First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Dodge Charger lineup

There's a lot more to the new Charger lineup than just the headline-hogging Hellcat

2015 Dodge Charger

Less than a kilometre into my first drive of the world’s fastest sedan, I’m stuck behind a dawdling Prius. As I wait for a chance to pass, I notice the alphabetic part of the Toyota’s plate. “HLL,” it says.  My thoughts exactly, as I fume along in the wake of the Prius’s pristine tailpipe, 707 horsepower under my right foot and nowhere to use it.

Ironically, for my own daily driving needs I’d rather be the eco-nerd eking out maximum fuel economy in a green car. But like the vegetarian I once knew who would occasionally eat roast beef as long as it was really bloody, I’m pumped to be driving Dodge’s new Charger SRT Hellcat.

After all, it’s not as if I’d have to drive it every day. Seven-hundred-plus horsepower is about 300 more than any front-engine rear-wheel drive car can fully deploy on public pavement, at least within the envelope of Canadian speed limits. What would be the point?

However for an 80-km drive to a race track in someone else’s Hellcat, I’m on it!

But let’s back up a bit. After all, the headline-hogging Hellcat is only the icing on the multi-layered cake that is the thoroughly revised 2015 Charger lineup. What has Dodge been doing to the rest of the range?

It’s a full-size four-door muscle car

One thing that hasn’t changed is the underlying rear-wheel-drive architecture that Chrysler acquired during its ill-starred hook-up with Mercedes-Benz. Although all-wheel-drive is available, the fact that the primary drive goes to the rear is one reason – along with three V-8 engine options – Dodge can get away with calling this full-size sedan a muscle car.

Dodge also calls the Charger a four-door fastback coupe, a claim made more credible by the new look for 2015. Only the roof and rear doors are carryover. The leading edge of the hood is lower and more forward-leaning, the rear pillars have more rake, and the body corners have been chamfered for a less blocky appearance.

New detailing includes lots of LED lighting, and a more-black less-chrome approach to exterior trim. A high degree of individualization is enabled by 10 available wheel designs, six of them 20-inchers. Interior options include 18 different interior colour/trim combinations across the range.

The cabin also gets more premium soft-touch materials, customizable 7-inch colour display in the gauge cluster, and the latest UConnect with 8.4-inch touchscreen, incorporating a Wi-Fi hot-spot and HD audio.

Just as well the 2015 also adds newly available safety technologies such as Lane Keep Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control and Forward Collision Warning with Active Brake.

More gears, electric steers

Before we get to engines – it’s complicated – let’s list the two other major mechanical revisions: all models except the Hellcat switch to fuel-saving electric power steering; and an eight-speed automatic transmission, previously exclusive to the SXT V-6 engined models, replaces the former five-speed on all V-8-powered Chargers.

The engine story starts with the excellent 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 which powers the SE and SXT models, still producing 292 hp, or 300 if you order the Rallye appearance package. The 5.7-litre Hemi V-8 still makes 370 hp in the R/T and R/T Road & Track models, the latter getting its sportier edge from a deeper axle ratio, high-speed engine controller  and a Sport Mode II setting.

The previous SRT8 model goes away, but its 6.4-litre SRT-tuned V-8 continues with a 15-hp power bump (now 485) in the R/T Scat Pack, along with Bilstein sport-tuned suspension, 4-piston Brembo brakes, and Dodge Performance Pages with configurable drive modes.

Then we have the two SRT models. The 392 shares its 6.4-litre powertrain with the R/T Scat Pack but shares an even more hard-core chassis set-up – including 275/40ZR20 Pirelli Zero Nero rubber, huge six-piston Brembo front brakes, and SRT-tuned suspension with adaptive damping – with the all-hell-let-loose Hellcat.

Let loose in the Hellcat

Even after we finally put the Prius behind us, the drive route is no showcase for the Hellcat’s extreme talents. But no matter.  We can let it all hang out when we get to the track.

For now, we’re awe-struck by the Hellcat’s sheer docility. Sure, the ride is stiff even in the suspension’s cushiest setting. But it’s not harsh. The steering is accurate and effort is moderate.

