Darrell Waltrip once said, "If the lion didn't bite the tamer every once in a while, it wouldn't be exciting." The sentiment behind that aphorism is causing my adrenal gland to wake up as Dodge and SRT drivers and engineers – somber-faced to a man – give me the track talk that will precede my driving the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT on the circuit at Portland International Raceway. PIR might not be Daytona, and the 707-horsepower Challenger Hellcat might seem tame to a legend like ol' Jaws, but there's a not-small part of me that's thinking about how hard Dodge's fire-breathing kitty might bite.
Just a few hours previous, I'd gotten behind the wheel of the Hellcat for the first time, letting its hyperbole-spitting, supercharged V8 Hemi pull me yieldingly through Portland's morning commuter traffic. Lulled into a cocky certainty by the Challenger's good manners at low speed, I drove the throttle just a hair too deep, too fast when I ran on to the highway ramp. For just an instant the rear tires were utterly drenched in torque, and the back end of the big Dodge loosened up like a drift car on a wet track. Throttle steer lives at the fleeting whim of your right foot in this car.
It was no big thing to lay off the gas and pull the Hellcat back in line as I entered the highway, but the incident did get me to thinking: What will this car do to me on a road course?
With the track talk ended, I picked up a helmet and a head sock – stand-ins for the whip and the chair every good lion tamer needs – hoping like hell I wouldn't end up as a gravel-track snack for the new biggest predator in the muscle car circus.
The race amongst the Detroit Three to offer the most outlandish pony car has been heating up for some time, as you well know. Chevrolet will sell you a Camaro ZL1 that produces a bruising 580 horsepower and sprints to 60 miles per hour in under four seconds, while Ford's outgoing Shelby GT500 makes an astonishing 662 hp on 93 octane fuel, and still tops the list in terms of power-to-weight for under six figures.
707 hp and 650 lb-ft are not only good enough to wallop the GT500, they make some supercars start to feel a mite less exotic.
Until today, the Dodge Challenger's efforts in the 21st-Century Pony Wars have been stylish and quick, but ultimately lagged behind Ford and Chevy fare. The most potent Challenger 392 was anything but slow in its last, 2014-model-year iteration, but its naturally aspirated Hemi V8 was never quite stout enough to pull its two-ton curb weight into contention with its top-flight rivals.
Just a few weeks ago, Dodge put the performance-motoring community on notice that it wouldn't accept third billing any longer, revealing that its supercharged 6.2-liter Hellcat V8 engine would kick out an astronomical 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers are not only good enough to wallop the cock-of-the-walk GT500, they make some supercars start to feel a mite less exotic as well.
The Lamborghini Aventador makes seven fewer horsepower and 141 fewer pounds-feet of torque while costing seven and a half times more than the Hellcat's $59,995 sticker. The McLaren 650S is some 60 hp shy and about five times the cost, while the Ferrari 458 Speciale can't even muster 600 hp for almost $300,000. In fact, even in today's horsepower-happy climate, you're really looking at spending a half million or more if you want to climb the 700-hp mark in a straight-from-the-factory product.
Attempts to unleash all of the new Hemi's power from a standing start result in the near-instant liquefaction of a lot of good, expensive rubber.
Unless you dial up your local Dodge dealer, that is.
SRT has gone far enough into the bonkers realm with the Hellcat engine for Dodge CEO Tim Kiniskis to credibly call this a "science-project car." Sure, the cast-iron block may still be powder-coated in the same orange as Hemi engines past, but technology abounds in this supercharged 6.2-liter V8. The forged-steel crankshaft is ultra hard and durable; the pistons are of forged-alloy construction and connected to powder-forged rods; heat-treated, aluminum alloy cylinder heads offer "superior thermal conductivity" and the hollow-stem exhaust valves are sodium cooled in an engine where heat buildup is a very real issue. And, of course, SRT has built a supercharger to beat the band. The twin-screw blower displaces 2,380cc of air per rev, creates a regulated max boost of 11.6 psi, and sounds like the Devil riding a bobsled from Heaven to Hell when it's fully maxed out at 14,600 rpm.
