Forget about Jaguar. Surely Chrysler is the real cat of the automotive world. Really, over the past few years how many of their nine lives have been used up? There s the merger of equals with Daimler, a disastrous sale to Cerberus, high fuel prices resulting in parking lots full of HEMI equipped cars and lately the world economy imploding. Almost makes Lee Iacocca s reign look like a catered picnic.

With more brands than ever fighting over fewer buyers, simply launching a K car isn t going to work in 2011. The only real vehicles of consequence launched by Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep and Ram in the past few years, yes years, have been the Ram pickup and Grand Cherokee. These are good vehicles, some would argue great, but more is needed.

Open The Floodgates

Recently Chrysler invited auto writers to San Francisco to check out a blizzard of new and much improved product. This week I m focusing on Dodge and previewing two of their six cars shown, the 2011 Dodge Charger sedan and Durango SUV. I m scratching the surface here and will write full reviews once I can spend days rather than hours in them. One thing is clear though, Dodge is on their A game. If you liked the out-going vehicles, get ready to be bowled over by the new ones.

Like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, these two are exceptionally well done which bodes well for them and ultimately us. I will leave the Avenger, Challenger, Grand Caravan and Journey for other days, though I ll note that those who drove the Journey crossover say it is vastly improved. Grand Caravan also gets substantial improvements.

Normally these events find us herded into a conference room and subjected to droning PowerPoint presentations by well-coached executives. Dodge brought the engineers who worked on the cars, people who worked the long hours and made the hard choices that are necessary when the company and their own jobs are on the line. Part of it is marketing but clearly this group is energized by their achievement, sort of how the Cubs would behave if they made it to the World Series (as implausible as that might be). They credit Fiat for pushing them harder to make the cars as good as they could in short order. What they have accomplished in the past 18 months is extraordinary. I ll also nominate Dodge President and CEO to do their ads a la Lee Iacocca back in the day. As the industry s coolest boss, his confident demeanor and ability to connect with younger buyers would be a huge asset.

Dodge Charger SE

This is the car that brought most automotive writers to the event. As enthusiasts, it s tough for us to resist a performance machine, let alone one that will be bought by police departments all over America. The Charger from the 60s may have been a coupe but this modern sedan gets a few riffs in the sheetmetal that recall the original. 164 red LEDs frame the rear end. It looks killer at night.

Compared to the outgoing model the 2011 s front end is angrier with a crosshair grill that s pulled out further from the furrowed slanted headlights. Conversely, the greenhouse is a little tamer. Rumor has it that the 15 percent increase in visibility was dictated by those who protect and serve... and write speeding tickets. Whatever. Charger is now easier to see out of.

The folks at Dodge say buyers will cross shop Ford Taurus, Chevy Impala and Nissan Maxima. Guys, you might want to take a look at Charger if Accord and Camry are on your list, and make no mistake, this masculine machine is aimed at guys. There are three models, SE, R/T and R/T AWD.

R/Ts get a 370 horsepower 5.7-liter HEMI V8, and yes the R/T AWD moniker means all-wheel drive. I m driving the SE with Chrysler s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that delivers 292 horses to the rear wheels. This engine replaces two different sixes, both less powerful and fuel efficiency. In these days of 6-speed transmissions the only gearbox available is a five-speed automatic with manual control.

Will You Need The HEMI For Fun?

Maybe. Maybe not. Know that the six is plenty quick. With no time for instrument testing I ll guestimate 0-60 happens in around 7 seconds with an SE. Dodge says it s under six with the HEMI. Charger is a full sized car that handles as if it s a segment smaller, an American that feels German. Really. There s the right amount of heft in the steering and for a large car Charger is light on its feet.

With laminated glass and insulation throughout the body, Chrysler engineers have done a commendable job of keeping the cabin quiet but allowing throaty engine music in when the go pedal is pushed to the carpet. My seat time is limited but ride quality feels firm while remaining comfortable, again a great balance. There s plenty of road feel to tell a driver what the tires are doing, body roll is moderate but very controlled. My drive partner Roman Mica from The Weekly Driver did a couple panic stops which brought the car to a rapid halt.

Overcompensating For Something?

It doesn t take horsepower for Charger to outrun its fiercest nemesis, which is the plain outgoing interior. For 2011, the sweeping instrument panel features soft touch materials, a big panel of real aluminum trim, and a touch screen interface. The gauge cluster gets a color information screen that makes the whole affair look much more expensive. It s all a huge leap forward.

