Dodge officials hope that American sedan buyers are hankering for some muscle.

Sure, the 2006 Dodge Charger features five seats in a decently roomy, four-door interior.

But what's distinctive is the Charger's muscle-car heritage, bold exterior styling and rear-wheel-drive configuration. And, yes, it has a Hemi V8 in some uplevel versions.



BASE PRICE: $22,320 for base SE; $25,320 for SXT; $29,320 for R/T.
AS TESTED: $32,800.
TYPE: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger, large sedan.
ENGINE: 5.7-liter, Hemi V8 with Multi-Displacement System.
MILEAGE: 17 (city), 25 (highway).
LENGTH: 200.1 inches.
WHEELBASE: 120 inches.
CURB WEIGHT: 4,031 pounds.
BUILT AT: Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
OPTIONS: Road/Track performance group (includes 18-inch, all-season performance Michelin tires, polished aluminum wheels, self-leveling shock absorbers, special steering gear, tuned exhaust and induction system) $1,600; convenience group II (includes dual-zone climate control and power front seats) $955; Inferno Red crystal pearl exterior paint $250.
With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,995, the just-introduced Charger competes with other domestic family cars, such as the 2005 Chevrolet Impala, which starts at $23,010, and the 2005 Ford Five Hundred, which starts at $26,965.

But note that the Impala and Five Hundred come with V6s only, while some Dodge officials expect more than half the Chargers sold to have the company's 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that supplies at least 340 horsepower for the new sedan.

The Impala and Five Hundred also are front-wheel-drive cars, which is common in the mainstream family car market. The Five Hundred is available with all-wheel-drive, too.

But few mainstream, non-luxury, domestic-branded sedans feature a performance-oriented rear-drive configuration like the Charger has.

The Charger's Hemi engine as well as platform are already used by the hot-selling Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum cars and came to Dodge's parent company, DaimlerChrysler, from the luxury Mercedes brand. DaimlerChrysler owns both Mercedes and the former Chrysler Corp.

But the Charger is the first new Dodge-branded sedan in years. It's needed, company officials have said, because Dodge has become known by consumers for its bold trucks and sport utility vehicles and its practical minivans, not for its sedans.

The base Charger, the SE, and the mid-level SXT are powered by a standard, 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter, high-output, single overhead cam V6 that can generate 250 foot-pounds of torque at 3,800 rpm. Models with this engine post the best fuel economy rating of the Charger lineup - 19 miles a gallon in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway.

But even these ratings are lower than many competitors'. For example, the 2005 Impala with base V6 is rated at 21/32 mpg for city and highway driving, respectively.

Moving up to the Hemi V8 in the uplevel Charger R/T and Daytona R/T doesn't help save gas, even though the 5.7-liter, 90-degree, Hemi V8 has a Multi-Displacement System that automatically turns off four engine cylinders when V8 power isn't called for during travel.

Chargers powered by the V8 are rated at 17/25 mpg, which is at the lower end of mainstream family car fuel economy and comparable to the Chrysler 300 with the same engine.

Still, the sounds from the V8 - especially with the optional Road/Track performance group added on - are low and impressive, and the power is satisfying, just as expected in a modern day muscle car.

The test Charger, an R/T with Road/Track performance group option, rushed forward quickly, no matter if I was starting up from a traffic light or merging onto a freeway. Actually, I could get up to highway speeds while still on the entrance ramps. There was no hesitancy in passing maneuvers, either.

The Hemi in the R/T is rated at 340 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Road/Track performance group option upped the horsepower to 350, thanks to different exhaust and induction system tuning.

There's only one transmission for all Chargers: a five-speed automatic. But it includes a shift-it-yourself AutoStick for driving enthusiasts who'd prefer a manual tranny.

In the test R/T, the AutoStick worked well to help me manage the V8 power, especially in congested traffic. And I appreciated that I didn't have to work a clutch pedal.

Most of the shifts - with or without AutoStick - were smooth. But there was a sharp, jolting shift once. I had backed off the accelerator suddenly as a car wandered into my lane, and the harsh jolt came as I tried to resume my pace once the other driver corrected his error.

The R/T tester had a sport-tuned suspension, so I readily felt road bumps, including manhole covers. But they came through mostly as vibrations beneath me.

The exception: Pothole impacts at city speeds seemed to wriggle through the Charger.

Meantime, the big, 18-inch, Michelin performance tires and shiny wheels conveyed noticeable weight at the corners, and the more than 4,000-pound Charger R/T sort of heaved heavily over speed bumps.

There also was considerable road noise that came through from the tires, and I noticed wind noise at highway speed. It seemed to emanate from around the test car's windshield.

Overall, the Charger drove rather easily, and seats in the R/T were comfortable and non-fatiguing.

It offers decent legroom of 41.8 inches in front and 40.2 inches in back.

The Impala's comparison is 42.2/38.4 inches, front and back, respectively. The Five Hundred boasts 41.3 inches of legroom in both front and back seats.

Watch the headroom in the Charger, though. The car's design strives to give the look of a sleek coupe, so back-seat headroom tapers down and measures 36.2 inches. And the heads of rear-seat passengers tend to be beneath the rear window glass, not the roof.

The Five Hundred provides 2.5 more inches of rear-seat headroom than the Charger, and the Impala has 0.6 inch more.

Trunk space totals 16.2 cubic feet in the Charger, but people should watch that they don't bang their heads on the trunk latch. The trunk lid on the test car didn't go back far from the trunk opening, and because so much of the trunk space is under the rear window parcel shelf, it can be tricky reaching for items deep inside.

Also, side curtain airbags are optional, not standard, on the Charger.

The Impala's trunk is bigger at 18.6 cubic feet, while the Five Hundred has a whopping 21.2 cubic feet of space.

Dodge officials have been reluctant to project Charger sales volume, though they noted that 70 percent of American car buyers are still aware of the Charger name, even today, 28 years after production ended on Dodge's legendary muscle car of the 1960s and '70s.

Officials look for Hemis to be in a majority of Chargers sold.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Charger five out of five stars for front-passenger protection in frontal crash testing. In a side crash test, the Charger earned four out of five stars for front-seat passenger protection and five out of five stars for rear-seat passenger protection.

The Charger was rated four out of five stars for rollover potential. There have been no early safety recalls.

Because the vehicle is new, Consumer Reports does not provide a reliability rating.