I made a few hilarious attempts to unleash all of the new Hemi's power from a standing start, and the result, predictably, is the near-instant liquefaction of a lot of good, expensive rubber. Fun, but slow, as you can see below.
No, better use of the massive torque – all 650 pound-feet of it available at 4,000 rpm – is found in the impressive lurch forward when the throttle is matted at highway speeds. With the steering wheel pointed straight ahead, the only issue with accelerating for a pass in the Challenger SRT is staying near enough to the speed limit that you might not lose your driver's license if police radar is on hand to track you. From a 60-mph start, the Hellcat needs only the merest insinuation on the gas to bolt to triple digits. I've driven a handful of 200-mph cars before, but few of them seem to offer up the possibility of the double ton in real-world circumstances like this Dodge. I'm not saying I could hit the 199-mph limit, but I am saying the Hellcat didn't stop pulling hard before I chickened out (or on the track, ran out of tarmac).
PIR was the destination for the afternoon, but I was able to fill the morning by testing the Hellcat's legs on some truly lovely roads along the Columbia River. Anyone that has traveled this way knows that both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river are blessed with driver's roads as good as just about any in the country, albeit dotted with slow-moving sightseers and tourist-choked vista stops, as well. Truth be told, the stop-and-go traffic punctuated with the occasional fast corner and nuanced river bend, made for a great use of the Challenger's performance suite.
In the wide-open spaces that run over hill and through pine forest around the Columbia, the SRT proved itself remarkably quiet, relaxed and easily tractable from sweeper to sweeper. Sure, when I dug into the Hellcat's power reserves, the exhaust note and supercharger whine were more than enough to wake any sleeping passengers, but as a kind of American grand tourer, this Challenger should have few equals.
As a kind of American grand tourer, this Challenger should have few equals.
The road surfaces were mostly well maintained and smooth on our river route, and didn't offer much to upset the ride quality of the Challenger, either at pace or when cruising. Dodge's new Drive Modes (Default, Sport and Track) alter shift speeds, steering weight, traction control and suspension response in the SRT, and the middle Sport mode proved well suited to occasionally aggressive cornering, without letting much road harshness filter in by way of the seats or floorboards. The long, wide coupe still has a lot of body to be piloted from corner to corner on the really tight sections of the road, but the truth is that it responded with neutrality and quickness at a moderate pace.
"Nimble" wasn't the word that sprung to mind after turning more than 100 miles on public streets, but "confident" would be a fair one.
In terms of a big GT car (in addition to a bragging-rights muscle car), Dodge has done the Challenger a service in terms of renovating its interior, too. A large, bright, and easy-to-operate UConnect infotainment screen lords over the center stack and offers a wealth of infotainment options to go with a great supply of vehicle settings. There's an aluminum bezel that bejewels the instrument cluster, and another one that wraps around the controls and cupholders on the central tunnel. As ever, the SRT seats are beefy and comfortable, but with enough lateral grip to keep all but the skinniest drivers from sliding around under a cornering load. Dash and door plastics have been given a glaze of rubbery texture that exudes higher quality than in the outgoing car, but what's impressive in the sub-$30k base of the model range does feel a bit underwhelming in a $60k-car. The company clearly put most of the Hellcat-specific budget in the engine – and I'm fine with that.
The interior feels a bit underwhelming for a $60k-car. Dodge clearly put most of the Hellcat-specific budget in the engine – and I'm fine with that.
Of course, it looks the part, too. I'm convinced that a lot of Challenger's success up to this point has been its striking use of 1970s design cues with enough modernity to keep non-Baby Boomers interested. The 2015 Challenger doesn't change much of that, but it does amp up the equation, especially in Hellcat guise, with a revised front end, halo-ringed headlamps and a mean-ass, hood-mounted NACA duct sucking in as much fresh air as you're willing to feed it. Fittingly, along with the new wheels and revised bodywork, SRT has made sure the engine bay drops jaws when the hood is popped.
