2015 Dodge Challenger
When approaching the large line of Challengers, arranged perfectly in a Portland, OR parking lot, I was comfortable that I knew what to expect from most of them. The V6 would be a capable car for the money, the R/T would offer a bit more thrill in exchange for a bit more money and a bit more gas, and the SRT models would take the concept to its logical maximum.
Then there was the Hellcat. Powered by an insane 707 hp supercharged hemi V8, this was the Challenger as taken to its illogical maximum. It was a bit intimidating, especially since Dodge has a long and storied history of cramming as much power into a car as possible with no regard to whether or not the chassis or suspension is up to the task. The '60s and '70s were full of this sort of car, and there have even been a few modern examples like the terrifying and stupid Caliber SRT4. The idea of piloting this lunatic's version of the Challenger around a race track I had never driven before sounded a bit nuts to me.
That said, I started from the bottom, and on the way to the track, I was in the very much overshadowed V6. It starts at $26,995, but the particular car I was driving had about $5,000 worth of options that made it a very compelling package. The engine has just enough power to make this admittedly massive, and sometimes unwieldy out in the real world, car genuinely fun. The nicely bolstered leather seats were heated and ventilated, and, most amazingly, the rear seats were just big enough for actual adults to sit in them, should the need arise. Good luck getting anyone over the age of 12 who isn't Vern Troyer in the back of a Mustang comfortably.
It's not a pony car/sports car hybrid like the Camaro and the Mustang are, this is proper muscle car that has just been refined into something a bit more sophisticated. It's like the affordable American alternative to a Maserati GranTurismo or a Bentley Continental GT.
Moving up from there are a large variety of V8-powered cars, which all offer more or less the same experience. It's like vanilla ice cream: you can buy “Vanilla” and it tastes a bit like vanilla, or you can buy “French Vanilla,” “Vanilla Bean,” or “Triple Vanilla” and they all taste a bit more like vanilla, but otherwise offer up the same general experience. In my estimation, the $38,495 Scat pack is the sweet spot, as it offers the vast majority of the performance of the slightly more expensive models at a significantly lower price.
Then there's the Hellcat, and it's like an imaginary flavor called “67% Vanilla Extract by Volume.” Like I said, it's not something that any sane person would have come up with. The throttle response is immediate, and if you're not careful, the car will spin the wheels at just about any moment. The SRT engineering staff on site even said that it produces as much torque at 1,200 rpms as the SRT does at its maximum. Luckily, this isn't an old school Dodge, so the suspension and chassis have been massaged just as much as the engine has.
I drove it for a few laps around PIR, starting off at a very cautious pace out of self preservation and a strong desire not to be the guy who wrecked the $59,995 car. But I quickly found that this wasn't the brutish beast I expected. Don't get me wrong, it is entirely brutish. It screams like you're crushing its balls and then takes its frustration out on the rear tires at whatever chance it gets, but it's not murderously unpredictable. In fact, it's very neutral. A bad driver could get into a ton of trouble here, but a judicious driver who will take the time to go faster one tenth at a time could build up some serious speed with complete stability and predictability in this car.
Of course, the Hellcat's owners are, sadly, unlikely to spend much time on road courses, if any. They're missing out, but that's the sad truth. So that's why we did a few passes on the drag strip; this is something that Hellcat owners will probably actually do. Truth be told, I had never even been on a drag strip before, so this was a totally new experience.
I was near the end of the line, so I got to watch about a dozen other journalists do what one normally does on a drag strip: build up the revs and then let it rip when the light turns green. With this car, that just wasted a lot of time spinning the wheels in place. I opted to simply roll on to the throttle like I was exiting a parking lot, which turned out to work pretty damn well. Like I said, we're talking about a torque baseline that's equal to an SRT hemi at its peak.
In the end, I did five passes on the stock Pirelli tires and managed an 11.9 on my second run. The fact that a total amateur can break into the elevens on his second ever run down a drag strip is a testament to just how capable this car is. Having seen what this car can do, I totally believe that it can run a 10-second time with street legal drag radials in the hands of a professional.
More impressive still was the drive back to the hotel, this time in a Hellcat. It was awful, slow traffic the entire way, and this berzerk car was still a decent place to be. It's entirely easy to drive this car like it's a Honda Accord; it still hasn't lost the on-road GT-esque character of the lesser cars. Traffic in most other 700+ horsepower cars would have been torture. So this wasn't fun, but it was definitely impressive.
This car can do just about anything. It kicked ass on track duty, it tore up the drag strip, it was a comfortable place to endure traffic, it was fun to drive on open roads, and you can even put your friends and some luggage in it. The only thing it does very, very poorly is fuel economy. After the drive to the track, most journalists who were in Hellcats were reporting that they got nine-point-something miles per gallon. Ouch.
The $59,995 price point is expensive, but, quite honestly, it's an amazing value. Normally getting a quart of vanilla extract costs a lot more than a quart of ice cream.
Then I just had to deal with an absolutely awful plane ride home, in which I was stuck in a middle seat fighting hard for almost four hours for the middle seat's inalienable right to arm rests. Why choose the shared arm rest as the direction in which you will lean?