Among the retro muscle cars, the 2011 Dodge Charger is an odd duck. It takes its inspiration not from the 1979 "Dukes of Hazzard"-era car, but from the less aggressive-looking 1966 model. Fortunately, it draws much less on that earlier design than, say, the new Chevy Camaro does on its progenitor, or Dodge's own Challenger does on its first generation.
Properly appreciating the Charger does not require a knowledge of the model's past. It stands on its own as a full-size sedan with a macho style. Its rear-wheel-drive configuration sets it apart from other nonpremium sedan competitors, which have all gone to front-wheel drive.
That configuration may give it some muscle car credibility, but its 3.6-liter V-6 assuredly won't. Firing up this variable valve-timed engine makes hardly a noise. Buyers craving a rumbling V-8 will need to move up to the Charger SRT, its 5.7-liter Hemi making it the real successor to the muscle cars of yore.
Getting into the 2011 Charger for the first time, this one in Rallye Plus trim, I was immediately struck by the luxury feel of the cabin. The seats in particular, covered with thick leather and power-adjustable, were quite comfortable. A smart key allowed for a push-button ignition. The dashboard design was simple and unmarred by legions of plastic buttons.
This last point was made possible by the monster 8.4-inch LCD in the center stack. Not only wide, but tall, the interface designers used the lower edge of this touch screen as a menu strip holding icons for access to navigation, stereo, the phone system, and climate controls. This menu eliminates the need for an array of buttons underneath the screen, although Dodge was smart enough to keep a set of physical climate controls.
Touching the navigation icon, I was greeted by the familiar look of a screen I had seen many times before on Garmin navigation devices. Yes, Dodge integrated Garmin navigation software with its infotainment system, which in most ways turned out to be a very smart move.
The Garmin system stores its maps in flash memory, making for very fast reaction times. These maps show 2D and 3D views, although they're lacking the elaborately rendered buildings and topographic features seen in systems from some premium automakers.
Address entry, via an onscreen keyboard, is as easy as with any Garmin device, but the system does not deactivate letters that could not follow those previously entered. And although the car does have a voice command system, you cannot use it to enter an address. The system also features the usual Garmin points-of-interest database and the option to enter addresses by intersection and coordinates.
But where the Garmin system really shines is its route guidance. When approaching a freeway junction or off-ramp, it does an excellent job, showing a graphic with the lanes and even an approximation of the signage over the road. And rather than merely routing to a street address, it even guides the car to the appropriate side of the road, something not all in-car navigation systems do.
Dodge included Sirius Travel Link in the Charger's infotainment system, accessible from a somewhat mysterious plus icon on the menu strip, with a variety of data such as weather, nearby gas prices, and the always-useful movie listings. The listings for gas stations and movie theaters both send addresses to the navigation system at a touch.
Of course there is an icon for the Bluetooth phone system, which also shows a paired phone's contact list on the screen. And the voice command system does recognize contact list names. One weird thing about the Charger is that there are two voice command buttons on the steering wheel, one for the phone system and one for other infotainment functions.
The menu breaks out audio sources with icons labeled Radio and Player, the former covering broadcast and satellite. Dodge includes most of the modern options for digital audio, including Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, iPod, and even SD card.
As with many car systems, the iPod interface shows the music library with artist, album, and genre categories. But this system will also parse the MP3 tracks on a USB drive, giving a similar music library interface rather than the simple folders-and-files display of other systems. Even more impressive, an integrated Gracenote database will show album art for tracks it recognizes, and even dynamically clean up the track data.