Dodge Challenger and Charger

Dodge Is The New Pontiac

On the 29th of April, 2009, we lost Pontiac and Saturn, General Motors’ two most “expendable” marques during the ailing company’s restructuring. As I had spent nearly my entire life up till that point owning only Pontiacs and idolizing the brand’s storied history of building humdrum-defying performance vehicles, it would be an understatement to say that on that day I felt adrift at sea without a rudder. My whole life I always knew exactly what car I wanted, it was always a Pontiac, and I never even test-drove anything else. In an instant on that April morning, I was clueless, reset to factory zero.

Pontiac’s demise was long-inevitable, a fact that even its most ardent fans (such as myself) could easily see, although we tried not to think about it. Once this storied GM division was shut down and we got past the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model, I found it incredibly freeing: I no longer felt compelled to consider one brand’s products over the rest out of sheer loyalty. That sensation of being adrift in a sea of choice started to work to my advantage, especially in an era when so many new and exciting cars were being produced, and when the halcyon days of the American muscle car era were being revived like never before.

Since that time, I haven’t had need of a new car, so until now I haven’t had to “throw my lot in” with anyone. But now that my wife’s 2004 Mazda 6 is getting long in the tooth, and we have a baby on board and need some extra room in the family truckster, I’ve started keeping my eyes open in hopes of pinning down what I would like to replace it with. When I look at the automotive landscape today, it’s abundantly clear that Dodge is now the standard-bearer for everything I held dear about Pontiac.

That remark I made about the muscle car days being revived? Nobody is doing it better than Dodge, who has apparently gone all-in with the idea of producing unapologetically aggressive stuff. With “in your face” styling borrowed from Pontiac’s operating manual, plus not one but three big-engined sports/muscle machines on offer (Charger, Challenger and Viper), Dodge since 2009 has swiftly stepped in to fill the “driving excitement” void left by Pontiac — which, at its time of death, was offering only one model (the G8) which could be called anything near exciting.

An MSN Autos editorial writes that “Dodge is reshaping its image as an affordable American brand for people who are passionate about driving”, and in my view, that opinion is spot-on. And also, it’s about goddamn time. As someone who grew up in metro Detroit and can’t remember a day when he wasn’t passionate about driving, I’m sick to death of the balsa-wood, transportation appliance clown cars put out by the vast majority of the mainstream manufacturers today. I’m sick of exciting, fun-to-drive cars being reserved for the price brackets afforded only by the wealthy elite. Pontiac pioneered the concept of bringing huge power to the masses in an affordable package, and from what I can see Dodge is doing a great job following that lineage.

Dodge has even done a much better job of marketing that “F you” attitude than Pontiac (with the exception of some very cool Trans Am commercials from 1998), airing a whole series of spots narrated by smooth-talking and snarky Dexter star Michael C. Hall and featuring imagery as ridiculously over-the-top as George Washington driving a Challenger. The 18-year-old in me is laughing with delight, and not giving a shit whether the “focus groups” think ideas like this are too ridiculous or controversial. What the hell is a muscle car, anyway, if not ridiculous and controversial? If you’re gonna roll like that, don’t half-ass it. Roll the whole nine yards.

Even though I loved Pontiac to death, and my wife briefly drove a Vibe (little more than a rebadged Toyota, if I’m honest), I knew I could have never gotten her to embrace the performance side of the brand. So imagine my surprise when, after visiting my parents in Michigan earlier this month and getting to drive my dad’s 2011 Charger R/T for the first time, she enthusiastically proclaimed her approval of the automobile. I suppose it wasn’t entirely without precedent, as we’d previously driven my dad’s ’07 Charger and both liked it quite a lot as well. The ’11 is everything that car was, plus so much more. As my dad said, it was a pleasure to see that Dodge hadn’t “screwed it up” since then.

Now granted, my wife likes the Charger for its size, comfort and vast array of entertainment features inside, not particularly for its growling V8 or aggressive looks. But merely having her on board with my appeal for a car like this is incredibly rewarding. As a man like me can tell you — as can any warm-blooded Detroit native, I have to imagine — life is far too short to drive a shitty car, or worse yet, a boring car. And since we keep our cars for 8-10 years at a stretch, that counts double for my family. Another gutless V6 with a frumpy, shock-shifting transmission and weak entertainment options? Well that is notgonnahappen.com.

Originally I was pretty hell-bent on the Ford Edge as our next family car, and while I still intend to drive one, I was admittedly a bit let down when I discovered that the Edge Sport does not have a turbocharged engine as I had erroneously thought. Paying close to $40,000 for a car that still has less than 300 horsepower, despite all of the fancy MyFordTouch gewgaws inside and whatever else, sounds like a recipe for another boring drive to the grocery story about six years from now. I want something that’s going to get my blood pumping, not just now but for all time. Electronics become outdated and get usurped by the latest and greatest thing, but a torquey V8 never ever goes out of style — at least not in my house.

Speaking of which, already the writing is kinda on the wall for big V8 engines, thanks to the astoundingly aggressive CAFE fuel economy requirements implemented by the Obama administration. If not next year, then in a few years’ time. Ford is even talking about turning the venerable Mustang into a European-style, forced-induction V6 sports car for its next generation, and even GM’s Corvette team has talked about offering alternatives to the V8 powerplant. In times like this, it feels ever more important to strike while the muscle car iron is hot, and before the government rams another Malaise Era down our collective throats.

And yes, every last gulp of fuel (more like sip given the technology that goes into motors these days) is worth all eight of those cylinders. The last time a coworker and I went out for lunch in my GTO, as I pulled onto the boulevard and let the LS2 open up he remarked, “That would get seriously addicting.”

It would, it has, and I know all too well.