Fast enough — or is it?

Warren Brown
Columnist July 30, 2011

Idrove here at 70 mph — five miles north of legal, five miles south of safe.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Theoretically, “safe” or “safer” would have been the median highway speed, the actual rate of travel of fellow motorists along northbound Interstate 87, which was 75 mph.

But I didn’t want to err on the side of a speeding ticket. I was driving the 2011 Dodge Charger SE, a relatively tame version of the Chrysler Group’s lineup of full-size, rear-wheel-drive Dodge Charger sedans.

The Charger SE, also marketed as “Charger Base,” came with Chrysler’s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine — 292 horsepower, 260 foot-pounds of torque. It is “tame” in comparison with Chrysler’s optional 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 — 370 horsepower, 395 foot-pounds of torque. And therein is the story of our times, the root cause of much of our current dysfunction.

We’re the victims of our own competing interests. We say we want fuel economy. But we also want to get from one point to another as quickly as possible. Chrysler’s new 292-horsepower V-6 delivers adequate highway acceleration and nearly 27 miles per gallon using regular gasoline.

But for so many of us, 292 horsepower isn’t power enough. It isn’t fast enough. The spectator put-downs of the base Charger in my possession were legion. “Hot-looking car,” said one observer at the Sloatsburg rest stop near here. “But that’s not the real Charger, is it? It’s not a Hemi?”

I could’ve sworn I had heard the same fellow complaining about the price of gasoline at a nearby pump.

“No,” I told him. “It’s just a V-6.”

Imagine that! “It’s just a V-6” — just a 292-horsepower V-6 that can move you nicely along the road at 70 mph, five miles above the legal speed limit, consuming gasoline at 27 miles per gallon. And it is just an ordinary car.

Somewhere, the late Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg must be laughing, or maybe he’s crying or just shaking his head in bewilderment.

Back in 1929, the prolific Ehrenburg published a book, “The Life of the Automobile,” in which he bemoaned the proliferation of automobiles with 10 horsepower or more — a book published when oil seemed a forever thing, when gasoline was cheap, even in Europe.

Ehrenburg’s lament was that the world was in a rush to go faster and faster but was all too often winding up stuck in the same place. It’s doubtful he could have foreseen a certain traffic jam on northbound Interstate 87 near Exit 16, where neither a Pentastar V-6 nor a Hemi V-8 would have gotten me through traffic slammed by a huge collection of slow-moving 18-wheelers.

The backup lasted long enough to allow reflection. It had been a good drive in the base Charger from my home in Northern Virginia. It is a considerably better car than the Charger that Chrysler first brought to us in 2005. Interior materials and craftsmanship are far superior to that in the predecessor model. Handling and acceleration are better. It’s a darn good car.

But that’s a relative assessment in a world that always wants more, even while passionately involved in debate about whether, or how, we should learn to live with less.

It’s a darn good car. But it’s not a Hemi V-8.

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