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Dodge’s Hemi Charger

OK, I’m going to come right out and say it. Of all the patrol vehicles I’ve driven—and I’ve driven everything on the market these days—Dodge’s patrol car brawler, the Hemi Charger Pursuit is, hands down, the Billy Bad A** of the police vehicle world. 
 
Now, before you Ford and GM people throw down that Starbucks cup in disgust, understand two things. First, I own a Pontiac G8 GT, the inspiration for the Caprice, and it’s a great car. Second, I’ve owned more Ford Mustangs than I can remember, plus an F-150 or two, and the Blue Oval’s Interceptor and SUV are great vehicles. But when it comes to command presence, the Charger features its squared off, menacing snout, sheer size and prodigious power. 
 
How powerful, you ask? Recently, Chrysler dropped off a new Hemi Charger for a few weeks for me to evaluate here in Arizona. Dressed in all black with only a pushbar and clear lightbar, the car didn’t look much different than other black Chargers from a distance. Yet, despite having California plates, nobody passed me on the freeway, and everyone got real legal everywhere I went. I even had a friend comment: 
 
“They know this car has no markings, right?”
 
“Yep.”
 
“They know it has Calif. plates, and we’re in Arizona, right?” 
 
“Yep.” 
 
“So why is everyone going the speed limit and refusing to pass you?” 
 
Now that’s command presence, and what’s even more remarkable is that Dodge is able to pull it off despite having a car that’s by far the oldest design of all the patrol vehicles out there right now. 
 
Background
Introduced in 2005, the “new” Charger hit the road with a brawny, 5.7L V8 that led the patrol vehicle market in terms of straight-line performance and top speed. I had one of the first Chargers as a patrol vehicle, and it was a thrill to drive. Yes, the trunk space was limited, the rear doors and visibility weren’t the best, and there were some growing pains in the driveline and braking department, but overall, the car functioned extremely well and delivered driving dynamics that stood out. 
 
Updated & Capable
Fast forward to 2011. Chrysler listened to department gripes by fixing the brake issue and making some substantial body changes. The biggest change came in visibility: The windshield header was moved up three inches, larger side glass openings were added, quarter glass was added at the rear doors for better over-the-shoulder views, wider door-opening angles were added, and the front grille and fascia were redesigned, as were the rear decklid and fascia. I can tell you that the changes make the driving experience between the two vehicles like night and day: A lot has changed for the better. 
 
Drivetrain
When it comes to power, the Charger is available in two flavors. The first is a 3.6L Pentastar V6 that churns out a respectable 292 hp (at 6500 rpm), with 260 lb./ft. of torque (at 4800 rpm). It features a five-speed Autostick transmission that transfers power to the rear 200 mm axle through a standard 2.65" final drive with 3.07" optional. I’ve had several occasions to drive this powertrain choice, and it’s not a bad combination, especially if the bulk of patrol work is block-to-block (short-distance) driving.
 
There’s also the 5.7L Hemi option: a roaring, snorting beast of a power plant that rules the road with 370 hp (at 5250 rpm) and 395 lb./ft. of torque (at 4200 rpm) that’s delivered through a five-speed Autostick, 215 mm rear axle and 2.65" final drive (3.07" optional). 
 
Numbers wise, the Hemi reaches 60 mph at just over five seconds, and keeps on pulling from there. The V6 delivers more of a jab with a mid six-second time, which isn’t slow, but not amazing either. Both versions have a 19.1 gallon fuel tank, and fuel economy numbers are 18/27 for the V6 and 15/24 for the V8—not much of a difference actually, and consistent with what I’ve seen with both models in real-world driving. 
 
Transmission-wise, the five-speed Autostick on both models allows for “manual” control of the transmission via a rocker switch located on the column shifter. The transmission also features an electronically controlled torque converter. More on this later. 
 
Suspension
The Charger is a big car. Park it next to typical mid to full-size 4-door sedans, and its slab shape with high door skins and squared off corners dwarfs many of them. The EPA lists the Charger as a “Large” car, and they aren’t kidding. Add in a curb weight of between 4,000 and 4,275 lbs. and controlling it all requires competent suspension. Thankfully, Dodge has done an excellent job with this by equipping the Charger with independent suspension, high upper “A” arms, coil spring over gas-charged monotube shock absorbers and a hefty 28 mm stabilizer bar. Lateral and diagonal lower links with dual ball joint knuckles help control the suspension deflection issues. Bringing up the rear is a five-link independent rear suspension with coil springs, gas-charged load-leveling Nivomat rear shocks, a 20 mm stabilizer bar and isolated suspension cradle that’s charged with delivering suspension compliance while planting the rear wheels squarely to terra firma for the 395 lbs./ft. constantly coming their way. 
 
Because the Hemi provides a lot of “go,” the “whoa” is equally important. As mentioned, Dodge has addressed previous brake issues with updated and sizable 13.6" vented, dual-piston callipered front brakes and 13.8", single-
piston, vented rotors in back. As with all new vehicles, the Charger has ABS, stability control and traction control, plus two additional braking proactive technologies called Ready Alert Braking and Rain Brake Support. Because we don’t get much of the latter here in Arizona, I didn’t get a chance to play with it, but I assume it’s similar to other braking systems that “pre-charge” and modulate braking based on CAN bus inputs from other systems, such as stability control, throttle and steering wheel angle, speed of brake pedal application, etc. 
 
Rounding out the suspension is power-assisted, rack-and-pinion (my favorite) steering and 18×7.5" steel wheels wrapped with either Goodyear or Firestone Pursuit-rated tires. My demo had the Firestones. 
 
