For decades, the country that invented the muscle car has blazed a trail by building hulking engines that churn Herculean horsepower. Though the bigger-is-better movement abated during the 1970s oil crunch, and again most recently when hybrid powertrains became de rigueur in Formula 1 racers and high-dollar hypercars, Fiat Chrysler Automobile (FCA) lucked out when the launch of its audaciously anachronistic 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat coincided with weirdly low fuel prices. Not only did this big-boned throwback suddenly become socially acceptable, its retro styling and locomotive-like power offer an alluring alternative to self-righteous eco cars.
To say the Hellcat is built for speed is an understatement of epic proportions. Unlike fuel-sipping engines like Ford’s EcoBoost and GM’s Ecotec (which feature smart turbochargers and smaller displacements), the Hellcat packs a massive supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that spins a blistering 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque. Stuffed into the body of its stablemate, the four-door Charger, the V8 transforms that aging platform into the world’s most powerful sedan, capable of reaching a supercar-like 204 mph. The Challenger is, in fact, the most potent American production car on the market, trailing just behind such exotica as the V12-powered Ferrari F12berlinetta, which produces 730 horsepower. In case you’re keeping count, this $59,995 Chrysler can be had for roughly a quarter-million dollars less than the Ferrari.
Of course nobody’s cross-shopping a Hellcat with a prancing horse, as its aesthetics, fit and finish, and brand cachet are galaxies apart. But there’s a certain mechanical charisma exuded by this coupe. It’s not the interior—apart from a turned-metal trim surrounding the center console, the Hellcat’s cockpit is about as seductive as a dark cave. Its charm offensive begins when the red start/stop button is pressed, summoning a throaty idle that sends a low frequency thrum vibrating throughout the cabin.
Though its shifter resembles the elegant handle found in the Audi A8, the Hellcat’s automatic transmission clicks into gear a bit loosely. But once you let off the brake, the engine’s pent up fury is enough to make you quickly forget the pesky details. All it takes is slight pressure on the accelerator to trigger instant, voluptuous thrust, the kind that snaps your head back and makes your passenger gasp. Punch it with a tad more violence, and the howling engine loosens the rear end, tires spinning and spewing plumes of smoke. Strangely, this can happen in almost any gear—partly a consequence of the surprisingly narrow 275mm rear tires. So overwhelming is the Hellcat’s psychedelic grunt that it distracts from the car’s other attributes; imagine Madonna marching into a Catholic mass.
Unlike its 1960s-era muscle car antecedents, the Hellcat’s optional 8-speed automatic transmission is smooth and quick-shifting, a seemingly prescient gearbox that’s managed by very un-muscle-car-like paddle shifters. While the available manual 6-speed version seems like the only logical choice for handling this irascible beast, the Hellcat actually accelerates more quickly when equipped with the automatic—heresy to the die-hards. Complementing the automatic transmission’s refinement is an SRT button below the instrument panel that enables variables like engine power, shift patterns, and traction control to be calibrated on the 8.4-inch touchscreen display, allowing up to 125 combinations. A so-called Performance Pages app also displays detailed information including intake temperature, boost pressure, and air/fuel ratios—so you can geek out on your way to adrenaline near-death.
Despite the engine’s tire-vaporizing brutality (which is accompanied by a harmonic high-pitched whine from the supercharger), if you can keep your right foot out of it, the Hellcat is also capable of surprising civility. The suspension can be set to one of three stiffness levels, ranging from punishing to cushy. Seats are a bit oversized and unwieldy, but the heated and cooled perches are wrapped in welcoming Nappa and Alcantara. While the exhaust note always makes itself heard, the cabin doesn’t get excessively loud on the highway, enabling relatively fatigue-free cruising as you peer over the bulging nostrils in the hood.
Mind you, this is far from a refined ride and it still doesn’t inspire grand-touring travel. There are some rough edges inside and out, among them an 18-speaker, 900-watt sound system with two settings: boomy and boomier, and plastic trim around the headlights that could best be described as droopy. But in exchange for its shortcomings are a number of inventive, thoughtfully engineered go-fast features including a hollow HID headlight on the driver’s side that diverts wind into the engine’s ram air intake. Given that emphasis on performance and value, the lapses seem excusable—especially considering the Hellcat is hell bent on speed and little else, making its accommodating features all the more impressive.
The ballistic engine output begs the inevitable fanboy debate: Is the Hellcat sexier than the Corvette Z06 (650 hp) or Viper SRT (645 hp) because it’s better at spinning a dynamometer? Unlike many of its competitors, the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is unapologetic and earnest with its comically over-endowed powerplant and old-school silhouette—even if it can’t out-handle a ‘Vette or beat a Viper on exclusivity. Though the 707 horsepower V8 may be ill-suited to a daily commute, on the best days it’s a boisterous partner in crime that reinforces the simple thrill of huge power and the open road, offering a spiritual link to its muscle-car ancestors. It’s far from perfect, but these emotional highs are elusive at any price point, and precisely what makes the Hellcat such a ballsy and endearing ride.
Base Price: $59,995
Price as Tested: $63,970
Engine: Supercharged 6.2-liter V8
Torque: 650 lb-ft
0 to 60: 3.5 seconds
Top Speed: 199 mph