2012 Dodge Charger SXT: Driven

March 2, 2012
The 2012 Dodge Charger SXT would most definitely see more attention—and more respect—if it weren't for the bombastic greatness and over-the-top V-8 muscle of the models slotting just above it.

We've driven the Hemi models of the Charger—including the SRT8, with its adrenaline-surging, 470-horse, 6.4-liter Hemi, and the punchy 370-hp R/T. And with their throbbing, burbling V-8s and sheer tire-shredding ability, they're clearly the ones most lusted after. But as we recently found out when we revisited the Charger V-6, the Charger SXT has grown into quite the smart pick—as a well-rounded sport sedan with enough luxury to rival German sedans costing twenty grand more.

Considering the V-8 models' raucous, larger-than-life performance, the feel of previous V-6 models from the driver's seat was always a little disappointing. From the overwhelmed (and underwhelming) 2.7-liter that you might have driven if you've rented a Charger, to the merely adequate 3.5-liter that many others who loved the look but were limited by monthly payment, it simply didn't provide the kick that it visually teased, in seemingly every other way possible. And with interior appointments passable, but nothing special, prior to last year, there weren't many other solid selling points for the V-6 models—other than their rear-wheel-drive roadholding and poise has always been a step ahead of front-drive rivals.

But it all started changing last year, when the Charger got a revised exterior as well as, more importantly, a redone cabin, plus Chrysler's oh-so-smooth 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. This year the Charger takes the second step in its transformation: V-6 versions of the Charger get an all-new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, as well as availability of UConnect Touch (it was phased in last year). And altogether, these changes finally make the V-6 SXT, which gains UConnect Touch and other upgrades, one surprisingly desirable car.

As we've reported in nearly all of its other applications, the new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is one of the best V-6s in the business right now. It lacks the flat spots of some V-6s, has plenty of torque, and smoothly (not coarsely) hits its high-rev power peak.

Finally, a smooth, sensible yin to the V-8's yang

The new eight-speed ZF automatic provides a wide span of ratios, and a deep overdrive. In eighth gear at 70 mph, the engine lopes along at a slight tick under 1,500 rpm, according to the tach—free of vibrations of protestations. From there, you can ease very slightly onto the accelerator and ease up your speed; but prod harder with your right foot and the transmission simply picks out a lower gear, without hesitation. Slam your foot down from that eighth gear cruse, and it masterfully pulls off what feels like a slight intake followed by one awesome multi-gear downshift. Before you can exhale, you're pinned back in your seat—and no, that's no exaggeration; thanks to the engine's heavy breathing in the high revs, and the transmission always ready with the right ratio, the passing power is always right there.

At least on point-and-shoot Michigan roads, we found the fancy, die-cast paddle-shifters beside the steering wheel completely unnecessary; but the once we used them, we found the transmission's responses to be just as quick. And if there's not a throttle blip on downshifts, there's something very close to it.

Chrysler says that the eight-speed automatic brings a 10 percent improvement to acceleration and a 15 percent increase in fuel economy. With that, the rear-wheel-drive version we drove earns EPA ratings of 19 mpg city, 31 highway. And in around 140 miles of rather rapid driving around the Detroit area, in cold weather, we managed about 23 mpg.

The Charger has hydraulic power steering, with pressure maintained by an electrically operated pump; that combination saves energy, yet seems to be the same setup of other systems we like—such as those in Mazdas—as it brings a nicely weighted steering wheel that loads and unloads precisely, even if the Charger doesn't transmit much feel of the road. Two notes on ride and handling: We've noted over repeated drives that Chargers with all-wheel drive don't feel quite as responsive, and their steering isn't as well-weighted. Also, V-8 models (and any with some of the larger tire-and-wheel combinations, really) tend to feel a little jarring and jittery on rough surfaces, without any noticeable improvement in handling. Given the V-6 models' less-flustered ride and lower weight at the nose, we'd venture to say that they're probably the better-handling.

Beautifully simple interior

Inside, the Charger SXT has beautifully simple layout—like the simplified layout that the Journey got last year, and the instrument panel that's on the way in the 2013 Dart. It stands out and is nicely contoured (even with an outline to the control center that loosely mimics the rear lights), and yet it's very simple. We like how the climate interface is a set of traditional buttons and a round dial, flanked (and just above) traditional left (volume and power) and right (tuning and select) audio controls.

At the same time, the UConnect Touch system that now comes standard in all Charger models except the entry SE is a clean, relatively well-organized base station for media, information, navigation, and climate controls. It's not as all-encompassing and complex as MyFord Touch, but here, that's a good thing. And it's complemented by abbreviated displays in the middle of the instrument cluster, steering-wheel navigation buttons, and voice commands.

While at least one member of our editorial team has expressed frustration about the Garmin navigation system's interface, I still find it one of the most intuitive systems on the market—and appreciate how streamlined and simplified the screen display is during navigation mode, as it doesn't show more clutter and information than it needs to. Also, the Garmin system includes Sirius XM Traffic, for real-time traffic monitoring and re-routing, and we found destination entry to be more quick and intuitive than many other original-equipment car systems.

You do have to rely on the screen for some ancillary functions—like the heated seats and steering wheel—but I liked how the heated seat came on automatically when I turned on the rear defroster, and the heated steering wheel stayed in the on position even after returning from an errand and restarting the vehicle.

Yet all this said, there's still one thing we'd probably like to change about the Charger: From the outside, it tends to promise a little more back-seat space than it actually has. It's pretty tight back there, and adults will have to get used to ducking heads and leaning forward a bit.

The SXT starts at $28,495, although our test car had about six grand in options. But that included extras like upgraded leather sport seats, adaptive cruise control, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, heated-and-cooled cupholders, the nav system, the Sirius Travel Link interface, a rear backup camera, a great 525-watt sound system, and all sorts of other appearance and tech upgrades.

The sophistication of German sport sedans, but affordable

But think of it this way: To get many of those features, in a sophisticated rear-wheel-drive sedan, you'd be paying more than $50k for a BMW 5-Series, Jaguar XF, or Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Ironically, the Charger can trace its roots back to the W210-era (1996-2002) Mercedes E-Class. With these latest changes, we dare say that the 2012 Charger V-6 feels more refined and performs better than that luxury benchmark did.

And it makes us realize that if you can look beyond the testosterone overload of the V-8 models, the 2012 Charger V-6 models might at last be an American-sedan benchmark of their own.

For more details, pictures, specs, and pricing, be sure to click through the pages of our full review of the 2012 Dodge Charger lineup.

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