And the engine is utterly docile when you need it to be, burbling smoothly along in go-with-the-flow suburban traffic, fuel consumption averaging 12-13 L/100 km. At 100 km/h, the engine is loafing at 1,300 rpm.

Hellcat chief engineer Darryl Smith told us there was a conscious effort to make the Charger Hellcat more refined than its Challenger counterpart.

Occasionally, we do get a chance to floor it off the line. The shocker is not just the sheer ferocity of the engine, but how much of it gets efficiently converted into forward motion without “arrest me!” tire shriek (none is heard, at least over the Hallelujah Chorus of the engine itself) or the weaving black-line evidence of hooliganism.

You know the traction-control system has to be activated, but unless you’re really provocative with your right foot, its interventions are seamless.

And oh, the music. The sound-track progresses from a deep low-speed rumble through a just slightly intrusive boom between 1,500 and 2,000 rpm, to a glorious two-part harmony of V-8 exhaust blat and supercharger whine. The red line is at 6,000 rpm and the engine feels smooth all the way there.

Summit Point Motorsport Park

The track has a long straightaway where the Hellcat brushes 220 km/h... followed by a second-gear hairpin. I expected Dodge to have placed artificial chicanes everywhere to keep speeds down, but no.

That says more about SRT’s faith in the Hellcat’s handling and its stability-control system (even in Track mode) than about our driving talents.

Although the steering is a little too light, it feels more natural than the EPS on a 392 I also track-tested. The Hellcat’s basic attitude is mild stabilizing understeer.

Of course, sudden great gobs of throttle would break the rear end away at will, but the smooth throttle tip-in makes it a breeze to meter the power just-so. If ever the stability control did intervene, I never felt it.

Enough of the red-mist action. Time to get real and hit the road loop in an SXT RWD. As in all the Chargers it’s easy for me to find a comfortable posture at the wheel (though my 5-ft-11 co-driver in the Hellcat complained of being too high). Visibility is so-so.

The V-6 is all about balance

In its own way the base V-6 is also a sonorous engine, sounding more like a pedigreed in-line six (a good thing) . Despite the eight-speed’s quick first gear it doesn’t lunge off the line, but there’s ample poke once the engine climbs into its power band. Ease off and the car settles into a serene cruise.

The steering is crisp and responsive (maybe too sensitive for dis-engaged drivers?)  and the handling is pleasingly neutral. I even detected a hint of not-quite-oversteer, exiting some quick kinks.

Ride quality? A mixed bag -- very little sharp-impact harshness, but rather a lot of whole-body movement and lateral head-toss motions over undulations.

The day ends with an 80-kilometre highway drive to the airport in an R/T.  I indulge in the Hemi’s refined thrust a few times (expect 0-100 km/h in under 6 seconds) but mostly It’s a relaxed cruise on slowish roads that allow the MDS to engage fuel-saving four-cylinder mode for long stretches.  As I pull up at Departures, the computer is showing 9.2 L/100 km.

Not bad, for a full-size sedan motivated by a brawny V-8. My automotive tastes lean more towards, agile, fuel-frugal small cars, but I’m so glad Dodge still makes cars like this.

2015 Dodge Charger

Price:  $32,495 (SE RWD) - $64,495 (SRT Hellcat)

Type of vehicle: Large RWD or AWD sedan

Engines:      

3.6-litre DOHC V-6; 292 hp/260 lb-ft

5.7-litre OHV V-8; 370 hp/395 lb-ft

6.4-litre OHV V-8; 485 hp/475 lb-ft

6.2-litre OHV Supercharged V-8; 707 hp/650 lb-ft

Transmission:  8-speed automatic

Fuel consumption (cty/hwy):

V-6 RWD: 12.4/7.7 L/100 km

V-6 AWD 12.8/8.6 L/100 km

5.7 V-8: 14.8/9.3 L/100 km

6.4 V-8: 15.7/9.5 L/100 km

6.2 SC V-8: TBA

Competitors:  Buick Lacrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon

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