Quick Drives: 2011 Dodge Charger, Chrysler 200, Chrysler Town & Country

By Seyth Miersma

November 18, 2010

The Mopar folks have been pretty busy over the last year and a half, preparing a re-invigoration of the lineups for both brands by extensively updating the full range of vehicles. We were recently invited to join Chrysler and Dodge in Northern California for a busy three days of driving and discussion.

Available for testing were just about all of the 2011 vehicles, so we’ve got a lot to report on, frankly. Below you’ll find our first-pass impressions about some of the highlights of the trip: Chrysler’s 200 and Town & Country, and Dodge’s Charger.

Look for the full rundown of the new product offering from Chrysler and Dodge in next month’s issue of Winding Road, too.

Dodge Charger

What’s New?

It’s almost impossible not to have a strong opinion about the revised styling for the 2011 Charger, as Dodge has moved pretty far away from the blocky-handsomeness of the outgoing model. Sure, the same bold, broad-shouldered stance is in evidence here, but it has been wildly layered upon with a newly chiseled-down front end, deeply scalloped hood and sides, and a trimmed rear fascia. We fell instantly in love with the rear view of the car, largely because of the very cool, full-length LED taillights found out back. The new nose and dished side panels are bits that we may need to warm up to a bit though (of course, don’t take our words for it, pictures exist so that you’re able to make up your own mind).

More impressive, we think, to a broader audience, is the new interior of the car. As with the Chrysler products (and the rest of the Dodges), Charger has gotten a phenomenal upgrade for its cabin, with a better-fitting, one-piece instrument panel, and better looking materials just about everywhere. The new steering wheel is a pleasure to take in hand, and most of the controls feel either better finished, or completely new.
Our car was equipped with the Garmin-based navigation software in its massive central touch-screen interface, and we found the system to work beautifully. We’ve always been big fans of Garmin’s easy-to-use, intuitive software, so the suite of technology seems like a perfect fit for Dodge.

What’s Old?

The basic Charger platform remains the same for 2011, as well as the 5.7-liter V-8 and it’s attendant automatic transmission (more on those two in a bit). It was remarkable to us though that, despite having the same “bones” as the old model, this Charger really did feel like a very new vehicle.

Quick Drive

The new and improved Charger was probably the Dodge product that we were most excited to sample when we headed out to California, and it ended up being the first car we got in, too. Good thing, as our Day 1 drive route took us out of San Francisco headed north along the coast, with just the sort of hugely good driver’s roads that we’d want for testing out this sports-oriented sedan.

We grabbed the keys to the Charger R/T, powered by the familiar 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, in rear-wheel-drive trim (AWD cars are part of the lineup as well). Dodge has done significant suspension and chassis tuning to this year’s Charger, updating the bushings, shocks, and spring rates to compliment a package that is stiffer overall.

On the very narrow and tightly turning roads that we crossed outside of the city, these changes were most evidently felt in a car that seemed much more willing to change directionsuickly than the outgoing sedan. The Charger felt pretty light on its feet over very challenging terrain, though the large overall track and wheelbase of the car kept it from seeming perfectly at home on the most winding of stretches.

Honestly, the improved visibility from the driver’s seat—Dodge claims an improvement of 15-percent for overall viewing area—helped us as much or more than the new underpinnings, at least on public streets. The old car had a bit of claustrophobia that made it pretty difficult to place on smaller roads, something that the improved forward viewing area of the ’11 model has rectified.

After our street drive, we got a few hot laps on the brilliant Infineon racetrack. Here, at or near the outer limits of the Charger’s performance envelope, the added rigidity of the body structure made a substantial difference. We could certainly feel the mass of the car shifting around in hard corners (of which Infineon has no lack, we assure you), but the motions weren’t nearly so gross as those tossed up by the softer, older model.

The beefy Hemi V-8 was also up to the challenge of the track, doing fine work in laying down torque for the hilly sections near the start/finish line. The weak link in the powertrain, both on the road and on the track, is the slow-acting five-speed automatic transmission. The “Auto Stick” manual mode is rather slow to react to input, while the automatic transmission logic really only works smoothly in “average” driving situations, not really performance ones. The autobox is fine for the daily driver then, but a bit of a let down considering the sporting pretensions of the Charger, overall.

Chrysler 200

What’s New?

The short answer here would be “mostly everything.” Knowing full well that its mid-size Sebring sedan had been pretty much worst-in-class for a couple of generations now, Chrysler brass attacked the new car with a plan to fix every piece of the car that was uncompetitive. The result of that approach is a car that, while not containing 100 percent new content, is still barely recognizable from the outgoing Sebring. In fact, the new sedan was so different (and the Sebring named so bankrupt in the mind of the average consumer) that it got a new name—200.

200 has got almost entirely new sheet metal wrapped around the Sebring’s platform, with the resultant car being a big stylistic upgrade over the past model, and yet still not exactly a beautiful car. Thankfully, the design is a lot cleaner, with the dreaded hood strakes and other of Sebring’s more baroque elements banished in favor of tidy lines. Chrome detailing is still heavily used (part of Chrysler’s DNA at this point, we imagine), but elements like the new Chrysler badge are actually pretty cool.