Eventually, over the next months and years, we'll bring you plenty of tales of this newest Challenger, in all of its trims and with each one of its engines, and will, I'm certain, reinforce to you that it makes a very fine, fast road car. But I started this tale with a racetrack, and it's on some kind of track that Dodge believes a lot of its eventual Hellcat owners will find themselves. Muscle car or no, all that power makes this the closest thing to a road-legal-racecar Challenger since the swanky '70s.
And, like another racing luminary, Richard Petty once pointed out, "The good Lord doesn't tell you what His plan is, so all you can do is get up in the morning and see what happens next." In other words, I had to track the thing.
PIR is a nearly two-mile track with very little elevation change, a meandering back section and long, near-straights on either end of the start/finish line. Half of it makes the Hellcat feel like a hero, while the other half calls into question the physics behind a massive engine sending monumental power to just the rear wheels of a 4,400-pound muscle car.
At every point of interaction on the circuit, I found the Hellcat experience to be more or less dominated by the omnipotence of the 6.2 Hemi – for good and for bad. Turn 8 is a very shallow S-curve that sets one up for the great, long sweeping Turn 9, where I progressively became braver, faster and less concerned about planting the passenger-side headlight into the concrete wall directly off the right hand side. The aforementioned worried driving instructors had set up a very conservative braking box coming out of 9, but even at my fastest tilt, I never once mistrusted the tremendous braking force under my foot.
Dodge has fitted crazy-huge 15.4-inch front rotors with six-piston calipers to retard the SRT's copious power, along with 13.8-inch discs and four-piston calipers on the rear. The result of all the stopping power (and the grippy, 275-section Pirelli PZero tires) was braking response that, on few occasions, left me just as short of breath as the standing starts had earlier. I was never allowed more than four consecutive laps of the two-mile course at a go, but in that timeframe (and under heavy use all day), the brakes never seemed to wilt, either.
With all the good that the SRT team has wrought here, there's still no getting around the fact that the Challenger is not a natural racecar.
I can also offer full-throated enthusiasm for the Torqueflite eight-speed automatic transmission. With Track mode engaged, the automatic programming was quick to respond to requests for more power, never seeming to be caught wrong-footed on any section. Still, shifting for myself was more enjoyable (even though that mostly meant third and fourth gear at this venue), and the autobox was ultra responsive in that task, too. Dodge will sell you a Hellcat with a six-speed manual transmission, as well, but I wasn't ever in the right car at the right time to sample that hand-shaker on the circuit. Next time.
With all the good that the SRT team has wrought here, there's still no getting around the fact that the Challenger is not a natural racecar – at least for someone who is unused to pushing American-iron-heaviness from curb to curb. As I mentioned earlier, the Hellcat is almost always up for a throttle-induced bout of oversteer, so holding the go-pedal steady while taking a quick line through the half-circle corners that make up PIR's Turns 4, 5, 6 and 7 proved, well, challenging. Even with plenty of grip available most of the time, there's so much weight constantly desirous of changing direction that hustling the Dodge in the twisty bits left me either too slow or out of sorts upon exit. The steering is quick enough, but numb, which didn't help speed me up, either.
I'll be the first person to tell you that some of that slowness is down to me being the driver. It's like Buddy Baker once quipped, "He ran out of talent about halfway through the corner." I can own that. But it's also true that the Hellcat, for all of its phenomenal power, isn't the kind of thoroughbred that makes its driver better on a track day.
The SRT can truthfully boast of being the world's top-dog muscle car, as well as one of the most impressive performance-per-dollar cars ever.
I actually think that's fine, too. This is, after all, a muscle car, guys. And where the mission of cars like the Camaro Z/28 and Ford Mustang Boss 302 have expanded the scope for traditional nameplates, there's more than enough room for the bigger personality of this hellacious Mopar, too.
Dodge has taken the car-interested world by storm with this Challenger SRT Hellcat, creating a buzz for the entire model range that should do exciting things for the Dodge brand in 2015. The SRT can truthfully boast of being the world's top-dog muscle car, as well as one of the most impressive performance-per-dollar cars, well, ever. As the front man for this exciting new generation of super pony cars, I expect it to dominate the conversation for the foreseeable future and be easily tracked by the cloud of smoke and sizzle of rubber it leaves in its wake.
Welcome to first place, Hellcat.
