Between heaven and Hellcat: A week with 707 horsepower

Dodge Challenger with a monster motor is an unlikely bargain.

You want the red key fob. Not the black one, the red one. The 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat comes with both.

If you have the red key fob with you when you start the engine – the 6.2-liter, supercharged Hemi V-8, you get all the horses – 707 of them, Chrysler says, but that number may actually be conservative. Use the black key fob, and you get only 500 horsepower.

“Only” 500 horsepower. Has it really been that long since a Ford Mustang GT with the 5.0-liter V-8 pumped out 225 horsepower, and made us feel like the king of the drag strip? Now here’s a nanny key fob that limits you to well over double what the Mustang GT pumped out. This isn’t a new idea – the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 introduced in 1990 had a lower-powered “valet key” that cut the power available to the parking attendant driving off in your car. But even with the full-power key, that 375-horse ZR1 couldn’t touch a Hellcat running on the lower-powered black fob.

Around the turn of the century, we were told that this was the age of the Toyota Prius, leading the slow parade of electrics and weak-willed hybrids and fuel cell-powered sedans. Something went wrong with that plan. It’s 2015, and we have the Hellcat.

Thirsty but worth it

It’s EPA-rated at 13 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway. Premium, please. Hell, 100-octane racing gas if it’s handy. The window sticker has additional helpful information: 6.2 gallons every 100 miles. A $1,700 federal “gas guzzler” tax.

The rest of the window sticker is less of a downer: A $58,295 base price; $695 for navigation, a good-but-not-great sound system and five years of Sirius XM satellite radio. Summer tires – 275/40ZR-20 Pirellis, so good that they are even decent on wet pavement – add $695. With shipping ($995) and the guzzler tax, the bottom line is $62,080, making the Challenger Hellcat the performance bargain of the century. Well, so far.

How so? Because this is the kind of car that in 10, 20, 30 years, we’ll see crossing the stage at the Mecum or Barrett-Jackson auctions for premium prices. Three reasons: One, it’s an insane car at a sane price. Two, it’s a sleeper – except for the little badge on each front fender of what we assume is a “hellcat,” whatever a hellcat is, there really isn’t much outward evidence that this car is so different from any other Challenger.

And three, we fully expect many of the Challenger Hellcats sold, or at least the ones that aren’t doomed to a life locked up in a climate-controlled garage and put up on blocks by “investors,” will end up wrapped around telephone poles, or run so hard and so incompetently that this 6.2-liter masterpiece of an engine will eventually splinter into oil-soaked pieces spat out the bottom of the oil pan.

And it doesn’t hurt that the price includes a massive list of creature-comfort features such as grippy Nappa leather and Alcantara heated-and-cooled seats, voice command with Bluetooth, an 18-speaker stereo, blind spot detection and power everything. Functionally, the trunk is big, the rear seats usable, at least for jockeys, and even on the stiffest setting, the three-mode active Bilstein suspension manages a surprisingly smooth ride. Brembo brakes help haul down the Hellcat, important since this car weighs in at nearly 4,500 pounds.

Officer! Over here!

On the road – and this is really what you’re waiting for, isn’t it? – the “Sublime Green Pearl” Hellcat summons officers of the law by its mere presence, aided by an impressive rumble-then-rip from the exhaust, the yowl of the supercharger when it’s at full song, and a cloud of tire smoke. Of course you want to experience that 707 horsepower: Allow us to suggest that you be careful when, where and how, because this is, well, a monster.

The six-speed, Mexico-build Tremec manual transmission is a little truckish – what, you were expecting something this heavy-duty to shift like a Miata? – and the ultra-stiff clutch is a guaranteed left-leg muscle-builder, requiring more pressure than any clutch I’ve seen in a Dodge Viper street or race car. Most buyers will opt for the eight-speed automatic, especially since it’s actually a little faster in the quarter-mile, and a lot more repeatable.

Still, I like the control the manual gives you, and “control” is real important in this car. Nail the throttle in second gear, at about 30 mph, and the Hellcat lurches sideways for a bit until the traction control steps in. Shift to third, same thing. You can disable the traction and stability control, but it would be helpful first if your daddy owns an insurance agency, your mom owns a body shop, your uncle is a bail bondsman, and your private driveway is flat, paved, and about four square miles.

The launch off the line isn’t neck-snapping like, say, the all-wheel-drive Porsche 911 Turbo S; just too much mass, too little traction. But once you’re rolling, the Hellcat hits triple-digit speeds so quickly that you’d better learn to shift by sound, and not by looking down at the tachometer. This is one time that weight sort of works for you – the car is stable and planted in a straight line as long as you don’t do anything profoundly stupid. Top speed is about 200 mph, largely limited by old-school aerodynamics inspired by a Kleenex box.

Better in a straight line

Turning and stopping, though, is a different matter. As good as the Brembos are, they will fade and the Pirellis will heat up rather quickly after some tight turns. The suspension is stiff, sure, but not race-car stiff, and power-wise, this is a race car. Center of gravity is relatively high. Drop the car four inches, lose about 800 pounds and add a set of slicks, and the Hellcat’s road course prowess might match its straight-line talent. On a tight course, though, as it is, I’m not sure I could lap a Hellcat much quicker than a Challenger R/T.

That said, the Hellcat is not a one-trick pony. It willingly, if not cheerfully, idles around town in stop and go traffic. With 650 foot-pounds of torque, there’s a massive power band that doesn’t require much help from the transmission. It’s roomy, comfortable, and is more than capable of serving as a daily driver, especially if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even with bursts of very spirited driving – which is what this car is all about – I averaged 15.2 mpg overall, and saw 25 mpg loping down the highway in sixth gear.

Bottom line: A week in the Hellcat delivered exactly what I expected – massive entertainment in a package that isn’t as flamboyant as, say, a Viper or even a new Chevrolet Corvette, and surely a Ferrari or Lamborghini, despite the Challenger’s lime green paint.

But what I didn’t expect was how much I liked the Hellcat on a daily basis: Couldn’t wait to drive it just on short trips to the grocery store, especially since the route to this particular grocery store includes a mile of yardstick-straight pavement with no houses or driveways on either side. Need milk? Be right back. Wrong kind of milk? Be right back. I forgot the receipt? You get the idea.

The Hellcat is ridiculous. And that’s a compliment.

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About this article
Series Automotive
Article type Special feature
Tags challenger, chrysler, corvette, dodge, hellcat, mustang, srt, zr1