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Dodge will retire Charger and Challenger, its muscle car mainstays

“End of an era”: The company that helped give rise to a generation of cars with powerful engines and muscular styling is moving to cleaner-powered vehicles.

A Dodge Challenger sits in the Wellborn Musclecar Museum in Alexander City, Ala., which claims to house the nation’s largest collection of high-performance Dodge vehicles. CEO Tim Kuniskis says Dodge is discontinuing the gas-powered Charger and Challenger and celebrating “the start of a bright new electrified future.” (TAMIKA MOORE/AP)
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Dodge will stop making gas-powered Chargers and Challengers next year, ending an era for a brand that helped define the muscle car, as it and other carmakers shift toward more climate-friendly offerings.

Stellantis, the Amsterdam-based conglomerate behind Dodge, announced Monday that the models will transition out of its lineup in 2023 with the release of seven “heritage” models, each bearing a plaque with “last call” under its hood.

“We are celebrating the end of an era — and the start of a bright new electrified future — by staying true to our brand,” Dodge chief executive Tim Kuniskis said in Stellantis’s announcement.

The Charger and Challenger are part of a generation of cars with powerful engines and muscular styling made popular more than five decades ago. Along with the Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO and the like, they’ve retained significant influence over car culture and design even as the industry has undergone waves of change. The muscle car is bound up with conceptions of American individuality and freedom, trading on ideas of ruggedness, ingenuity and luxury.

The genre is known for its girth and powerful engines, with a gift for acceleration that contrasts sharply with the four-cylinder sedans and compacts typically found motoring on American roadways. The deep rumble is central to its place in popular culture.

“What draws people to muscle cars is exactly what draws people away from them, and that’s the volume and the deep-throated sound of the exhaust,” said Steve Linden, an appraiser and consultant who specializes in classic cars.

Linden, who grew up in New Jersey immersed in 1960s car culture, said the cars were popular with street racers.

“During the day, it could be used to get groceries and, then at night, it could be used for drag races on public streets,” he said. “I think we did it because we liked going fast and we wanted people to hear us.”

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Muscle cars have had iconic roles in film and television, edgy symbols of status or rebellion. A white Challenger features prominently in the 1971 film “Vanishing Point,” in which a pill-addicted war hero is pursued across the country by police while attempting to drive from Colorado to California in just 15 hours on a bet. A customized orange 1969 Charger became a leading character in the popular 1970s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” along with a 2005 film, though the Confederate flag featured prominently on its roof became a source of controversy over time. More recently, they have appeared as retro props in the jet-setting heist Fast and Furious movie franchise, and in Netflix’s 1980s throwback series “Stranger Things.”

For decades, these cars ruled American roads. But changes in design and consumer taste doomed them. It’s just about over for the American sedan. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

When the Charger and Challenger regained prominence in the 2000s, muscle cars’ retro feel and high-performance engines held a certain cache with auto enthusiasts even as many car buyers gravitated to more fuel-efficient sedans, SUVs and hatchbacks. Newer models start near $30,000 but can run as much as $200,000, while a vintage 1969 Charger Daytona recently sold at auction for a record $1.32 million, according to MotorTrend magazine.

To Brian Moody, executive editor of Kelley Blue Book, such vehicles evoke both luxury — “The abundance of power is something you’d want and not need” — and nostalgia. They hark back to feelings of American prosperity, he said, symbolizing the pursuit of bigger, stronger, faster.

But tighter emissions standards forced the automaker to reimagine its lineup and buy carbon credits from cleaner manufacturers. Stellantis, the result of a merger involving Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said in a March 2021 earnings call that it spent $362 million on such credits in 2020, mostly from electric carmaker Tesla, according to CNBC. European energy regulations allow companies that struggle to meet emissions benchmarks to buy carbon credits.

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In recent years, major automakers have invested deeply in hybrid and electric models, pouring billions of dollars into the complicated factory infrastructure needed to produce the vehicles and their batteries. Buyers have been booking orders faster than existing manufacturers can fill them, leaving room for legacy manufacturers to tap a new well of demand.

Meanwhile, the Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed into law on Tuesday will involve $36 billion to incentivize more electric car purchases over the next decade. It’s part of $369 billion in the bill for tax subsidies and other measures designed to speed up the clean-energy transition.

Dodge said its final-year editions for 2023 will be allocated to dealerships “at once,” according to the company announcement, which is a shift from its normal practice of staggering sales throughout the year. The seven “heritage-influenced” 2023 models will share some connection to past models, details of which are to be released later this year.

The seventh and final model, which Dodge describes as “the very last of its kind,” will be revealed at the 2022 Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas in early November. The announcement did not say whether it would be a Charger, Challenger or something else.

It’s possible that Stellantis could reprise one of its classic muscle cars as an electric vehicle that has a similar feel, said David Eagle, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based electric vehicle broker who founded Current EV. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned one or both of [the Charger or Challenger] into an electric vehicle,” he said.

Several of Dodge’s competitors have recently come out with plug-in electric cars that retain some of the “muscular” features of their own classic models. Ford’s Mustang has already made the switch from gas-powered muscle car to fully electric with its Mustang Mach-E. And Porsche branded one of its luxury electric cars “Taycan Turbo,” borrowing a word more traditionally used to refer to a fan-based device that adds speed to an internal combustion engine.