New Car Test Drive
Revised models charge to front of pony car race.
It was a minor player in the dawn of the pony car era, but as Dodge rolls into its second century, the 2015 Challenger looms as a powerful presence, upstaging Ford's Mustang and the Chevy Camaro with a potent array of engines, including one that packs the biggest kick of all.
The power lineup starts with 305 horsepower, the output of the 3.6-liter V6 that propels the basic Challenger SXT, and now includes the new Hellcat V8, a supercharged 6.2-liter variant of Chrysler's naturally aspirated 6.4-liter V8. It's rated for a prodigious 707 horsepower, the most powerful passenger car engine ever offered by Chrysler and also the most powerful in the contemporary pony car corral.
Engine options for the rest of the 2015 Dodge Challenger pale a bit in comparison to the Hellcat, but are heavy hitters in their own right: a 5.7-liter Hemi (372 hp) and the 6.4-liter Hemi, aka the 390 (485 hp). Chrysler's 8-speed automatic transmission is available across the board, and new to the Challenger inventory for 2015. It's the only transmission offered with the basic SXT model, while a 6-speed manual is available with most of the V8s.
The sheetmetal surrounding all this power is new, but that's not readily apparent. Dodge has been faithful to the original Challenger styling, and that continues to be true of the redesign, with one proviso: the current Challenger was faithful to the 1970 original. The 2015 version is faithful to 1971. That model year, its second on the market, marked the zenith of Challenger performance, the final year with the option of 426 Hemi V8 muscle.
The design distinctions between 1970 and '71 were subtle, and that's true of the 2015 update. The front and rear fascias have been restyled, a thinner split grille slot (this varies according to trim levels), deeper airdam, an LED halo surrounding the quad headlights, a bigger power bulge in the new hood, a new Shaker hood option, and LED taillights.
But like the transition from 1970 to '71, the Challenger's 2015 profile is essentially the same as 2014. That's also true of the structure, although the rear axle housing is cast aluminum, rather than iron. And the retro theme is amplified visually by color choices drawn from the glory years, high-impact heritage hues, according to Dodge: B5 Blue, Tor Red, and Sublime. The last one is an electric green that's probably visible even in dense fog. There are also seven heritage-inspired stripe options.
While the exterior maintains close ties to the early '70s, the all-new interior is a blend of retro design and contemporary technology. There are 14 different interior package choices. Highlights under this heading include a new 7-inch TFT cluster nestled between the tachometer and speedometer with programmable information via Dodge's Performance Pages feature; a new 8.4-inch touchscreen option with Chrysler's U-Connect telematics; driver selectable operating modes; a variety of performance tracking features; and a new rearview camera. An S3 card slot, auxiliary audio input and USB outlet are integrated into a new media hub housed in the center armrest.
The front seats have been redesigned, with upholstery choices ranging from cloth to Nappa leather, and the option of heating and cooling for those clad with hides. There's also a performance seat option with heftier thigh and torso bolstering for the front buckets. Dodge claims more rear-seat legroom for the Challenger versus Mustang and Camaro, but this distinction seems academic.
Essentially a two-door version of the Charger sedan, the Challenger is a big car by pony standards, and it's heavy, most models weighing more than two tons. The SRT and Dodge chassis engineers have done a commendable job of tuning the suspension to manage the mass, and the brake packages seem equal to arresting it from high speeds with minimal drama and zero fade. And of course 707 hp can do wonders when it comes to minimizing mass, an original pony car theory that still applies.
We still revere the pony cars of yesteryear. Cars like Hemi Barracudas regularly command auction prices running north of the $1 million frontier. While the original muscle era produced some memorable power-to-weight ratios, the latest Challenger lineup, particularly the Hellcat version, puts them on the trailer. And in addition, the contemporary Challengers add a couple of capabilities that were all but absent in the originals: they'll stop and turn.
