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Road Test - Valiant Charger (Wheels Car of the Year 1971)

When we jumped into our first Charger to drive it back from Adelaide to Sydney it was immediately obvious to our staff a new era had dawned for Chrysler Australia.

Within a few miles in that car - an E38 - we discovered that here was a car that did almost everything right.  Sure, we'd known months beforehand that there was a new two-door sporty Valiant coming. But to be honest, we must say we'd never suspected this might be The Car Of The Year - it was just going to be another Valiant. But that E38 planted the seed.

Now in an evaluation of the entire range we have logged 5260 miles in Valiant Chargers - E38, 770 V8, XL 265 and base 245. This covered two interstate runs, extensive rough and dirt road work, continuous city commuting, some track testing and a long searching session at the Castlereagh drag strip taking performance figures and evaluating handling.

It has been a thorough and critical examination of the entire range and now we've positively established its capabilities. We had to be sure of the Charger's merits - and now we are.  After the E38 anything would have been a let-down but the others contained all the same basic elements of excellence.

Chrysler has tried hard to establish an image with the Charger and, Bathurst apart, it has succeeded. The plan was to have a car to suit everyone - in much the same way as Ford promoted the Mustang in 1964 - for the Charger is to the Valiant what the Mustang was to the Falcon.  And it seems it will be just as successful. There is now a waiting list of 1800 buyers for Chargers.

Originally Chrysler planned to produce the car at the rate of 20 per day, dealer and press reaction was so enthusiastic this figure was lifted to 43 when production began but it has since been taken to 83 a day which still isn't enough to meet the demand. It's not hard to understand why.

We wanted to make sure our judgment was right on the ball so we invited experienced racing drivers to take the wheel only to have an instant confirmation. Even our secretary had a turn and was delighted at the car's ease and responsiveness although her initial reaction was to be scared off by the racey appearance and high performance image. Our first thought, after driving the VH Valiant Ranger, was it would make an excellent Regal 770. We should also have said an excellent Charger. Shortening the wheelbase by six inches and chopping 13.2 inches from the overall length has had the effect of tightening the entire car. Even the base 245 Charger feels far happier on the road than the equivalent sedan.

The shorter car has meant a reduction in weight of 300 lb per model with an obvious increase in performance. It would have been even more but the pillarless construction means the floor-pan comes in for additional strengthening. From the windscreen and firewall forward, the Charger is identical to the VH sedans. From there back it is quite different. The doors are shared with the VH Hardtop but the rest is unique to the Charger. The car looks best in its more exotic forms. The 770 and the RT have wide sports wheels and seem to sit lower. Clever use of bright metal work breaks up the high waist line so there is less emphasis on the stubby tail. In relation to its width, the Charger is rather short - not surprising since it is still as wide as the much longer VH sedan.

But the blunt tail with its inbuilt spoiler and, roofline ribs running down past the rear window gives the sporting impression the stylists have obviously aimed for. It does not have the beautifully integrated styling of the Monaro - it's more in the boy-racer idiom - but it gets the message across. Perhaps the only real failing is the excessive number of tail light lenses which clutter the tail.

At the front the identity of the Charger is harder to establish but costing considerations meant Chrysler was forced to use the VH grille and panels. Even so it requires just one quick glimpse of the side to pick it for a Charger.   Any Charger looks its best in bright colours - some of Chrysler's present range are positively dull.

After our initial enthusiasm for the RT we were keen to give the others a hard work-out. The first to be delivered to our car park was the 770 in V8 form and fully optioned to include air conditioning. This is one car which does exactly what it was intended to do. It can be a luxurious personal car for a pretty young thing or a high performance touring machine for a red-blooded executive. It is what the Monaro LS should have been.

Chrysler's 318 V8 is not a high revving, brute horsepower engine but it does deliver a smooth flow of power over a wide rev range without running out of breath at the top end.  Its performance to 70 mph is so close to the standard 265 automatic, fitted to the XL we tested, it is easy to understand why the demand for the V8 engine has fallen off.

Order a standard 770 and you get the RT six which develops 218 BHP, 15 more than the standard 265. The six cylinder 770, therefore, is going to be quicker in most conditions than the V8. And there are the added attractions of better fuel consumption, lower insurance rating, and much lower initial price.

Run side by side on the same day, our 770 V8 and XL 265 returned almost identical acceleration times to 70 mph. The six was only 1.2 seconds behind the 100 mph - a clear enough indication of the performance per dollar built-in to the Charger and, for that matter, the entire Valiant range.

Over the standing quarter mile, the 770 ran through in 16.7 seconds. The XL achieved a best time of 17.0 seconds in' drive range and 16.7 seconds when the gears were changed manually. Going beyond the automatic change up points in the 770 just made things slower - an indication of the good engine/transmission combination.

In drive, the V8 slides into second at 40 mph (4100 rpm) and into top at 76 mph (4400 rpm) and goes on to 115 mph. The XL changes up, not quite as smoothly, at 44 and 70 in drive, manually it can be taken to 60 and 95. However, the engine is then getting breathless and there is no point going beyond 50 and 80 for peak acceleration. In the V8, at the redline of 5000 rpm, the car goes to 52 and 88 mph. With no tachometer - and no redline - to watch, the six's inherent ability to rev out makes for its higher speeds. It is so close to the V8 at the top end it does not matter.

The greater torque of the V8 gives it added lift above 70 mph. Even so the 265 engine is so strong the XL feels and goes like a high performance V8 between 40 and 70 mph and only really slackens off at around 90 mph. Low down in the passing range and using the kickdown, the XL surprisingly enough is quicker, admittedly by only fractions of a second, than the V8.

