I'm a good ol' boy from Louisiana who despises the Confederate flag and doesn't think much of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
But I've long kept a die-cast model of "the General Lee" on my desk, replete with its rooftop rebel banner, big "01" side-panel markings and racing-orange exterior paint.
The General Lee is a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, the motorized star of "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV comedy, aired on CBS from 1979 to 1985.
I loved that car -- a quintessential Detroit muscle machine, heavy on power but lacking in grace. Thus, choosing this week's test vehicle was easy. Simultaneously arriving for review were the 2005 Mazda RX-8, the 2006 Land Rover Range Rover supercharged luxury sport-utility vehicle and the 2006 Dodge Charger SE.
The SE is the base edition of the new Charger line rolling into Dodge showrooms across the United States. "Base" means a 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower engine; a plain-as-grits interior with cloth seats; 17-inch-diameter steel wheels and black sidewall tires.
The Charger SE was the undisputed commoner among the royalty in the driveway. But after I sat behind its steering wheel and put its five-speed automatic transmission in "Drive," I kept moving.
There was more than nostalgia to this one. Nostalgia is the stuff of memory; and memory can be betrayed by extant reality. If what you're driving is bad, what you remember as good doesn't matter. You're disappointed. You want to get out.
I stayed in. Even with its supposedly base V-6 engine, the Charger SE was a gutsy runner. The absence of optional extras -- sunroof, fancy instrument panel, leather-surfaced seats, leather-covered shifter knob and bragging-rights exterior logos -- simply meant fewer distractions. This was the car as solo entertainment, and it performed well.
I toyed with the idea of driving to Suffolk, Va. Ben Jones, the singer who played Crazy Cooter in the original "Dukes of Hazzard" TV series, was performing there July 22 with his Cooter's Garage Band. Promoters for the concert said "the General Lee" also would be there, and I wanted to see the car more than I wanted to hear Jones. But that would have meant a 400-mile round-trip from my home in Arlington, and, as I said, there were two other cars waiting in the driveway.
But I made the best of my time in the Charger SE -- taking back roads, taking advantage of the many twists and turns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, hunting for curves. Some rest-stop spectators were disappointed that the Charger in my possession was not the "real Charger," as several of them put it. They were referring to the new Charger R/T with its humongous 340-horsepower, Hemi V-8 engine.
I told them the Charger SE was real enough, that you could go to jail in it just as quickly as you could in the new R/T or the tricked-out Daytona R/T, which comes with a Hemi V-8 and a golly-Miss-Molly, holy-cow, slap-dang appearance package. But Charger SE detractors were not impressed. Perhaps they'll change their minds when they get a chance to drive the car.
The 2006 Chargers come from good stock. They share the rear-wheel-drive platform used in the popular Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon. That means they also have four doors instead of two, the configuration of "the General Lee" and the original Charger coupe, introduced in 1966.
Some purists are complaining about the design change. But they'll have to get over it, just as I'll have to overcome my animosity toward a cross-barred flag that no longer means to most of its modern bearers what it has always meant to me.
Change happens. Two doors become four to serve new-generation drivers and passengers who have different ideas of automotive convenience and comfort. A rectangular piece of cloth that symbolized slavery and bigotry to many, and rebellion against federal intrusion to others, has morphed into a surrogate checkered flag flown in victory at NASCAR races.