The 2015 Dodge Challenger SXT ($26,995) comes with a 305-hp V6 with dual exhausts. Standard features include dual zone auto climate control, 7-inch TFT configurable instrument display, UConnect infotainment via 5-inch color touch screen display, 6-speaker audio with AM/FM/Bluetooth, media hub with SD card, USB inputs, keyless remote entry, push-button starting, leather-wrapped tilt/telescope steering wheel with auxiliary controls, leather-wrapped shifter 12-volt outlet, LED-illuminated cup holders, LED front map lamps and rear reading lamps, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, all-season performance tires, quad projector beam headlamps with LED halos, power bulge hood with twin air intakes, power body-color folding side mirrors. Challenger SXT Plus ($29,995) adds 276-watt audio, Uconnect telematics with 8.4-inch color touchscreen display, rear park assist, rearview camera, Nappa leather seats, heated and ventilated front, heated steering wheel with power tilt/telescope, 20-inch polished aluminum alloy wheels, performance suspension, upgraded brakes, projector fog lamps, rear decklid spoiler.
Challenger R/T ($31,495) features 375-hp 5.7-liter Hemi pushrod V8, 6-speed manual transmission, 3.90:1 limited slip rear differential, performance exhaust Challenger R/T Plus ($34,495) upgrades to 20-inch polished aluminum wheels, Nappa leather, heated/ventilated front seats, power tilt/telescope steering column, Uconnect with 8.4-inch color touchscreen, rear park assist, rearview camera, 276-watt audio.
Challenger Hemi Scat Pack ($38,495) upgrades with the 485-hp 6.4-liter Hemi pushrod V8, performance suspension, active stainless steel dual exhaust.
Challenger SRT Hellcat ($59,995) features the 707-hp supercharged 6.2-liter V8, aluminum power bulge hood with center air intake and dual air extractors, Drive Modes performance pre-select programs, differentiated key fobs.
While the 2015 Challenger doesn't look vastly different from its immediate predecessor (2008-2014), it preserves a design distinction that contrasts attractively with crosstown competition: the sleek contours are devoid of wide wheel arches and other visual braggadocio, yet there's no mistaking its muscularity, especially when someone lights up one of the big Hemi engines.
The LED headlight halos surround new projector beam lamps, augmented by low-mounted projector fog lamps. The split LED taillamps are also new, and there are nine wheel options, including 20 x 9-inch forged alloys, and, top of the line, 20 x 9.5-inch forged alloys from SRT in three different finishes.
An interesting Hellcat light variation substitutes air intakes for the inboard headlamps on each side. And the hood bulge is functional, with a pair of vents to exhaust hot air from the engine bay. All the Challengers have hood bulges of some kind, including the historic shaker hood, which, like the Hellcat's bulge, is functional.
As noted, the redesigned sheetmetal echoes styling details drawn from 1971, rather than 1970, augmented by wind tunnel development, an element that really was essentially absent in Seventies design.
Although the general shapes of the Challenger's redesigned dashboard pay tribute to the original, forget the hard edges and plastics of yesteryear. The new dash and instrument panel are upholstered in far more civilized material, with lots of soft touch surfaces and very little reflectivity. More important, the instrument binnacle and dashboard are equipped with 21st century electronics, telematics, and infotainment, as distinct from the mechanical instruments of yesteryear and infotainment that could be summed up under one heading: AM radio.
The new speedo and tach are analog-style electronic, there's a 7-inch thin film transistor (TFT) digital info display between the major gauges, and a new 8.4-inch touch-screen display option that's home for navigation and other systems. This includes the Performance Pages data that goes with the Fast Track Pack option, allowing the driver to track acceleration, braking, grip, and a vast variety of other performance metrics. The center stack display in the base Challenger SXT is a 5-inch screen.
The seats are new for 2015, offered in several styles and upholstery materials, ranging from mildly sporty to raceworthy. SRT Challenger models are tricked out with a sporty flat-bottom steering wheel and aluminum shift paddles when equipped with the 8-speed automatic transmission. A robust Tremec 6-speed manual is available with all the V8 engines, but the automatic's response times in track mode are race-quick, far faster than the stick shift.
A bewildering variety of features and options are available for the Challenger buyer, covering infotainment, connectivity, furnishings, and style, not only from the Dodge inventory of standard and optional features, but also from the vast array of goodies available through Mopar, Chrysler's in-house aftermarket supermarket. Opportunities for personalization are rich.