Since both cars use the same automatic transmission ratios and the same high final drive ratio (2.92) the performance is entirely comparable. Only the power-robbing air conditioning unit lowers the V8 figures. It doesn't take long to realise the 265, even without the HP option, is a performance bargain. For just over $3000 you get a five-six seater coupe with a 0-60 mph time of 9.1 seconds.  And like the RT E38 this is not just a straight line drag machine. Both the 770 and XL flatter the driver with an easy, safe and consistent understeer. The addition of the anti-roll bar on the 770 certainly adds to the driving pleasure of the 770. Although it shares the same steering ratio with the XL it feels far more direct and responsive. The XL tends to have the vagueness we complained of in the VH sedans, but the short wheelbase and firmer springs reduce it to a much more acceptable level.

The steering on the 770 was good - even when parking it remained light - and the feedback of information is outstanding for a recirculating ball system. We were surprised to find it didn't have the E38's higher ratio. Only the weak or stupid would want to fit Chrysler's lifeless power steering to the Charger - and that anti-roll should be standard on every Valiant.

The understeer is hardly noticeable on the 770 until you really start to punt the car hard. Until then the steering is virtually neutral. Once in the realm of nine-tenths driving, the front end does run wide and extra steering lock is needed. Only once, on a sharp down hill gravel corner did the understeer get out of hand. A rapid back-off, down shuffle to second and a big boot swung the tail out, confirming the car's outstanding handling.

XL motoring might not be as precise, but by setting the car up early for a corner and powering through it is almost as quick point to point without being quite as enjoyable to drive. However, in city commuting the XL's throttle response and light steering are ideal. On very tight corners it can spin an inside rear wheel, but it is not really the sort of car you drive this way. In every other circumstance, the power reaches the ground without dramatics.

Both test cars came with Chrysler progressive power assisted discs. They pulled the cars up consistently from 80 mph without lock-up. Only towards the end of a 1500 mile test did the brakes on the 770 give any indication of the gruelling pounding. Pedal travel increased and became spongy after a couple of hard stops, but it quietly returned to normal.

The 770 is quite happy to cruise at 100 mph indicated (both speedometers displayed a commendable accuracy - spot-on at 60 mph and only two mph out at the ton). However, the suspension becomes soft and on one severe bump it actually bottomed at the rear. A 400 mile trip at high speed returned 15-16 mpg from the 770 and in similar conditions the XL gave 18-20 mpg, excellent figures considering the performance.

The ride is superior on the Charger to the VH sedans. The harshness through the steering wheel has gone. Some noise is still transmitted to the cabin, but the ride on the 770 in particular is almost in the European class with a real ability to soak up bumps without jarring the occupants.  Much of the credit for this must go to the seats which are perfectly in phase with the suspension. The buckets. On both the 770 and XL are identical to those on the RT and that is high praise indeed. They are on the low side so you tend to grip the bottom of the steering wheel, but even so the driving position is excellent. The reclining buckets have good thigh and lateral support. This doesn't extend all the way up the sides of the squab, but the high backs serve as excellent head restraints.

The XL's seats are divided by a fold down armrest and seat separator which also serves as a cushion when the armrest is pushed back to form a squab. This gives the car a six passenger capacity if necessary for there is surprising room in the rear compartment. The seats in the back are shaped in twin buckets, but what appears to be an armrest is only a dummy. Vast knee room is all that is missing, but there is enough of that to keep two six foot passengers happy for hundreds of miles and three - adults can be accommodated on shorter trips.

On the 770 the buckets are separated by a console containing the automatic selector and a long glove compartment, the lid for which is spring loaded so that it needs to be held open. It also has sharp edges which only too easily cut a driver's hand. We did notice that the buckets tend to slip back a notch during a long drive. The automatic transmission selector lever contains a button which must be pushed in before you can pick up second or first and this can be annoying when you want a lower gear in a hurry.

Our 770 ran to the same large three-spoke steering wheel which seems to suit the character of the car. Apart from this the interior is virtually the same as the 770 sedan. The wood "grained instrument panel contains a full set of instruments, including a tachometer, although these can be difficult to read. The calibrations are too fine and they tend to reflect sunlight. The padded top of the dashboard also reflects into the lower edge of the windscreen and this proved annoying on a long trip driving into the sun.

Tastefully padded door trim, good quality carpeting and a generally solid feel about the interior all make this a pleasant car to be in as well as to drive. Chrysler's awareness of the trend away from black interiors means the 770 has a light tan colour interior although black and burgundy colours are available. Panel fit, even on our early production test cars, was excellent and the Charger has a tight feel which is missing from the VH sedans. Only the painted metal area on the dashboard in front of the passenger detracts from the high overall impression of quality.

The XL is slightly less luxurious and retains the standard VH instruments with a horizontal speedometer and three small minor gauges. It also gets the normal two spoke steering wheel without the padded rim. More important the XL is stuck with the opening quarter vents which are a source of wind whistle above 60 mph. The RT and 770 run to one sheet of glass for better visibility and lower noise levels, but the water gutter and exterior mirror build up a roar at high speeds.

Seat belt mountings above the small rear window mean the belts drop down over the driver's shoulder - too close to the neck for comfort. The retractable set-up is good, but the belts tend to become twisted in the top mounting bracket.

Charger represents a new era of engineering and marketing sophistication from Tonsley Park. With its entire '71 range, Chrysler returns to the time when its cars were different and just a little more exclusive than the Holdens and Falcons. With the Charger - low price and all - Chrysler has achieved its aims of building a car for everyone - and capturing the youth market at the same time.

Charger - and that is an appropriate name - is a driver's car. It's not perfect, but it's a damn fine machine.