Performance package turns daily driver into supercar
by: Marty Bontempo A 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 on display at the 2011 Run to the Sun sponsored by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.

A funny thing has happened since Fiat helped bail Chrysler out of bankruptcy. A lot of automotive writers predicted the partnership would mean a number of smaller and more fuel efficient Chrysler products. That will undoubtedly happen in the foreseeable future. But for the 2012 model year, the results are across-the-board quality improvements in all of Chrysler's existing models - and big performance gains in its most outrageous products, the SRT8 versions of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger, Dodge Charger, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Street and Racing Technology is Chrysler's in-house high performance division, similar to Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT) and the AMG subsidiary of Mercedes. They pump up the power and improve the handling of existing cars with engine tweaks, suspension tunings and aerodynamic body kits. The improvements can be startling, as illustrated by the 2012 Charger SRT8.

Muscle car fans were initially disappointed when Dodge brought back the Charger in 2006. The original versions from 1966 to 1974 were large and sleek coupes that could be ordered with massive engines and stiffer suspension. Perhaps the most famous versions are the menacing black 1968 model that chased Steve McQueen's Mustang in 'Bullitt' and General Lee, the orange 1969 model featured in the 'Dukes of Hazzard' TV series. An over-the-top Charger Daytona was released in 1969 with a fiberglass nose extension and high trunk-mounted wing to qualify for NASCAR racing.

In contrast, the current generation of the Charger debuted as a squat four-door sedan. Its base engine was a V6, in contrast to the original models that only came with V8s. But the revived Charger could also be ordered with a number of Hemi V8s, including a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that cranked out 340 horsepower. The most powerful one was included in the SRT8 package, however. The 6.1-liter Hemi V8 produced a whopping 425 horsepower, as much as those from the muscle car era.

But the SRT8 package included more than just a big engine. It also added a stiffer suspension, big Brembo brakes and unique interior and exterior trim, including deeply contoured front bucket seats. The result was a Charger that not only went fast and handled well, but looked distinctly aggressive and pampered the driver.

Dodge discontinued the SRT8 package for the Charger in 2011, raising questions about whether the partnership with Fiat would spell the end of its performance days. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. The Charger SRT8 has returned in the 2012 model year, more powerful, better handling and nastier looking than ever before.

For starters, the larger 6.4-liter Hemi V8 now cranks out an astonishing 470 horsepower and 470 foot-pounds of torque, enough to blast the two-ton-plus from zero to OMG in record time for any Charger. And that's with the five-speed automatic transmission in normal driving mode. A Sport mode is also available that increases revs and speeds us shorts, and the transmission can also be shifted manually if you think you can go even faster. The effect in any of the modes is awe-inspiring. Given all the emphasis on pokey hybrid and electric cars these days, it's surprising anyone even makes an engine like this any more.

But the rest of our test car was equally impressive. For starters, it was rock solid. An earlier Charger we tested felt cheap in comparison. The quality of the 2012 is beyond reproach. There were no squeaks, groans or rattles. The only noise - aside from the stereo - was the rumble of the exhaust and drumming coming from the ultra-wide tires on the pavement.

Although still the same size and shape as the 2006-2010 version, the Charger was redesigned in 2011 to be sleeker and more sculpted. The SRT8 version features an aero package that includes a huge grill, a large and low air dam, side moldings and a trunk-mounted wing. They give the already muscular-looking car into a truly menacing image. Interior features include even better sport seats and a much more finished dash.

Downsides include restricted rear seat headroom because of the sloping roofline that helps the Charger look sportier than most sedans. On the other hand, the trunk is surprising large.

On the road, the 2012 Charger SRT8 is a genuine Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Driven gently, it a well-behaved family car, suitable for day-to-day commuting and weekend family trips. Step hard on the gas, however, and the brutal power makes itself instantly known, thrusting the car forward while the suspension firms up. The transformation is even more dramatic in the Sport mode, where the five-speed auto shifts quickly enough to make you forget it could use two or three more gears.

Make no mistake, the Charger is one of the bigger cars these days, and it feels like it. Steering is slow and heavy at low speeds, it's hard to see all the corners and the body rolls some in the corners. But all those liabilities disappear when the speed increases. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the Charger SRT8 handles far better than it has any right to - and worlds beyond the original models.

Special note must be taken of the computerized Perfomance Pages that are part of the SRT8 package. Accessed through the touchscreen display, they can be selected a wide range of data, including horsepower, torque, zero-to-60 time, 60-to-0 braking time, g-forces and one-eighth mile and quarter-mile times. They also include a complete gauge package, with digit dials providing oil, water, transmission fluid and air intake temperatures, along with charging figures. Amazing. It is also included on the Chrysler's two other SRT cars.

And what is the price of all this performance and wizardry you ask? The answer is, under $50,000 for a 2012 Charger with the SRT8 package, a bargain considering everything it does. Of course, the base Charger is much cheaper, beginning at under $26,000 with the new and improved 3.6-liter V6 that now produces a more than respectable 305 horsepower. It is also available with a new eight-speed automatic transmission for better fuel economy and all-wheel-drive for wet climates, like ours.

The rough-and-tumble appeal of the 2012 Charger are not for everyone, especially considering that most manufacturers now offer family sedans with decent performance. But if you like the image and ability to back it up, Dodge's big family sedan is a lot of car for the money.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 Charger SRT8.

• Manufacturer: Dodge.

• Class: Large car.

• Layout: Front engine, rear and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door sedan.

• Engines: 3.6-liter V6 (305 hp); 5.7-liter V8 (370 hp); 6.4-liter V8 (470 hp - as tested.)

• Transmission: Five-speed automatic with sport and manual shift modes - as tested.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 22/27; 14/23 (as tested).

• Prices: Starting around $26,000 ($49,310 as tested).

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