by Joe Nuxoll (@JoeRacer)
A few days before the Detroit Auto Show, we got invited to beat up on some new Chrysler 300 AWD and Dodge Charger AWD Sport vehicles at Chrysler/Dodge's winter proving grounds far north in the picturesque Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We were to spend the day "drifting" these new cars on their carefully crafted ice track. Many cones had been setup, and many cones were going to be knocked down.
Well folks, global warming is real. At least it's real enough to cancel the latter groups of the winter driving event. After a few days, there wasn't enough snow at the winter testing facility to continue the program, and the last group, of which we were a part, got scrubbed. Not all was lost, as we had the opportunity to embark on a cross-Michigan "winter" drive instead of getting sideways on an ice track.
Typically a cross-Michigan winter drive would be treacherous and greatly favor an AWD vehicle like the new 2013 Dodge Charger AWD Sport I had at my disposal, but unfortunately (or fortunately) the roads were clear, dry, and snow-free. I even had to wear sunglasses for a bit due to the blinding sunlight in the sky. Very odd for January in Michigan. The lakes in Michigan were still abnormally large and cold, however.
The car I got was equipped with a powerful V-6 and the 8-speed automatic paddle-shift transmission. On pristine road conditions, the car felt a lot like a rear wheel drive Dodge Charger, and frankly was very pleasant and comfortable. I did, however, find a slushy parking lot to at least give the Scandinavian flick a go. I also found an ice-packed back road near the Mackinaw bridge to see how the car handled in very-low grip conditions, or "low mu" as the engineers like to call it. When traction-challenged, you can clearly tell that it's an AWD vehicle, yet it still behaves a bit like you'd hope --with more tail wag than a traditional AWD vehicle normally allows.
According to Michael Kirk, the Director of Powertrain Axle, Driveline, and Manual Transmission Engineering, AKA "the guy that would know," this characteristic was engineered into the system intentionally so the Charger would maintain its sporty muscle car feel even with AWD. I think they did a great job on that point. The front wheels get dialed into the dynamics in a subtle way that provides the grip very quickly, but not in a way that spoils all the fun. Of course, I'm sure I would have spent a lot more time playing on this edge had we spent the day on the ice track. *sigh* Hopefully this opportunity will present itself in the future, and I can save the writing to just post in-car video from that day.
Overall, I really enjoyed the car as a road-tripper. It is supposed to fit four comfortably, though I was alone and thus had to stay in the front seat the whole trip. I tried the back seats, but my legs weren't long enough to reach the pedals. The Beats Audio system was simply amazing. When I got closer to Detroit, I got the nod from a gentleman in a nearby vehicle that was appreciating the baseline from my song selection. At other times, I had the impressive stereo off to hear the lack of noise in the vehicle. Good job there too.
The only complaint I had in this department: a few times, the first shift after the kick-down shift felt a bit too jerky. My suspicion (no hard evidence) is that they wanted to retain the second gear-shift *chirp* that a muscle car is just supposed to do off the line. As implemented, you feel and hear a pretty abrasive gear bang sometimes. The paddle shifters are very fun and work very well.
Since we're talking about shifting... I do have one major complaint about the car, and feel it deserves a clear explanation. In my opinion, the new automatic gear selector mechanism (PRND rocker stick) is terrible. Transmissions these days are totally electronic, and the shift lever on the tunnel of the Charger AWD is just an electronic rocker switch with a few hard-to-detect clicks (detents). It rocks up (forward) and down (backward), one or two faint clicks, always springing back to the same center position. The problem is that it doesn't seem to work in an intuitive manner. In fact, in several cases it was downright dangerous.