Look back at HOT ROD magazine in the 1960s and you’ll find at least one new car test in every issue. As performance dwindled, so did HOT ROD’s interest in what was happening in Detroit. After all, if you can beat a brand new Corvette with a mildly built (or even stock) 15-year-old small-block- as you could in 1982, why would you even care about the new stuff?
Ah, but things have changed. Detroit is sending out its most powerful street cars ever, and no matter what you’re driving you should care. Why? Three reasons:
- You might want to buy one. The opportunity to purchase, with a warranty, a passenger car that will beat European supercars and classic car legends will not last forever. If you’ve got the dough and the need, now’s the time to buy. If not, attractive financing is available.
- You might want to beat one. The 1980s are over. You can’t be sure of winning a stoplight battle with a cam and open exhaust, even if you have one of the muscle car era’s heavy hitters. If you want to send a new car owner home with his tail between his legs, you need to know your enemy.
- You might want to use the technology in your own car. Some of the greatest hot rods in the hobby came from cast off parts after high-powered new cars met early retirement. When used bits of 2014 Z/28’s and 2015 Dodge Hellcats start hitting the market, you’ll want to recognize them.
With that in mind, we headed to Portland, Oregon, to get a look at the latest offering in the modern horsepower wars, the 707hp 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, a car we’ve been asking Dodge to build for years. We really have been asking for years, the PR guy invited us to the press launch and basically said, “Now will you stop bothering me?”
We did stop bothering the PR guy, but only so we could bother some of the Dodge engineers, including SRT Powertrain director Chris Cowland and Chief Engineer of Challenger, Brenna Kaufman whom we cornered over drinks during the first evening meet-and-greet. They’re pretty excited about all the new Challengers, which have been redesigned for 2015. The 2015 Challenger retains the same classic E-body bodylines, but all the details have been revisited with inspiration from 1971. The whole 2015 Challenger lineup features a twin rectangle grille and split rear taillights, with an assortment of hoods ranging from the classic power bulge to the new center vented or Shaker bubble. The front fascia drops lower over the dual headlamps, giving the car a menacing look from some angles, and a slightly sleepy expression from others. The interior is plush, with smooth leather over shaped door panels, and a high center console that will keep creepy passengers from touching you as you drive—always a danger here at HOT ROD.
Forget all that though, because barely any of it applies to the Hellcat, which is styled by the needs of the track. The Hellcat—and we should stop here to clarify that it is really the engine, that supercharged 6.2L Hemi V8 that is the Hellcat. The car itself is a Challenger SRT, but we’re going to keep calling the car a Hellcat, ‘cause that’s more fun to write. The Hellcat is not just a dyno-racer. Dodge wanted to make sure that the car could hold together on the track, so a major part of testing the package was focused on preventing de-rating in extreme track conditions. “One of the requirements for the car was that it could handle a 20 minute track session with no loss in horsepower,” said Russ Ruedisueli, Head of SRT Engineering. To achieve this, the Hellcat has a bare grille, to allow maximum airflow. Every system that could benefit from one has a cooler, from the transmission—either the six-speed manual or the new eight-speed automatic, to the dual water-to-air intercoolers and of course there's a heavy-duty radiator. To up the coolness factor, literally, the inner halo headlamp does double duty as a cold air intake. The aluminum hood has a striking AAR-cuda-esque center intake (functional) and dual heat extractors, which are mesmerizing when you’re sitting behind the wheel, watching the traffic in front of you shimmer through the heat waves.
Oh, and isn’t that what you’re really here for? First drive impressions? Okay, you want to know what it’s like to drive the Hellcat? Think of the most perfect throttle response you can imagine. Is it like a whip crack? A rubber band snapping? A rocket launch to the moon? Yeah, the Hellcat feels like that when you step on the gas. We started giggling. Our photographer mocked us, until he got behind the wheel. Then he started giggling, too. We drove around downtown Portland giggling and high-fiving strangers at stop lights. “Hey, is that the 470-horse engine?” asked a kid on the corner. “Seven-Oh-Seven,” we answered. High Five.
The next day we swapped our red automatic for a black stick shift and headed out on a scenic loop around Portland. Aside from a heavy clutch that takes a few stop and starts to get used to, the Hellcat has street manners like a kitten. The Challenger gets a lot of grief for its weight, and at 4,449 pounds, the 2015 Challenger is a heavy car. You can feel this while driving, it’s a pleasant thing on the highway, giving the car a solid, smooth ride, even in the firmest “Track” mode setting of the three-way adjustable suspension. In corners, the heft of the car is noticeable, especially if you’re used to a lighter machine, but the Challenger handles well, and we had no concerns about the tight, twisty roads along Oregon’s Columbia River Highway.
One of the things that struck us about the Hellcat is that it’s not a stripped-down race package like the Chevy Z/28 or Ford’s Boss. You can get pretty much every desired option in the Hellcat, and many of them come standard. Want heated seats? Dual climate control? Remote start? All included. The car we were driving even had the optional sun roof. Normally, we’d say such things were for the weak, but cruising past waterfalls with the sunroof open and the air conditioning on was a pretty splendid way to spend a day. All that luxury is acceptable for one reason. If you put the car in Track mode and stomp on the gas, the Hellcat is a brutal, evil, killing machine. An innocent blip of the throttle in a tunnel—oh that sound, and we had the kitty wagging her tail, in Fourth gear! You could get in trouble fast, and that’s a pretty fantastic combo, a car that’s comfortable enough for your friends and family to ride in, but too dangerous to let them drive. Isn’t that what we all want from our hot rods, a horse only we can ride?
Since you might occasionally have to let the spouse or kid take the wheel, the Challenger Hellcat comes with two keys, a red and a black. The black key limits horsepower to 500. If that’s still too much for your loved ones, you could always put it in Valet Mode, which redlines the engine at 4,000 rpm (as opposed to 6,000), and locks out First gear altogether.
Amazingly, Dodge gave us the red key, and set us loose on track at Portland International Raceway (PIR). To keep it from devolving into a scene from Automotive Celebrity Death Race, there were no lap times, but one of the instructors told us that he had hit 146 mph on the back stretch. We were too focused on not hitting the wall to look at the speedo during our drive, but photographer Jesse Kiser saw 126 mph on the front straight, with us cowering in the back seat. The Hellcat’s brakes—15.4 inch Brembos, are the largest front brakes Chrysler has ever offered, bigger even than the Viper, and they bring the ‘cat down from a buck-twenty with no problem.
The biggest buzz about the Hellcat has been its quarter-mile times. Dodge released a video earlier this month showing the Challenger SRT running a 10.80 ET on slicks, and 11.20s on street tires. We can say with some certainty that those numbers weren’t run on the unprepped front straight of PIR in 90-degree weather. After watching some of our fellow journalists turn their launches into tire-smoking slaloms around invisible cones, we decided to go for the delicate approach to our run. Once again, there were no timers, but the SRT has a built-in e.t. recorder which we’ve tested in the past and found to be close, if not exact. We brought the car to barely off-idle (about 1,200 rpm) and applied the throttle with the same caution as you’d use while walking barefoot in the dark through a room full of Legos. We didn’t have the car fully floored until after the second gear shift. Result? 12 flat at 118 mph. We have no problem believing this thing could run low 11s on a real track. Of course, we won’t leave it at that. Check back with us soon, ‘cause we plan to get one of these babies for some real testing as soon as possible. Think of this as a taster, don’t you want more?