Interior
When I had my 2005 model, getting a taller or bigger subject into the backseat took some creative maneuvering at times. Once in, they fit fine, but larger doors were needed. Chrysler responded with the 2011 model revision by restyling the doors to square them off a bit more. This has helped. Another gripe was the rear window visibility. The revision has helped, and backing up the Charger is now much easier—cage and all. 
 
The Charger’s Achilles heel may be the trunk. Despite having large rear haunches, the trunk is relatively small, and the full-size spare doesn’t fit in the cutout at the bottom of the trunk. The spare has to be mounted underneath the metal electronics slide-out tray located under the rear deck area. The lack of a spare in the spare tire hole means you have a bit of chasm to deal with, and not much flat surface area. In other words, if you have items you carry in your car that you hardly use, the spare tire well is the perfect place for them. Perhaps, if Chrysler designed a flat tray that fit above the well and around the full-size spare, it could provide some flat storage. To be honest, it’s the only real weakness on an otherwise fine car and may or may not matter, depending on what you carry around. 
 
Thankfully, up front, things are much better. The front seats are shaped and cut to accommodate duty belts, and seating position is fairly high up in the car, making for good visibility out the squared-off windshield and side windows. Dash height is manageable, and the car feels airy inside despite a high door line. The center console in my car was a Havis/Dodge collaboration, and there was plenty of room between the seats for it. Ergonomically, the control switches are good quality and fall easily to hand, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel feels nice to the touch. As can be expected, many wiring configurations can be ordered, depending on your needs. 
 
Chrysler’s infotainment/HVAC command center is called U-Connect, and it’s available in some models. Mine had the standard HVAC and radio head unit, with steering wheel-mounted controls and a 12-Volt outlet, USB port and AUX-input cluster located in the center of the dash. Dual-zone climate control and a six-speaker audio system are standard. A dual-mode white/red dome light is standard, as are a 160 mph speedometer and power windows and mirrors. In the rear, a cloth seat is standard, with a fixed-plastic (yes, please) rear seat, which mine was equipped with. Floors are rubber all around, and Chrysler’s smart key technology means that a door handle-mounted button allows you to lock and unlock doors without having to fumble for keys. Nice. Overall, the interior is a comfortable place to be, with lots of space and easy-to-use features. 
 
Driving Impressions
To be honest, I didn’t expect to be as smitten with the Charger as I was. As an EVOC and high-performance driving instructor, I drive a lot of powerful cars, but a big engine doesn’t often make a great car. Driving dynamics are important, of course, but capturing the blend between comfort and handling can be a tall order. Further, as someone who’s spent a lot of non-exciting time in a patrol car, I know ergonomics and comfort are equally important. In other words, when I evaluate any new car, it comes down to whether I could see myself wanting to drive it every day. In this case, the answer is yes. 
My time with the Hemi Charger involved two weeks of daily driving on city streets, highways and back roads, and even seeing how easy it was to park at the gym. Along the way, the Charger impressed me. The 5.7L Hemi is powerful, but it’s the smoothness of its delivery that makes the difference. Power is everywhere in the rpm range, and the engine never seemed at all concerned with delivering what I asked of it. It’s also quiet despite its size, only snarling appropriately under full throttle. Another component to that experience is the five-speed transmission. One clear way to see if a drivetrain engineer is paying attention is the amount of drivetrain lash his design gives between shifts. A surge or rough shift isn’t only an unpleasant feeling, but it can also upset the dynamic balance of the car due to erratic weight shift. On the Charger, the electronically controlled torque convertor does its job, with barely perceptible upshifts even under full throttle shifts. Impressive. 
 
Dynamically speaking, the suspension and tires do the job well with minimal body roll or pitch under most conditions. The suspension settings are stiff, almost to the point of being a little overaggressive. Suspension compliance is limited because this is one stiffly sprung and shocked car. On billiard-smooth roads like here in Arizona, that can be advantageous, but add in some minor imperfections and you can feel where shock compression settings could stand to be a little softer. The car tends to want to dance around a bit as the suspension valiantly attempts to remain compliant with the road surface. It’s not anything major, and although I tend to prefer a stiffer suspension over a soft one, I can see where atrocious roads could make for a rough ride for officers. Braking is confident, with excellent feel and modulation. Overall, the rack-and-pinion steering is precise, the feel is good, and the car feels like a 4,000 lb. go-kart that goes where you want it to go without ever feeling really challenged. 
 
Interior wise, the seats are comfortable, visibility is good and all the switches make sense. If I have a gripe, it’s the switch on the column shifter that controls the transmission. Most “smart” transmissions have some sort of “sport” or manual mode these days. On the Charger, the toggle switch makes little sense for daily use, and I can’t see officers running around with their right hand on a toggle switch. Besides, the transmission has the traditional “low” gear option anyway. It doesn’t get in the way, but I would think it fine to get rid of it. I never touched it in two weeks and don’t think I would in the future. 
 
Stylistically speaking, the Charger looks like what a police car should look like, and the public apparently agrees. I had numerous people tell me what a “bad a**” car it was—not something I hear as often with any of my other patrol vehicles. 
 
Summary
There are a lot of great patrol cars out there, and the Charger is one of them. A patrol car has to be many things: powerful, safe, versatile, comfortable, efficient, flexible and enjoyable to drive. If I were to sum up the Charger, I would call it “solid” on all fronts despite the thorny trunk. It sits on the road with authority that few cars can match. 
Hopefully Chrysler will preserve the excellent chassis, Rottweiler attitude, roomy interior and command presence—and add in a decent trunk and some more goodies—with the all new 2014 Charger. I can’t wait to drive it!              

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