Cars are cool, but they don’t make you cool. Think of every paunchy retiree you see in a Corvette, every divorce attorney driving a Lamborghini, or every 18-year-old in a ratty Civic. To gearheads, our cars are an extension of ourselves — a means of expression that separates us from the beige mass of crossovers clogging our roadways. At best, our cars represent pure, unapologetic freedom. At worst — and more often than not to the outside world — they’re id unchained. Loud (literally and aesthetically), ostentatious, and maybe even •gasp• old, they’re stubborn obstacles on the path to a safer, cleaner, quieter, anonymous, and probably autonomous future.
Tommy’s Hamburgers on West Beverly at 2 a.m. It’s a 24 hour burger shack that makes some of the best burgers, hots, and chili in LA. There’s an open spot in the lot between between a first-generation Bronco and a Hilux from the ‘70s — West Coast car culture just isn’t fair. From a group of kids at least 10 years younger than you, someone shouts “Whoa, cool car!” They’re right, it is.
So is there a middle ground? One machine that can span the entire spectrum of automotive culture and unite legions of car junkies in these culturally fractured times? The jury may still be out on a heady question like this, but if there’s a shortlist out there, the Dodge Challenger Hellcat would surely be at the top.
South of Galena on the 1, with nothing around but the mountains and the Pacific. A breeze comes through the massive windows as David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” comes on the radio. All the cars on the road have surfboards on their roofs except yours, but they blur and disappear as you press hard on the go pedal, and Bowie disappears under the whine of the supercharger.
Because the Hellcat is easy to love — after all, it is about as hopeless a romantic as cars get. In more ways than one, it feels like the culmination of America’s century-plus affair with speed. And in the 24 months since its introduction, it’s already inspired enough prose to fill a library — and left Dodge flooded with orders. It’s the 200 mile per hour supercar for the masses, the one with the 707 horsepower supercharged V8 crammed into what looks like a classic muscle car on steroids. It can all be yours for the price of a midrange Chevy Suburban. And in the grandest romantic tradition of Dodge’s performance cars: If you don’t respect the hell out of it, it will try to kill you. To date, close to 20,000 people have plunked down their hard-earned cash for the privilege.
The Arts District is a misnomer. It’s full of warehouses, factories, and traffic-free (at least for LA) four lane roads that snake along the empty LA river. Stomp on it and let the supercharger and exhaust echo off the buildings as they fight to drown each other out. You blink and double the speed limit in first gear before better judgement wins the day. Jesus. Could this be love?
I spent a little over a week with the Hellcat — a TorRed one with faux-carbon fiber racing stripes — in Southern California, the beating heart of American car culture. Birthplace of Hot Rods, Kustoms, drag raging, sport trucks, dune buggies, and the little old lady from Pasadena, it’s automotive paradise, especially to those of us who live in rust country. And for those 192 hours, we had six forward gears, tires begging to be roasted, and the heaviest goddamn clutch west of the Pomona drag strip at our disposal.
So does the coolest American car on the road (c’mon, you know it is) in the coolest car community in the country make you cool? Can it really be that easy, or was I just another yahoo turning fuel into noise on the 101?
Who cares. I had a Hellcat.
If you went into a coma in 2008 and just woke up, you’d be able to pick the current Challenger out of a lineup. