The sporty Dodge Charger is arguably more desirable with a Hemi V-8, but the SE V-6 version isn't slow and delivers better fuel economy when we might see $3-a-gallon gasoline this summer.
Moreover, the $22,320 SE has a much lower list price than the Hemi-engine models -- the $29,520 R/T and $35,320 SRT8, which has a $2,100 gas guzzler tax.
The new, aggressively styled Charger arrived last May as a 2006 model (June 13 AutoTimes) and resurrects the name of an iconic 1960s V-8 muscle car.
The Charger is widely known outside the muscle car crowd because it was in the chase scene in the Steve McQueen 1968 movie "Bullitt" and was featured in the popular "Dukes of Hazzard" television series, which ran from 1979 to 1985 before hitting the rerun circuit.
The 1960s Charger was a large two-door rear-drive coupe, but building a large two-door coupe now would be commercial suicide for an automaker because most car buyers now want four-door functionality with a big car.
The full-size Charger's styling could qualify it as a "four-door coupe" such as the stylish Mercedes-Benz CLS because it has a rakish coupe-like roofline. Note that Charger door handles are flush with the body to downplay the four doors.
Besides the 3.5-liter V-6, the rear-drive Charger comes as the R/T with a 5.7-liter 340-horsepower Hemi V-8 and as the SRT8 with a 6.1-liter, 425 horsepower Hemi V-8.
Both Charger V-8 models are genuine muscle cars, but the 5.7 V-8 provides only an EPA-estimated 17 mpg in the city and 25 on highways, and the 6.1 V-8 does worse at 14 city and 20 highway.
The 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6 in the SE delivers an estimated 19 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway, although the SE is fairly heavy at 3,800 pounds. One probably can come closer in real world driving to the estimated economy figures with the V-6 because of its smaller size.
That's not to say the V-6 is a marginal "entry-level" engine. It's fairly large and sophisticated, with an overhead-camshaft and 16-valve design. It can't match the neck-snapping Hemi V-8s (few V-8s can), but provides lively acceleration off the line and when merging into fast traffic and passing at highway speeds.
Mid-grade 89-octane gasoline is recommended, but Dodge says 87-octane is acceptable.
The V-6 works with a responsive, Mercedes-Benz-designed five-speed automatic transmission with an easily used manual-shift feature.
The Charger SE is fairly well-equipped with standard comfort and convenience items. They include air conditioning; AM/FM/ CD sound system; tilt/telescopic wheel, and power windows, mirrors, trunk lid and door locks (with remote keyless entry).
Safety features include anti-lock brakes with a brake assist feature and traction and stability control systems. A $590 Protection Group option, which really should be standard, contains front side air bags and side curtain air bags.
My test car had the $3,200 SXT option package. It contains a split/folding rear seat with a center armrest containing dual cupholders, power driver's seat, upgraded sound system, illuminated visor mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and alloy wheels. For what it's worth, there's also SXT badging.
The SE power steering is quick, although some might find it too light for highway driving. The SE is several hundred pounds lighter than the V-8 models, and thus feels more agile. Handling is good, thanks partly to the Charger's more balanced rear-drive design and large 17-inch wheels.
The 120-inch wheelbase (distance between axles) gives the Charger one of the longest wheelbases of any large car and contributes to a smooth ride. Brake feel is above-average, and stopping distances are short.
Added grip can be provided by $325 18-inch wheels and lower-profile 60-series tires.
The quiet, roomy, tastefully designed interior has room for five tall adults, although the center of the rear seat is too stiff for a fifth passenger to stay comfortable on long drives.
Visibility is generally good, but the Charger shares its stubby windshield with the Chrysler 300, and that means taller drivers must crouch to view overhead stoplights. The big interior rearview mirror also blocks vision a bit.
The large Dodge-Viper-inspired circular gauges can be quickly read, although I could never get the tilt/telescopic wheel in a comfortable position without it partially blocking some gauges or controls. Most controls are easily reached, climate controls are especially large, and cupholders are conveniently located. The ignition switch is on the dashboard, so there's no need to grope for it on the steering column.
The trunk is large, and rear seatbacks flip forward for more cargo area, although they don't lay completely flat.
The Charger is quite popular, with a good combination of sportiness and functionality. For instance, its strong sales helped DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler group attain higher auto results last month in a generally weak market for U.S. cars.
2006 DODGE CHARGER SE V-6
LIKES: Roomy. Sporty. Good ride and handling. More affordable than Hemi V-8 versions.
DISLIKES: Lacks speed of Hemi V-8 versions. Light steering. Small sound system controls.