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A big family sedan in the classic Detroit mold, the 2012 Dodge Charger keeps getting better with each new model year. Revamped with a lot more flair and features last year, this year's Charger adds a new eight-speed automatic to boost gas mileage over the 30-mpg mark, while it also blows the doors off hot domestics and seeks out initials like M, AMG, and RS with the spectacular SRT8 package.
Neat and notable when it was reintroduced in 2005, the current Charger's gone overboard to play up its American bona fides. The body's now inspired by nothing less than a Coca-Cola bottle, with a classic crosshaired Dodge grille grafted on the front end and lots of LED bulbs glowing around its rear end. The Charger's flares and filligrees pop on camera and in person, striking a masculine nerve. It's a commanding shape that looks as ready to attack the road as any supersedan--especially when it's an SRT8, when the grille turns into a gaping maw, when the body add-ons drop as low to the ground as possible. Inside, the treatment's less flamboyant, with big dials hashed with red markings, and the former dash reshaped into a rounded, driver-oriented piece. The dash is covered with metallic-printed plastic with some wide, unused stretches, which gives it the look of a brisk remake, but the fit and finish are much improved.
Most Chargers are powered by Chrysler's new 3.6-liter V-6, with 292 horsepower, and base versions have a five-speed automatic. A respectable performer in that form, the Charger gets much better this year with a newly available eight-speed ZF automatic. Offered with paddle shift controls, the automatic clicks off clean gearchanges, maxes out the Pentastar engine's power better than other Chryslers with six-speed automatic do, and pushes the Charger's highway gas mileage ratings to 31 mpg. Entirely different priorities can be satisfied with the Charger R/T's 5.7-liter HEMI V-8. With 370 horsepower and a five-speed automatic--and an earthy, metallic exhaust note--it pushes 0-60 times below seven seconds and dramatically ups the Charger's engagement factor. The kingpin of the lineup is the 6.4-liter HEMI V-8, with 475 horsepower and a five-speed automatic, good for 0-60 mph times of under five seconds and with its own lascivious V-8 mating call.
Handling ranges from mildly entertaining in the base rear- and all-wheel-drive Charger to muscular in the R/T and SRT8 models. The Charger's steering is quick but in most versions, pretty light to the touch. The upgrades to shocks and bushings last year were tidy clean-ups to the Charger's classic big-car handling. Body roll nearly disappears as you move from base cars to the SRT8 and its new adaptive suspension, and ride quality on the lineup progresses from comfort-tuned to aggressively firm. Still, despite its size, the rear-driver Charger models feel more agile than a Taurus or Maxima, thanks to frisky way it responds to a nudge of the gas.
The emotional styling of the Charger doesn't compromise its utility very much. The roofline's tall, the front seats are wide and lightly bolstered (thick, firm sport seats are offered on HEMI cars), and the doors are cut widely to make the Charger as functional as possible. It meets police-duty standards for tucking in perps, at least, and that's something to remind tall rear-seat passengers of when they squawk about tight head room and the rumble of HEMI exhaust.
The Charger's been named an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and high-tech safety grafts like a rearview camera, active cruise control, and blind-spot monitors are available.
Standard features include air conditioning; cruise control; power windows, locks and mirrors; a power driver seat; pushbutton start; and an AM/FM/CD player with a 4.3-inch touchscreen control. Options like a sunroof, Bluetooth, and leather upholstery are joined by more exotic offerings like in-car wireless Internet, via a 3G data dongle; a navigation system and real-time traffic information; and voice control for audio and navigation. Appearance packages add splashes of classic musclecar color to the Charger, while a Road & Track package tightens the suspension and adds 20-inch wheels.