Driven: 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
Back in 2005, when Ford unveiled the newly retro-inspired Mustang, designers from Chevrolet and Dodge took notice of the excitement Ford was generating for nostalgic design coupled with modern performance and convenience and set to work creating their own responses, which resulted in the fifth generation Camaro and the third generation Challenger, the latter of which returned after a twenty five year hibernation. The Challenger SRT8 in particular caused quite a stir – its visual presence and torquey, rumbling 425 horsepower Hemi V8 was considered by many to be the most convincing reinterpretation of its classic counterpart.
The ensuing years were not as kind to Mopar though, as both Ford and Chevrolet unveiled ultra-high performance variants of the Mustang and the Camaro that the Challenger simply couldn’t keep up with, even with the more powerful 6.4 liter Hemi V8 that made its debut for the 2011 model year. This year however, as the 2015 Challenger sees a refresh across the model line, Dodge decided to drop the equivalent of the Tsar Bomba
on the automotive world by introducing the 707 horsepower Challenger SRT Hellcat. But lest you think this is just a big engine and a big number used to grab headlines, we’re pleased to report that the Hellcat is not only absurdly fast and surprisingly confident on a road course, it’s also really good at being a car you can actually live with.
What’s the idea behind the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat?
Dodge CEO Tim Kiniskis lovingly refers to the Hellcat as a "science project", a what-if scenario to see what his engineers, and this platform, are capable of. Clearly the Hellcat is an answer to the top spec offerings from the other two Detroit heavy hitters, the 662 horsepower Ford Mustang GT500 and 580 horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. To go along with the massive bump in horsepower, the Hellcat gets a beefed up suspension, the largest brakes ever fitted to an SRT vehicle, a comprehensive cooling system and a whole host of comfort and convenience features that end up giving the Hellcat something of a split personality in the best way possible.
Who might want a car like that?
Typically, there’s a distinct segmentation between types of performance car buyers. Euro tuner guys stick with BMW, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, import guys have cars like the Subaru WRX STI and the Nissan GT-R, muscle car guys have the modern pony cars, and those with deep enough pocketbooks and are willing to sacrifice some practicality look to cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911 and the Dodge Viper. While the Challenger SRT Hellcat can’t suit everyone’s needs simultaneously, the car hits far enough above its weight class in many respects that we wouldn’t be at all surprised to find a significant percentage of prospective buyers making the jump from a fairly incongruous performance segment. The output is alluring on its own, but coupled with the Challenger’s spaciousness, cargo room and, perhaps most importantly, price, the Hellcat makes a very compelling proposition for itself.
How does the drivetrain perform?
To create the 6.2-liter supercharged V8 used in the Hellcat, engineers started with the 6.4-liter V8 found in the standard SRT and replaced over 90% of the internals, not only to increase performance but also to boost engine durability in order to withstand the sheer force of nature created once the 2380cc twin-screw supercharger was bolted atop it. Official output numbers are rated at 707 horsepower and 650lb-ft of torque, though SRT Powertrain Director Chris Cowland explained that the engine’s true performance potential still has yet to be fully exploited.
Sitting down in the driver’s seat for the first time, that 707 number stays at the forefront of your mind. It is, after all, what makes the Challenger SRT Hellcat the most powerful production muscle car ever made. So you naturally prepare yourself for some pretty serious pull. Despite our readiness, the first time we dipped deep into the throttle pedal, the effect was awe-inspiring. With all the power being routed to the rear wheels, low end torque can be difficult to measure simply by virtue of how easily the Pirelli PZeros will vaporize into tire smoke. With a patient roll into the throttle, there just isn’t another production car under six figures that pulls as hard from 50-100mph as the Hellcat does. It is as fast as they say it is, and because Chrysler opted for supercharging instead of turbocharging, the power delivery is linear all the way to the redline.
We got a chance to drive Hellcats with both of the transmissions which will be on offer and found that both have virtue. The manual six-speed gearbox used in the Hellcat is derived from the Viper, albeit with some added heft to handle the additional horsepower on tap here. Somewhat surprisingly, clutch weight and feel splits the difference between the fairly effortless standard six-speed Challenger’s clutch and the particularly heavy unit used in the Viper, placing the Hellcat in a well-compromised middle ground between hardcore performance and stop-and-go traffic livability.
Chrysler’s 8-speed automatic, dubbed the TorqueFlight to further recapture some of the nostalgia of the original muscle car era, is essentially a beefed up version of the ZF unit found in cars like the Jaguar F-Type
, the BMW M235i
, and the Audi RS7
. We’re fans of this gearbox in those cars, and it doesn’t disappoint here either. It is simply leagues better than the archaic 5-speed unit used in the outgoing Challenger SRT, providing fast and firm upshifts, willing downshifts, and a wide span of gear ratios to yield both improved performance and better fuel economy over the outgoing box. In the clip below, you can see just how well this new 8-speed performs under wide open throttle:
How does the Hellcat handle?
Amongst the modern pony cars, the Challenger has always been a step or two behind the Mustang and Camaro in terms of handling prowess. Part of that can be attributed to the Challenger being the heaviest of the three, but it was also clear that the suspension itself needed some updates in order to get on the same page with the other two. That said, perhaps the biggest surprise during our time with the Hellcat was experienced out on the road course.
