I hit the throttle of the 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat while turning left onto the road leading toward the town square, sending the sedan's rear end swinging to the right with a few puffs of rubbery smoke. I coast down to the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit and spot the line of Challengers, Chargers, and Vipers in my rear-view mirror, the drivers all mimicking my quick jolt of enthusiasm before pulling up the reigns on their V8s and V10s and idling into Fort Davis.
Our posse would roll some 5,000 horsepower of pure American muscle into that small Texas town that day. It was only the first stop on an epic journey that would take us from Dallas to Las Vegas, on a winding route down toward El Paso, up through New Mexico, Arizona, and finally north into Nevada, ending at the ritzy Palazzo casino and hotel on the Vegas strip. It was an opportunity to see parts of America I never knew existed, and a chance to bond with some American cars that until recently, I sort of failed to understand. And most importantly it was an opportunity to drive really, really hard.
Charging Through Texas
Unless you've driven across it, it's hard to understand the massive space that is Texas. In places, scanning 360 degrees of horizon reveals absolutely nothing. Nothing. On its own, driving from Dallas to El Paso covers some 630 miles. Veer south to Fort Davis and you'll add another 70 onto that, not including the 75-mile Davis Mountain Scenic Loop where I found bliss behind the wheel of this insanely powerful sedan.
I always expected to like the Charger Hellcat – comfortable seating for four (five in a pinch), equipped with the latest tech, wrapped in a stylish yet muscular body, like a quarterback in a tux. And it moves. The supercharged 6.2-liter Hellcat V8 pumps out 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque, which makes for one quick sedan, especially considering its heft. The 4,600-pound Charger reaches 60 mph in under 3.7 seconds and some independent parties are even reporting runs of under three when equipped with drag radials. Damned impressive off-the-line force.
It also hits 60 mph quicker than you can crack a smile. Ungodly powerful and capable, the Charger doesn't have to be a complete menace all of the time. On I-20 West out of Dallas, the Dodge was quiet – in terms of wind and road noise, anyway. Mashing the throttle and provoking its throaty exhaust tone and pronounced supercharger whine was wonderfully easy. Doing so provided an intoxicating blend of aural delight while flying past lines of slow-moving 18-wheelers and playfully taking part in the occasional fast-then-slow passing fun with other Hellcats in my group.
It only took three hours to drain the fuel tank, and a gas station right off the interstate in Sweetwater, TX was my first break point. Within five minutes a sweet gal with a southern twang confronted me.
"That's a Hellcat, ain't it?" She pointed out at my Jazz Blue, Michigan manufacturer-plated tester, catching its breath next to a fuel pump. "Yeah, I know that's a Hellcat. I saw you pull in. I heard it." I nodded, and she turned to her coworker. "I told you. That's the Hellcat. Just wait 'til he leaves. You gotta hear it."
Not one to disappoint, my exit from the Shell station and immediate entry onto the I-20 onramp wasn't what I'd call subtle. This car is a big bear, and when poked, it growls and leaves a pair of neat little mounds of rubber formed on the pavement. A leaving-the-stopover ritual my fellow road-trippers and I were only too happy to partake in.
Our unholy sextet of animals – two Challengers, two Chargers, two Vipers – driven by media, Dodge executives, PR pros and SRT engineers, made up our crew. A group of hooligans, we were – my kind of lead-footed folks – preparing to storm into Fort Davis at speeds I shan't mention.
Our company headed up toward the mountain loop, my Charger taking a place in the middle of the pack, where we proceeded to absolutely destroy the 75 miles of tarmac carved into those picturesque hills. It's no secret that this car is powerful and stunningly quick in a straight line, but the surprise and delight came while manhandling it on those mountain roads.
The Charger isn't precise like a BMW M5, or even a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. At the moment when you'd think you've executed a properly fast turn – right where the German saloons would rocket you out of the corner – the Hellcat bites back, its tires losing the smallest amount of grip, forcing you to quickly snap it back into line. It's an intoxicating, thrilling experience – never sloppy or unwanted, just pure fun. I suspect a fast German sedan could out-corner this Charger, but the Dodge would be way more entertaining – a worthy tradeoff.
