Screaming down a back road while looking for places to rev up the 2020 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack Widebody, I glanced at the SatNav and saw I'd made a wrong turn.
A quick, strong, and steady push of the pedal and the Black Brembo, fixed-caliper, four-piston brakes brought the 4,385-lb machine to a quick and controlled halt. A flip of the leather, flat-bottom steering wheel combined with a moderate application of throttle brought the expected response: a sexy sashay of the rear end until the control systems took over and got us headed straight in the right direction.
More throttle for the 485-hp, 392 HEMI V8. Bu-waaaah.
What a hoot.
Back in the day, I got my hands on many a muscle car Mustangs, Camaros, 'Cudas, Road Runners, Challengers, Chargers, even an AMX and can assure you that none of those could hold a candle to the power, control, and sophistication of the current generation from Dodge.
I'm not saying the contemporary Charger is the best American muscle car on the road today. A company called Shelby owns that crown, but those cars sell for two to three times more than a rip-snortin', tire-smokin', road-eating', HEMI-powered Dodge and are not appreciably faster.
I'm not even saying that a Charger would be my first choice for an affordable muscle car. I've been mighty impressed with the road manners and interior sophistication found in modern Mustangs and Camaros. It would be a tough decision.
And I am most certainly not saying the Charger is the best full-size sedan on the market. For less money than our $45,995 Charger tester, you could have a Toyota Avalon TRD that would run rings around the Charger on any reasonably challenging road course.
Hey, I heard those eyebrows raised from here. Yes, really.
Road races are indeed won on the straightaways, but straightaways are won by drivers who best execute late-apex turns so they can get into the throttle sooner. By the time horsepower becomes a factor, it's time to set up for the next turn. The Avalon's superior chassis design and TRD handling package would gain 20 yards every time.
Yes, I'm willing to put money on that.
On a drag strip, however, it would be a different story and that's the kind of driving most American muscle enthusiasts prefer.
From commuter to racer
Dodge sells the Charger in eight flavors, ranging from the V6 powered SXT for $31,335 to the $75,640, 707-hp SRT Hellcat Widebody that goes from 0-60 in 3.6 seconds, runs the quarter in 10.96 seconds and tops out at 196 mph.
All Chargers benefit from riding on a chassis developed by Mercedes, back when Chrysler was owned by Daimler-Benz. The company became FCA when bought out by Fiat in 2014. Now it has merged with Peugeot under the new corporate moniker Sellantis, which has something to do with the Latin root, "Stello" meaning stars.
The various brands will continue to be sold under their names, so Dodge, Jeep, and Chrysler live on.
The Mercedes chassis gives the Charger a smooth, well-controlled ride, but it is also a source of weakness. In the dozen years since it went into production, car chasses have become lighter, stronger and offer markedly better crash protection.
The Charger's test-crash scores are rated marginal by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IHHS also rates its headlights as poor, a finding with which we concur.
More problematic, however, is that HEMI-powered Chargers and Challengers have fatality rates that are two to three times the national average. We've scoured academic and industry databases and found very little research on this topic.
We did find a 1983 Cornell data regression study that looked at various factors, from drinking age to driver education, in injury accidents. It found that the single most powerful variable was vehicle speed. It also found that drivers in injury accidents tended to have substantially more traffic citations.
That tends to line up with what we found when we searched the popular press for fatalities involving Dodge Chargers. We found page after page of local reports of horrendous and grisly accidents. The common factor was excessive speed, usually well above 100 mph.
In several cases, reporters checked drivers' driving records and found multiple infractions involving speed and aggressive driving.
Here's our theory. We think the Charger's superior handling gear, plus digital control systems like traction control, stability control, and new this year adjustable electronic steering create sort of a drivers' Dunning-Krueger effect. That's a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability.
It is certainly possible that someone who has never been on a skidpad or had even an hour's high-speed driving instruction can take a Charger out, drive it at more than 100 mph, and have nothing bad happen. So they go faster.
The car will take care of them, until they wrap it around a tree, slam into a concrete abutment, drive it through a house or plow into a family driving down the interstate in an SUV.
All that said, this is probably not the best high school graduation present or the best thing to buy oneself after landing that first job after college.
Consumer Reports does not recommend this car, and neither do we, not because of the wrecks but because there are safer, more reliable, more fuel-efficient options.
We do like the base model. The 300-hp V6 SXT is a lovely sedan with nice handling characteristics, but most people want a HEMI, whether the 370-hp, 5.7L, or the boosted 6.2L versions. The problem with that purchase is that so many of the V8s are ridden hard and put up wet that they have a reputation for being unreliable once they get past 100,000 miles, so residual values are low.
Additionally, the 6.2L HEMI has some of the worst fuel consumption and pollution numbers in the class, so the car costs more to operate and has a lower trade-in value.
On the other hand, if it's power you seek, the Scat Pack offers the most one can get for less than $40,000. We think it's wise to spend $6,000 more, not only because of great looking body affects, but because the wider wheel wells allow for seriously wide tires.
On balance, the Charger is best suited for weekend cruising by Baby Boomers. We've already survived three wars and the sexual revolution. Still, we're too afraid to drive that fast.
Well, most of us.