The cars we loved.
It seems like more and more lately that Dodge is becoming the new Pontiac. That is as a brand it plays on the heritage of performance established during the muscle car era of the ’60s. No one car better illustrates the revival of the muscle car than the Dodge Challenger.
I remember seeing it for the first time in a Food Lion parking lot in Surf City, NC. The small resort community seemed to come to a stand still all in an effort to get a glimpse of one of the first new Challengers on the road in 2009. The car was impressive in its homage to the ’69 to ’74 era, but it was just so damn big next to the Camry next to it. As a spawn from the Chrysler 300 LX chassis, the shortened wheelbase LC platform could be nothing but big and heavy.
Over time the Challenger was dusted by the lighter Mustang and Camaro, often with more horsepower. The Challenger did have looks going for it and a comfortable highway ride thanks to its distant luxury car DNA. Despite its charms, I always thought of Dodge’s entrant into the muscle car arena as crude and backwards – in the stereotypical way that most enthusiasts might snobbishly view big displacement American (and some Australian) cars.
That might change with the new 2015 SRT Hellcat variant. The Hellcat HEMIs in the Charger and Challenger represent a new milestone in power for the SRT brand. The Challenger (flagship car?) is the most powerful factory muscle car ever with 707 hp. At 6.2 liters, the Hellcat engine is a revised version of the Hemi found in lesser RT cars. It follows the notion of no replacement for displacement and on the surface looks like another dumb American meat-eating attempt at maximum power in as big and inefficient package as possible. Except that it’s not that at all. In fact it the opposite and represents some advance engineering on behalf of the folks at Dodge.
Of course for nearly $60+k th Hellcat is no mere Dodge, in fact it ascends into Viper territory with its SRT badge and hefty price of entry. Quite frankly, I’m surprised Chrysler attaches the Dodge name to this car, as they were so iffy about the linkage between Dodge and the Viper when it was relaunched a few years ago. If the Viper was good enough to drop Dodge in it’s name, what of the Challenger?
The Challenger is a bit more practical than the Viper. Despite all its power it can manage up to 22 mpg on the highway with up to four of your friends inside. That MPG rating assumes you don’t use its magic red key to unlock all of its power. The Hellcat’s not all about brute power. In addition to having all the regular screen based entertainments, it’s control layout is enhanced by the LCD screen’s SRT Mode which lets you adjust multiple performance parameters in ways owners of ’70s muscle cars could have only dream of. In keeping with the heritage design cues, the Hellcat’s dash has a mix of analog and virtual gauges controlled from comfortable SRT stitched leather sport seats.
To put the Hellcat’s power in perspective, it’s more than 45hp stronger than the last Shelby Mustang GT500 and a whopping 127 hp more than the 2012 Camaro ZL1. It’s even got 67 more hp than the Viper, the SRT brand’s flagship car! Other impressive numbers abound like a low 3 second 0 to 60 time, 10.8 second quarter-mile runs and a top speed just shy of 200 mph. All of this is funneled through your choice of six speed manual or eight speeds for the automatic. Suddenly the better dressed Corvette looks nervous.
The most impressive thing about the Hellcat is its external restraint. Now with more than six years under its belt, the Challenger design was beginning to look tired. Fortunately, the Hellcat freshens up the look with carefully designed aero enhancements and slightly rounded edges. The new rear end looks refined and ever so upscale with a smart wraparound LED effect (similar to the Dart). The front end’s new clip is shared by all 2015 Challengers and offers a welcomed update of the classic look. The Hellcat Challenger is simply the best looking Challenger ever from the front three quarter view (yeah that includes the ’69 to ’74 models too), but the back still looks a bit chunky.
It might be easy to overlook the Hellcat for a well optioned RT, but closer inspection for the front will reveal a cold air intake port where the passenger parking lamp would have been. While many Challengers might roll on 20 inch wheels, the Hellcat has 15.4 inch Brembo brakes.
I still think the Challenger is the most attractive of the big three muscle cars, even more than the newly redesigned 2015 Mustang. The Camaro on the other hand has lost its way but if you squint just right the Challenger can appear very Camaro-like from the front three-quarter view. My only gripe with the Challenger is the one I had from day one: it’s too big and heavy. Purist would say the Challenger’s size and weight are part of its character, just like late period Elvis busting out of his jumpsuit circa 1976. It only slowed him down a little bit.
I personally don’t buy that for myself or performance cars (fine for a true GT car). It would be easier to make a RT Challenger approach Hellcat numbers with some serious downsizing without the need for 707 hp. As great a car as it is the Hellcat Challenger won’t change biases against American performance cars, even though it could be updated at Jegs or with a flash drive.