Test Drive: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD car test drives reviews dodge
2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2011 Dodge Charger

Back in 2005, Chrysler made a bold move. Into a world of downsized, front-wheel drive sedans, it unleashed a trio of full-size, rear-wheel drive models that you could even get with a V8. The trio of Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Magnum – a model later swapped out for the Challenger – were big, beautiful, brash and brilliant, and they helped change the company’s fortunes.

Both the 300 and my tester, the Charger, are redesigned for 2011. Purists screamed at the idea of a four-door Charger when the model first came out – the original, introduced for 1966, had only two – but it went on to become a best-seller for Dodge. This newest one builds on that, but is better.

The two previous 2.7-litre and 3.5-litre V6 engines are swapped for the new 3.6 V6 Pentastar engine (named for the company’s historic five-pointed logo) with the least-expensive SE model starting at $29,995. My R/T contained the carried-over 5.7-litre V8 with all-wheel drive; its starting price of $39,995 is the top in the line-up. My tester was further loaded with $3,375 in options, including an upgraded stereo, rain-sensing wipers, back-up camera, heated steering wheel and navigation system.

Test Drive: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD car test drives reviews dodge
2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD. Click image to enlarge

The 5.7-litre Hemi – the name refers to the shape of its combustion chambers – remains a solid, bulletproof engine that’s a joy to drive. It makes 370 horsepower and 395 lb.-ft. of torque, and can shut half its cylinders off under light load for improved fuel economy. The transmission is still a five-speed automatic for 2011; the company skips straight ahead to eight cogs for 2012. The all-wheel drive system uses an active transfer case that can send up to 38 per cent of torque to the front wheels. In an industry exclusive, it can disconnect the front wheels when all-wheel isn’t required, such as on straight highway cruising, using sensors that electronically shut off part of the transfer case. The company claims up to a five per cent fuel increase when this happens. It reconnects immediately if it senses slippage, and also if the windshield wipers come on or the outside temperature is cold enough that the road could be icy. It’s impossible to feel the switchover, but you can dial it up to show on the driver information screen if you like. In a very nice touch, the engineers have dropped the ride height on the all-wheel version, so it no longer looks like it’s competing with sister brand Jeep for ground clearance. The AWD version is officially rated at 14.4 L/100 km (20 mpg) in the city and 8.5 (33) on the highway; in combined driving, I averaged 9.9 (29).

Test Drive: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD car test drives reviews dodge
2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

It’s fast, but it’s also refined. You can put your foot hard into it and be rewarded with the pushed-back feeling, the speedometer climbing rapidly into the lose-your-license category, and all of it accompanied by a luscious roar from the twin tailpipes. (Honking-on-it engine growl aside, this is a very quiet car.) Take it easier around town, though, and it’s silky-smooth without the twitchy throttle that some higher-performance cars can exhibit. The five-speed automatic may seem old-fashioned against its six-speed competitors, and I’m looking forward to trying out the company’s new eight-speed, but it still works fine hooked up to this engine. It includes manual shift mode that would be much better if there were steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters; instead, you have to knock the shift lever sideways to change the gears. No doubt due to the extra space required by the transfer case, it’s a tight fit on the floor between the throttle and the transmission hump, and those with large feet may find it uncomfortable.

The all-wheel model has gained 73 kilos over its 2010 predecessor, but thanks to a revamped front and rear suspension, it actually feels lighter and lithe when you’re tossing it around. It may sound strange to say you’re “tossing” something that weighs 2,018 kilograms, but that’s pretty much how it feels. You wouldn’t be embarrassed to take this out alongside many of the competitive sports sedans. The steering is smooth, it corners predictably, and there’s good, confident bite to the brake pedal. It’s also a big, comfortable highway cruiser in the tradition of American road-trip sedans.