The Hellcat comes with two keyfobs, one red, one black. The red one unlocks the full potential of the supercharged engine. The black one is the fob you hand to valets and/or your kids. It removes some of the temptation for excess by limiting engine output to a mere 500 horsepower. That's an element of retro that doesn't translate: 500 horsepower would have made the Challenger king of Woodward Avenue in 1971.
The Dodge Challenger press preview was held in Portland, Oregon, and included a half-day of driving on scenic but busy public roads along the Columbia River (summer tourist season was in full swing), plus some lapping at Portland International Raceway followed by drag racing exercises on the track's long front straight.
We managed to log most of our limited seat time in one of the few Hellcat-propelled Challengers on hand for the public road portion of the program, and emerged with a surprising impression. The power is certainly there, in massive, guttural depth, summoned with very little pressure on the throttle. But for all that, once the driver has learned to suppress the urge to tap the seductive power so readily available, the Hellcat can be a docile everyday ride.
We should add, however, that resisting the Hellcat's massive thrust requires serious discipline. We found the Hellcat makes extraordinarily short work of two-lane passing opportunities, but we waited for the track to open the throttle all the way.
Portland is a flat circuit with some very fast stretches. Indy cars race there, and even with a chicane two-thirds of the way down the front straight the Hellcat builds speed at a heady rate.
The suspension engineers have done a good job here; the hottest of all Challengers corners well, and if the electric power steering could be a little more tactile on center, it's quick, accurate, and nicely weighted as speed builds.
Braking with this package is powerful and fade free, via a set of massive Brembos, but the most impressive element, after the engine of course, is the 8-speed manumatic. In track mode it hammers home shifts in milliseconds, far faster than would be possible to duplicate with the 6-speed manual.
While the Hellcat Challenger handles well enough, far better than its 1970s ancestors, it does share one key trait with the originals: it shows to best advantage at the drag strip. Engage launch control, tramp on the throttle, and the Hellcat is capable of getting through the quarter-mile lights in less than 11 seconds, squashing the driver into the seat bolsters and stretching facial muscles into a big grin. This is serious hustle for a production car. And like its forebear, it's capable of shredding its rear tires in short order.
The Hellcat Challenger is capable of almost 200 mph (199), according to Dodge. Our limited seat time didn't give us an opportunity to verify this claim. But we believe it.
The 2015 Dodge Challenger offers a choice of engines: The 3.6-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 produces 305 horsepower at 6350 rpm and 268 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm and is EPA-rated at 19/30 mpg City/Highway, or 23 mpg Combined. The 5.7-liter 16-valve pushrod Hemi V8 is rated at 372 hp at 5200 rpm, 400 lb-ft at 4400 rpm and gets an EPA-rated 16/25/19 mpg City/Highway/Combined with the automatic transmission. The 6.4-liter 16-valve pushrod Hemi V8 is rated 485 hp at 6000 rpm, 475 lb-ft of torque 4200 rpm and gets an EPA-rated 15/25/18 mpg. The 6.2-liter supercharged and intercooled 16-valve pushrod V8 is rated at 707 hp at 6600 rpm and 650 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
The addition of the supercharged Hellcat V8 raises the redesigned Challenger lineup from formidable to extraordinary. In the surprisingly persistent realm of muscle cars, the Hellcat raises the ante, delivering competent dynamics and immense power for a relative bargain price. It's docile enough for everyday driving, provided the driver can resist the omnipresent temptation of the throttle. But its true reason for being is the race track, in particular the drag racing track. The 2015 Dodge Challenger offers a broad array of power choices, handsome interior options, and sophisticated electronics, wrapped in slick sheetmetal that's faithful to the Challenger's glory years. Then again, with this lineup, the case can be made that the Challenger's glory years are now.
Tony Swan filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the 2015 Challenger models near Portland, Oregon.
Dodge Challenger SXT ($26,995), SXT Plus ($29,995); R/T ($31,495); Scat Pack ($38,495), 392 Hemi Scat Pack Shaker ($38,495); Challenger SRT Hellcat ($59,995).
Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat ($59,995).
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