At over 4400 pounds, the Hellcat is certainly no lightweight, but engineers have done an excellent job of hiding a lot of that heft. While the standard SRT 392 and the rest of the Challenger line move to electrically-assisted power steering for 2015, the Hellcat instead gets a hydraulically-assisted rack and pinion unit which also does away with much of the over-boosted numbness found in previous Challengers. Coupled with three-mode adaptive damping, Hellcat-specific springs and sway bars, and sticky Pirelli PZero rubber, the Hellcat is undoubtedly the most sure-footed Challenger we’ve ever driven on a road course, with quick turn in and unyieldingly flat cornering when the three-mode adaptive suspension is set to Track mode. A Porsche Cayman it is not – and comparisons to two-seater sports cars of that ilk, while perhaps inevitable, are ill-founded.
Outward visibility in the Challenger has never been one of its strongest traits, and the Hellcat’s scooped hood, while functional and nice to look at, doesn’t do much to remedy the situation. That said, considering the Challenger’s size, we never had much trouble placing the car where we wanted into a corner, and slowing the car down from speed was an effortless affair with the 15.4 inch, six-piston Brembo brakes fitted up front, with 13.8 inch discs and four-piston calipers out back, which provided solid and consistent pedal feel. We can’t speak to fade resistance because we were only allotted 2-3 fast laps per course session, but we suspect, given the combination of the Challenger’s girth and high speed performance ability, this is a car which would likely benefit from a carbon ceramic option if owners sought to do extended lapping sessions, though the price of such an option on a $60K vehicle like the Hellcat would likely render it an illogical development pursuit.
How comfortable is it?
Our drive through the outskirts of Portland before heading to Portland International Raceway gave us a chance to play with the Hellcat’s three mode adaptive damping, and we found Street mode, the softest of the three settings, to not only be very compliant over rough road surfaces and stable over pavement undulations, but still engaging and responsive when asked to dive into the occasional backroad sweeper. Sport and Track predictably ratchet up the firmness, and most drivers will only see a benefit from Track mode, in particular, when they’re actually on a road course or a very well maintained road, as this setting is firm enough to unsettle both car and driver when used on the less than stellar pavement often found on public streets.
As you’ll see in the video below, while the Hellcat’s active exhaust system and supercharger whine can dominate the conversation when asked to do so, with the windows up and loping along in top gear, the Hellcat settles down and effectively isolates the cabin from road and wind noise. With its long wheelbase and generous interior proportions, grand touring has always been a strength of the Challenger, and while the Hellcat’s seats are sporty and well bolstered, they’re definitely designed with comfort in mind. Long trips at high speeds would suit this car well.
Is the Challenger SRT Hellcat fun and involving to drive?
If you have an understanding of what you’re getting into, the Hellcat is immensely fun to drive. Given the fervor surrounding this car, it is bound to disappoint those who might falsely compare it to cars like the upcoming Corvette Z06 or a Porsche 911 Turbo, cars not only costing significantly more money, but by-definition sports cars which are fundamentally designed with a different purpose. Given the Hellcat’s sizable trunk, usable back seat, and price of admission, it’s remarkable how well it does all that is asked of it. It goes like few other cars we’ve ever driven, stops with equal aplomb, and keeps you comfortable while doing it.
Considering the Hellcat’s dimensions, its handling is certainly on par with its competition and the adaptive suspension offers an appropriate setting for nearly all of the driving situations the Hellcat will likely see. The new exhaust system, which uses electronically-controlled valves to modulate exhaust volume based on engine load, throttle position and other real-time factors, sounds incredible and makes dipping into the throttle a gleeful proposition whenever the opportunity strikes. This is the kind of car that can and will get you into trouble, but when it does, you’ll have a massive grin on your face.
How are the design, materials, and fit when you see the car in person?
Another piece of insight Tim Kiniskis offered during his presentation was that designers of the Challenger did not want to make "something that would get lost in a mall parking lot". While the Challenger has always stood out in a crowd, the Hellcat pushes that aggression and sense of nostalgia even further by way of the massive hood scoop and heat extractors, along with gaping lower air intakes that feed the intercooler and brake ducts, which in turn compliments the Hellcat’s hunkered-down stance. Designers wisely chose not to attempt to reinvent the wheel when it came to the refreshed design, so subtle cues that recall the 1971 Challenger (as opposed to the 1970 model used to inspire the 2008-14 models) find their way into the front grill, rear LED tail lights, and revised interior. The interior now falls closer in line with the Dodge Charger’s cabin and shows a marked improvement in material quality, although some might argue that it comes at a cost of some of the Challenger’s identity.
The latest version of Chrysler’s Uconnect touchscreen system is on hand in the Hellcat, and it works just as well here as it has in other Chrysler products we’ve tested. The SRT Performance Pages get an update here, offering not only a wealth of real time performance information to the driver, but also providing access to driving modes, traction and stability control settings and suspension firmness, though we probably would have preferred to see those also receive bespoke buttons on the console for sheer ease of access.
Ever since its initial announcement, there’s been no shortage of skepticism about the Hellcat, and somehow Dodge has managed to exceed expectations, both from a price and performance standpoint. But the Hellcat is, as Kiniskis pointed out, "not for everyone". Not everyone needs 700 horsepower, and not everyone needs a car that looks and sounds like the Hellcat does. And as much of a performance bargain as the Hellcat is, not everyone wants to spend $60,000 on a high performance platform that starts life at under $27K. For those that do though, it’s a great time to be a muscle car enthusiast.
2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
Price: $59,995 (base), $65,265 (as tested)
Engine: 6.2-liter supercharged V8
Output: 707hp / 650lb-ft
0-60 mph: 3.5 seconds
On Sale: August 2014