Of course, the main complaint about most of the last generation of Chrysler products focused on their universally dreary interiors. 200 addresses this in fine form, offering up a cabin that is far more refined than we’ve seen in a Mopar sedan in some while. Plastics exist in better finished, more substantial feeling forms, and soft-touch surfaces are more plentiful. Interior design isn’t quite as cutting edge as you’d find in the likes of Hyundai’s Sonata, for instance, but it doesn’t scream “rental car!” like it used to, either.

Of course, the wonderful Pentastar V-6 is offered for the 200, at the Limited trim level. You’ll find this new motor in just about every Chrysler/Dodge product in the 2011 lineup.

What’s Old?

200 can be specified with the “proven” 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which has seen duty in small to medium Chryslers for some time now. Penny-pinching shoppers can still opt to have this four-banger hooked up to a four-speed automatic transmission—thusly equipped a 200 LX starts at $19,995—but we don’t recommend it. Chrysler’s new six-speed auto fits the car a lot better, and the upcoming six-speed DCT will probably be the trans to have. (Right now we’re just told that it’ll be a “late availability item,” but not exactly when it’ll show up on dealer lots.)

Quick Drive

Forget about the Sebring, the 200 is a completely new thing. Vastly better (as we’ve mentioned) from a packaging standpoint, the 200 also happens to be far better to drive than the outgoing car.

Chrysler spent the majority of its redesign capitol on upgrades to the NVH package, and it shows. Wind, tire, and engine/exhaust noise have all been reduced to very low levels, and those looking for a quite, comfortable sedan should definitely have a look.

The interior upgrades aren’t all purely aesthetic, either—we were particularly impressed with the fat-rimmed, leather clad new Chrysler steering wheel. The wheel was both solid and multi-functional, and the steering effort behind it had been well tuned. The electro-hydraulic steering system actually offered a bit of feedback for the driver, as well as having the sort of weight that most drivers will likely associate with a higher-end vehicle.

The suspension has been tuned for better handling and quicker response, too. The 200 felt neutral-to-understeery on most of the winding California roads we crossed, though the package was a bit slow to turn in and a little reluctant to rotate with great agility. After spending a lot of time in Japanese and Korean sedans in this class, our guts tell us that 200 would rate out in the middle of the pack in a comparison test that focused on driving dynamics—not a bad place to be considering the Sebring starting point.

Certainly, the 283-horsepower V-6 is a strong motor for this segment. The power made itself most evident on the highway, and at higher speeds for passing, though the mildly programmed transmission wouldn’t really let us have much fun lower down in the rev range. The lack of engine note, less than involving gear control, and slow to shift behavior rules the 200 out as a real driver’s car, despite the abundance of power.

Chrysler Town & Country

What’s New?

The 2011 offers a redesigned exterior, a revised interior, and a few mechanical updates on the outgoing Town & Country minivan.

On the outside, you’ll notice the same, sleeker forms that have been utilized on the 200 sedan, as well as common elements like Chrysler’s new badge and corporate grille. (Anticipate seeing a version of this punim on the upcoming new Chrysler 300, as well.)
Inside it’s another big upgrade for a major player in the Chrysler family. The new corporate steering wheel starts us off, while higher-quality leathers, cleaner design, and dressy accents all make the cabin feel a bit richer. Brand managers were happy to point out that, while the popular Stow ‘n Go second-row seating is still on offer, engineers found a way to make the seats a bit bigger and more comfortable overall.

Moms (and Dads) everywhere will be excited about optional safety and convenience features like rear parking assist, backup camera, blind spot monitoring, voice command phone dialing, Sirius satellite radio and TV, and mobile web. The minivan gets to be higher-tech with each instantiation.

What’s Old?

The most basic platform and functionality of the Town & Country is unchanged from last year’s van, but that’s mostly a good thing. The T&C has always been one of the most roomy and practical to use vans in the segment.

With all the new exterior design work that’s been done, it’s still fair to say that the overall form of the minivan remains about the same. If loved or didn’t care for the last model, visual detailing upgrades probably won’t sway your opinion one way or the other.

Quick Drive

The Pentastar V-6 is kind of like cheese, racing stripes, and hundred dollar bills—everything it’s added to gets better. The new mill replaces the more complicated three-V-6 lineup (3.3-, 3.8-, and 4.0-liter variants) for the T&C, and represents a better overall motor than any of the old flavors. We found the Chrysler van to be smooth and responsive to accelerative demands, without ever feeling like we were asking too much of the engine—no straining sounds or course exhaust notes.

Chrysler has completely redone the T&C suspension, too, with the result being a vehicle that leans a lot less in corners, and feels very planted at highway speeds. On the undulating lanes of the California coast we did feel more vertical motion than we’d expected or would like.