Dodge chief Tim Kuniskis unveiled the refreshed 2015 Charger and Challenger in New York on Thursday. Photo credit: Fiat Chrysler.

Well, they promised us change -- but I'm not sure it was the change that Dodge fans were hoping for.

Fiat Chrysler (NASDAQOTH:FIATY) took the wraps off its refreshed 2015 Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger on Thursday, unveiling the pair in a raucous presentation at the New York International Auto Show.

I was there, right up front, and I got a close-up look at both of the new models. Here's what I can tell you: After years of dancing around it, the folks running the Dodge brand are embracing its muscle-car heritage in a big way.

But as for the cars themselves, it looks to me like the Charger and the Challenger are heading in different directions. 

Incremental changes to Dodge's big beasts -- mostly
First, let's say this: While the Challenger did get an all-new interior -- it's very similar to the interior that the Charger has had since 2011 -- neither the Charger nor the Challenger got any other huge changes for 2015. 

Whether it's a matter of tight budgets, not wanting to mess with successful formulas, or (very likely) both, Chrysler kept the changes to Dodge's rear-wheel-drive bruisers subtle -- with one big exception.


The 2015 Charger has lost its big trademark grille in favor of a new front end that resembles the compact Dodge Dart's. Photo credit: Fiat Chrysler.

That exception -- the Charger's new front end -- was a big topic of conversation at the show. The brash Ram-truck-inspired crossbar grille that has been a key part of the four-door Charger's junkyard-dog appeal since its introduction in 2006 is gone.

As you can see in the photos, it has been replaced by a finer-lined blacked-out affair that looks like it was cut and pasted right from the compact Dodge Dart. 

I can say that it looks good in person -- it's sporty and still fairly aggressive. The LED headlight trims are well executed and make the 2015 Charger look a bit more modern. 

But it's the resemblance to the Dart that seems likely to be unsettling for Dodge fans: Is Fiat Chrysler taking the muscle out of the car that wears the most hallowed muscle-car name of all?

Is Fiat Chrysler taking the muscle out of the Charger?
That's a question that doesn't have an easy answer. On one hand, Dodge brand chief Tim Kuniskis used the term "muscle-car" frequently and enthusiastically while referring to both the Charger and the Challenger. And you can still get a Charger with a Hemi and other rowdy go-fast parts. 

On the other hand, the Charger's styling is suddenly a lot more in line with the Dodge mainstream. And the 2015 Challenger gets some hot engine options that apparently won't be making their way to the Charger. 


Changes to the 2015 Challenger's exterior included new lighting, but were otherwise subtle. Photo credit: Fiat Chrysler.

Once available only in the top-end SRT trim, the hot 6.4-liter Hemi V8 will be offered in a couple of different (more mainstream) packages in the 2015 Challenger. But if you want a V8 Charger without paying the big SRT premium, the lesser 5.7-liter Hemi is all that's offered. 

Of course, there has been some differentiation between the two for years. Since its reintroduction in 2008, high-performance versions of the Challenger have been available with both automatic and manual transmissions, but the Charger has always been automatic-only. 

Why doesn't the Charger -- which, after all, wears one of the greatest of muscle-car names -- get all the muscle-car goodies?

Why the Charger isn't just a four-door Challenger
Unlike the two-door Challenger, the Charger has to do double duty.

The Charger isn't just a muscle car, which after all is a niche market. It's also Dodge's mainstream full-sized sedan. 

To some extent, it competes with vehicles like General Motors' (NYSE:GM) well regarded Chevy Impala, Ford's (NYSE:F) Taurus, and even Toyota's (NYSE:TM) Avalon. 

It's also offered in a police version that is popular with some highway-patrol units. 

That means it has to check off a lot of mass-market boxes that the Challenger, as a niche product, doesn't.

And that means that it has to look and act respectable, at least some of the time.

So is Fiat ruining the Charger?
I think Fiat is trying to make the Charger better -- but we have to understand what "better" means to them.

I do think Fiat (and Chrysler) would like to sell more Chargers. I think they would like to see the big sedan compete a little better in the mainstream part of the market -- while still keeping a foot in the high-performance realm. 


Besides the Charger's new nose, the big news was the 2015 Challenger's new interior. It closely resembles the overhauled interior introduced when the Charger was last refreshed in 2011. Photo credit: Fiat Chrysler.

I think they're not (yet) ready to unveil a radical overhaul of the Charger and its siblings. So with a limited budget, they've done what they can to keep the 2015 Charger a little closer to the automotive mainstream while keeping some of its muscle-car cred intact.

We know that bigger changes are coming. The rear-wheel-drive platform that underpins the Maserati Quattroporte and Ghibli will eventually spawn new versions of the Chrysler 300 and the Charger (and presumably the Challenger, too). 

But the freshly merged Fiat Chrysler has a lot of work to do, all around the world. Major (read: expensive) changes to the Charger will have to wait a while longer. 

In the meantime, they've done what they can.

What do you think? Did Fiat Chrysler mess up the Charger with this new grille? Or will it work out fine for Dodge's biggest muscle car? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.

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John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors and owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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