Attitude drives Dodge Charger to top of big sedan market
The big-sedan market is cratering ... with one exception.
Defying the market's stampede to SUVs and the demise of storied nameplates like the Impala and Taurus, the Dodge Charger is recording strong sales.
Riding the sex appeal of rear-wheel drive performance nameplates like the Hellcat and Scat Pack, the Charger has revved sales to over 71,000 this year through September. That's a 20% increase over 2018. The Charger is on track for its third year atop the large-sedan market segment.
“What separates us from everyone else in that segment is I don’t think anyone looks at Charger and says that’s a boring, bland car,” says Jeff Strauss, Dodge sales chief. “We take a lot of pride in that fact that our cars have a lot of attitude.”
That attitude has been key to the Charger’s sales growth in a segment traditionally ruled by front-wheel drive boulevard cruisers like the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon. Avalon sales have cratered by 50% since 2014, while the Impala has been axed from Chevy’s lineup due to poor sales. Once a segment leader, Impala sales have fallen 60% in the last five years.
In contrast, Dodge’s full-size four-door amped up its performance brand with a marketing blitz starting in 2015. The introduction of a 707-horsepower Hellcat model — followed by a steady stream of performance upgrades continuing with 2020’s limited-edition Daytona and muscular Widebody variants — took the market by storm and gave customers a reason to stick with sedans over boxier SUVs.
With sinister fascias, fat tires and colors like Sinamon Stick and Hellraisin, the Chargers are some of the most recognizable cars on the road.
“I just want to make bad ass-looking cars,” Charger chief designer Mark Trostle said at a media test-drive of the Charger’s latest Hellcat and Scat Pack wide bodies.
Cox Automotive analyst Karl Brauer says that the current generation of unibody SUVs have lapped sedan sales because they offer so much upside — hatchback utility, interior room, high seating position — with little downside in handling or fuel efficiency.
“Sedan’s advantages are in a lighter weight, lower center of gravity and sleek looks,” says Brauer. “People don’t want just a large sedan that an SUV does better. But give them a V-8 with personality and they will find that interesting.
“What’s impressive about Dodge is that they emphasized these attributes with V-8 powered Hellcats and Scat Packs and leveraged the brand’s performance heritage to create cars that really stand out.”
That Charger heritage reaches all back to 1966 at the height of the '60s muscle car era when the first rear-wheel drive Charger debuted with a powerful V-8 and fastback body style. After some lean years in the front-wheel drive wilderness in the 1980s, Dodge brought the Charger back in 2006 as a rear-wheel drive sedan.
“Not everyone wants an SUV,” said Strauss. “We realize that Dodge is 3% of a huge industry, but we also realize that 3% can be a big deal if you have a car that has really solid DNA. (Charger) stands for something and that’s why people buy our cars.”
Analyst Brauer says that other full-size sedans in the segment used to stand for something, too, but companies didn’t invest in brand equity like Dodge.
“The Ford Taurus and Nissan Maxima have been marketed as performance cars,” said Brauer. “But they are front-wheel drive sedans and Ford and Nissan have not put as much energy into selling them as Dodge has the Charger.”
As rivals have fallen away, the Charger has emerged as the segment sales leader. Brauer says that the Charger has also benefited from the timing of GM’s bankruptcy. “Charger absolutely cashed in on the loss of Pontiac,” he says of the GM's former performance brand.
Still, the market remains challenging for large cars, and Charger sales had dipped 17% from 97,110 in 2016 before this year’s rebound. As with its Ram trucks that have eclipsed Silverado sales this year, Dodge is typically aggressive with rental fleet Charger sales.
In addition to bringing customers into showrooms, the Charger has fattened Dodge profits. A Charger Hellcat Widebody can fetch prices north of $80,000, producing BMW-like luxury price spreads from the entry-level $30,000 Charger.
“You can get an awesome V-6 for just $30,000 — then we go all the way up the line to an R/T, Scat Pack and ultimate Hellcat,” said sales boss Strauss. “If we can get (consumers) into the brand with that awesome performance look, that customer ultimately might buy the Hellcat. We are growing customers through the brand.”
And growing sedan sales against the SUV tide.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.