Consider this: The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat weighs nearly 4,500 pounds, but thanks to a 707-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter Hemi V-8, can sprint from 0-60 MPH in just 3.6 seconds, on its way to a manufacturer’s claimed top speed of 199 MPH, a figure limited only by aerodynamics, not electronics. It isn’t simply the equivalent of bringing a gun to a knife fight; instead, it’s more along the lines of bringing a fast attack submarine to a sailboat race. That said, when a press fleet example landed in our parking lot, we wondered if such wretched excess could also be tolerable in real-world driving, especially during fall in Vermont.
Autumn in Vermont is a perpetual crap-shoot, weather wise. One day may bring sunshine and summer-like temperatures, while the next may bring rain, sleet and snow. Wet leaves, which often cover roadways, offer up the traction of glare ice, and leaf-peeping tourists are as unpredictable on the road as the area’s abundant wildlife. Safely driving any car during autumn in New England requires one’s full attention, but safely driving a Hellcat requires constant vigilance.
Our first day with the Dodge saw steady rain and temperatures hovering near the 40-degree mark, too cold to get heat in summer-only tires for reasonable traction. A sane individual would leave a car with F1-levels of horsepower parked in such conditions, but we wanted to see how manageable the Hellcat was in bad weather. Our first decision was whether to use the black key (which limits output to a “mere” 500 horsepower) or the full-zoot red key, which delivers 707-horsepower and 650-pound-feet of torque. We, of course, opted for the red key.
Finished in TorRed, with parallel carbon-fiber look stripes, our press fleet example was anything but under-the radar. A sedate shade of gray or goes-with-everything black wouldn’t have done anything to mitigate the Hellcat’s growl, though, and merely starting the car is enough to get the attention of any neighbors (and, presumably, law enforcement) within earshot. Even at idle, the Hellcat is loud by production car standards, so expect to be noticed.
Under the hood, the heart of the Hellcat is a 6.2-liter Hemi V-8, force-fed by a twin-screw blower. Starting with a cast iron engine block, the Hellcat gets high-flow aluminum cylinder heads, forged pistons, forged connecting rods and a forged crankshaft. A cold air intake occupies the space reserved for the driver-side parking lamp on lesser Challenger models, and hood vents serve to reduce both temperature and air pressure, minimizing front end lift at high speeds. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic with steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters. Tradition aside, the automatic may well be the quicker of the two options, unless your skill with a manual is on par with Ronnie Sox.
A valet mode limits output to 300 horsepower (and redline to 4,000 RPM), ensuring that a night on the town in the Hellcat doesn’t end with any nasty surprises. Suspension and steering can be changed between three modes (Street, Sport and Track), and even the car’s stability control can be defeated for track-day fun. Trust us, though: It isn’t intrusive enough to be distracting even during spirited driving, so you’ll want to leave it turned on for public roads.
The Challenger’s interior is probably the roomiest in the current pony car class, with wide and supportive front seats and a back seat large enough to accommodate two adults (assuming, of course, they don’t play basketball professionally). Dodge updated the Challenger’s dashboard and instruments in 2014, and the new interior is a huge improvement over the previous version, which always struck us as being built to a price point. The new instrumentation is brighter and easier to read, and while no one will think the surround is engine turned metal or carbon fiber, it does provide contrast to the predominantly black interior.
On dry pavement, in warm weather, it’s best to drive a car like the Hellcat carefully until the summer-only tires reach operating temperature. In wet, 40-degree temperatures, such tires really don’t achieve the intended grip, which means the throttle needs to be applied carefully, as any degree of enthusiasm from the right foot translates to wheelspin. After a few miles in the rain, we began to get a feel for the car, and to be honest, it wasn’t intimidating at all. As with any high-horsepower, tight-suspension car we’ve driven, sudden movements in sub-optimal conditions are to be avoided, but driven in a responsible manner the Hellcat was perfectly predictable in the cold and wet.
The next day delivered bright sun and temperatures in the low 60s, perfect for an extended run on local roads. Once the tires reached operating temperature, even enthusiastic applications of the throttle translated into forward motion and not tire smoke, reminding us how brutally quick the Hellcat really is. Pass a slow-moving car, and within a few seconds you’re traveling the kind of velocity that, in some jurisdictions, requires bail money and an appearance before a judge. Nurse the throttle, however, and the Hellcat is perfectly content to lope along at road-legal speeds, delivering a satisfying rumble from the exhaust.
To some, that dual nature is the appeal of the Hellcat. While fully capable of delivering jaw-dropping levels of performance, it’s also docile enough to drive at the kind of speeds conducive to maintaining a driver’s license. But, arguably, so is the normally aspirated Challenger SRT 392, with a 485-horsepower, 6.4-liter Hemi V-8; or the R/T, with a 375-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and both cost far less than the Hellcat.
The Hellcat, then, is for drivers who don’t understand the concept of “fast enough,” and are willing to trade off regular driving at quarter-throttle for the occasional full steam pass at the drag strip (or back country road). It’s a big car, and it certainly isn’t light on its feet, but when the blower winds up, the rear suspension hunches down, and the Hellcat lets out it roar, all such sins are forgiven.
A 2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat carries a base price of $62,495, and our press fleet example came equipped with the $2,995 TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission (which also includes a 2.62:1 rear axle ratio, remote starting and steering wheel paddle shifters); the $995 carbon stripe package; the $595 Pirelli 275/40ZR20 summer-only tire package; and the $995 20-inch x 9.5-inch “Brass Monkey” wheels. Factor in the mandatory $1,700 Gas Guzzler Tax and the $995 destination charge, and the total sticker price came to $70,770.