miles powertrain