My pace slowed as daylight dwindled and the mountain loop ended, and we stopped to take in one of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen. The caravan moved on through the darkness, staying in a tight, six-long formation, finally rumbling into in El Paso's Camino Real hotel, where I could see the lights of Juarez, Mexico. Twelve hours on the road, 800 miles covered, burnouts enjoyed and passers-by impressed. Most importantly, the Charger Hellcat was adored.
And I still hadn't left Texas.
Until this trip, I had not driven the new Viper. I understood it to be a far tamer beast than the snake I attempted to charm in its prior generation. But heading out of El Paso onto I-10, my first impressions weren't that of a markedly more refined sports car. Sure, the 645-hp V10 was a honey – I love the linearity of free-breathing naturally aspirated mills, especially with a proper manual transmission. But its V10 was coarse, booming in the cabin. Visibility was awful and the highway ride quality was just plain brutal. I had made it out of Texas, into New Mexico, and was counting down the miles until I could free myself of freeway and transition onto something a bit more engaging.
That moment came as I-10 met US-70 in Lordsburg, NM, and I quickly pointed the Viper northwest toward the Arizona state line. Highway 70 – the Duncan Highway – is a straight shot up to its namesake town, and it's a lonely, desolate road.
The Viper was a little better here. There's a small window in the V10's rev range where it's not a booming, too-loud machine, and the chassis sort of settles into itself and just flies down the road.
I defected to US-75 when the 70 met Duncan, AZ, and my red Viper GTS rumbled politely through town at sub-30-mph speeds while folks pointed and stared. Vipers aren't really a common sight anywhere, and in rural Arizona, they afford the driver rockstar status. That pattern would continue when I arrived at the day's stopover point at the Taste of Texas barbecue joint in the mining town of Clifton, AZ.
Superlatives were everywhere in Clifton: some of the finest pulled pork and beef brisket I've ever tasted; conversation with the snappiest, rudest-in-the-best-way waitress I've ever met; and the start of the most involving stretches of road I've driven to date.
The fun started just north of town, on US-191 heading north through Arizona. The smooth tarmac formed ribbons of tight switchbacks with rapid elevation changes – the kind of empty road enthusiasts dream about. The Viper's tall gearing was helpful, and revving high in second and third gears proved to offer maximum excitement. I knew the Viper could take much more than I was giving it, but this was indeed a case where I'd reach my personal limits before the car would even get close to coming around and biting me.
Make no mistake, the Viper was not an easy car to drive on roads like this. It took constant steering inputs, and deliberate throttle inputs to keep the immense power tamped, being careful to keep the rear end nailed down. (Except for moments when I wanted to hang out the tail a bit.) It was a demanding driving, loud and rough, yet wholly rewarding and a total riot. Reflecting on that long, empty stretch of US-191, I realized I probably could have done the whole thing more quickly and with more confidence in a less-powerful Corvette Stingray. But it wouldn't have been as invigorating, simply because of how hard I had to work to keep the Snake in line.
The rest of the drive north through the Arizona high desert offered up another postcard-worthy sunset with long expanses of pink sky and cooler temperatures. Yet, it paled in comparison to the two-hours of sun-drenched mountain road the Viper had just conquered.
After 500 miles of pain and pleasure, I learned that the Viper is an imperfect machine – insufferable on the highway, terrible to live with under everyday driving conditions, yet immensely rewarding and hilariously entertaining when pushed hard. I was happy to have it while flying along US-191 – its smaller footprint, less powerful engine (compared to those Hellcats) and more precise chassis tuning easily made it the most appropriate choice of the three cars for canyon carving. But my drive through the dark hours along I-40 toward the incredibly odd yet strangely charming La Posada Hotel in Winslow, AZ was plagued with that same Viper freeway experience I had encountered that morning.