The speedometer and tachometer are very easy to read, the leather wheel feels great to the touch and there s iPod and Bluetooth integration. Clearly the folks at Dodge know their reputation and are over delivering to get back into customer s consideration.

The backseat will handle 3 of your adult friends though the driveshaft tunnel will get in the way of the middle passenger. Both front seatbacks get map pockets and a power port for charging the kids iPods. Need to haul long stuff? With folding split seatbacks Charger is up to it though it won t happen often since the trunk is large. Sorry, when I m on the road, no TP trunk test.

There s talk that Dodge was targeting the 5-Series for it s driving dynamics. It certainly is reminiscent if not a bulls-eye. Besides, the SE starts at 26 grand, which is less than a 1 Series. All in all the 2011 Charger is a powerful leap forward (pun intended). It s a passionate sedan for those who need to take the family but don t want driving fun left behind.

Dodge Durango Citadel

Auto writers may have come to get a first look at Charger but they left talking about Durango. It s based on the same architecture as the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and in case you haven t been paying attention that s a very good thing. Durango is longer so there s room for a third row. It s a fairly usable too, at 5 9 I can handle a short trip across town in the way back zone.

The 2011 design is strong and sinewy. Apparently there are two inspirations for it s shape, the classic Coke bottle and the Charger concept car from a number of years back that hung out in the designer s studio. The flowing shape is very organic and attractive with the classic Dodge grille adding a good amount of aggressiveness. For soccer moms who want to intimidate, this is your rig.

Get er Done

Sport utes are about back road adventures, pulling toys and heading up to the slopes to snowboard... or at least owners want that image. Durango is no poseur. While not as off-road capable as Grand Cherokee, the Dodge will do what most people would ever demand of it. Order the 5.7-liter HEMI V8 with 360 horsepower and it can tow up to 7,400 pounds, proving unibody chassis aren t just for wimpy crossovers. I m driving the 290 horse Pentastar dropped into a top o the line Citadel model. It is very handsome inside and out.

The six is no compromise. With it, Durango moves smartly and confidently. At dinner I listened to a fellow writer saying he thought he was in the HEMI for an hour before he discovered, well, he wasn t. Always a good sign. The structure is rock solid, the handling surprisingly refined and composed. Durango has a gravitas that is apparent the moment a driver slides behind the leather wrapped wheel. Like Charger this American speaks with a heavy German accent. Hushed at highway speeds, the family will look forward to road trips.

Interior 180

Part of that will be the cabin experience, Durango goes from blah to ahhhh. It appears obliterating their image of cheap interiors is an obsession for Chrysler and remember, it s what an owner sees the most of. Plastics are high quality and soft touch materials are everywhere. High end Citadels do not get the leather swaddled instrument panel available on the Grand Cherokee Overland which is a small disappointment but, hey, if I didn t have anything to compare it too I wouldn t be grousing.

While I didn t have time to evaluate the sound system and nav unit I can say the controls are straight forward and easy to understand. Bluetooth and iPods are supported and there s a nice color info screen in between the speedo and tach. Those with the budget can outfit Durango with a DVD entertainment system that has an AC outlet for gaming consoles and the ability for satellite TV. Like kids don t get enough of that at home.

A Good Work Ethic

The middle row does its best to keep things versatile and comfortable with a recline feature and the option of heated seats. It doesn t slide fore and aft to max out cargo or leg room but the compromise is fine. The seat folds and tumbles for access to the third row which is not a penalty box, though it isn t luxurious by any stretch. If this is a space you plan on using often, Dodge has substantially improved their Grand Caravan. Drop rows two and three flat- an easy affair- and a lot of cargo can be stuffed inside Durango.

Durango starts at 31K with 2WD. It used to be an also-ran to Tahoe, 4Runner, and Explorer but the 2011 model proves that third time s a charm. Recently Consumer Reports rated Grand Cherokee over the vaunted 4Runner despite their usual requirement a vehicle be out for a year before recommending it. Just another sign the automotive world is in play and a reminder for shoppers to do their homework before plunking down hard earned cash for a vehicle. Looking for a comfortable capable hauler? The new Durango is a pleasant surprise that should be on your test drive list.

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