Challenging My Preconceptions
I hadn't quite warmed up to the Challenger Hellcat. In fact, I called it dumb. It wasn't so much the Hellcat part of the equation – I'm not going to complain about 707 horsepower – but the Challenger itself just never really did anything for me. Truthfully, muscle cars have never been my thing, and of the Camaro, Challenger, and Mustang – the Dodge has always been my least favorite. It's been the sloppiest in terms of handling, it's huge on the outside and kind of small on the inside, and whenever I see one on the road, I just imagine its owner has some old high school glory days scenario he's trying to revisit.
But the Challenger Hellcat is different. Unlike the Charger, which actually has more handling prowess than you'd think – not to mention a higher, 204-mph top speed – the Challenger is all about straight-line punch. It's about badassery. It's about pure, raw power, immolating expensive tires and laying waste to the desert. It's the soul of America, concentrated – bigger, better, louder, faster. Is it my favorite Hellcat? No. But I get it now. And frivolous though it may be, its awesomeness factor overpowers everything.
If you've never been, I can tell you that historic Route 66 is exactly as you picture it in your mind. Hot, desolate, straight and flat. It connects small towns that have seen better days, ones littered with ma-and-pa convenience stores and diners. You'll see horses, cattle, hawks and long stretches of plains that are straight out of old western films. It's a road made for cruising in big, fast cars. It's Challenger Hellcat territory, through and through.
My red Challenger looked appropriate against a backdrop of wide-open space, American flag murals, and run-down general stores. On highways through the desert, I liked the manual in this Hellcat – easy enough to plunk into sixth gear, ride into high speed, and occasionally throw it down into fourth or fifth for a burst of power. But that 6MT setup can be rough elsewhere. As the route brought me closer to Las Vegas and traffic thickened, and my enthusiasm dwindled. Its clutch was super heavy, and once underway in first gear, the Challenger would occasionally do that stupid first-to-fourth fuel-saving skip-shift logic if I wasn't laying into it.
Besides, driving through Las Vegas is awful. The Strip, while flashy and glitzy and full of character, isn't exactly a place for motoring enthusiasts. It's slow-moving, filled with taxis darting in and out of the flow – to say nothing of the pedestrians who, after their eighth margarita, can't quite keep themselves on the sidewalk. I wanted to be back in the Charger here, with its better visibility, smooth eight-speed automatic, and decidedly less point-and-shout-worthy appearance.
But having the Challenger in Vegas came with an interesting realization: of the three cars driven on this journey, it was this big coupe that garnered the most attention. Sure, I drove it in the most populated area, but everyone knew what it was. I cannot tell you how many thumbs-up I received, how many people tried to goad me into racing at stoplights, and how many half-inebriated dudes shouted pleasantries as I passed.
My experience with the Challenger Hellcat was the shortest of the three cars – only about 350 miles were covered that day. But I was okay with that. It was enough time for me to change my opinion of this raucous machine, having driven it in its natural habitat long enough to alter my perspective, before slumming through the Vegas slop.
Three Of A Kind
If asked to pick a favorite, the answer is clear: the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat is one incredible machine, and its can-do list is extensive. It serves purpose as a refined family sedan and a speed freak's wet dream, with a smorgasbord of onboard tech and some seriously fine curb appeal.
But this 1,600-mile trip through the American southwest wasn't about picking a favorite, or comparing 707-hp apples to 640-hp oranges. I learned the Charger Hellcat is a far more intriguing machine than I originally thought. I learned that the Viper is a unique proposition that, while lagging behind the competition in many measurements, still has a demeanor all its own. And finally, I learned that the Challenger Hellcat represents everything America does best – classic style, big power, and looks that transcend generations and appeal to car enthusiasts big and small.
This is America, plain and simple. From the crowds of Las Vegas to the smallest towns of rural Texas, the pulse of these three SRT-badged products beats within the pavement and rumbles the dust that settles along the shoulders of Route 66. They're not perfect, but neither is this country. These cars give excitement to the masses, and I'm more thankful than ever that they're part of our car culture.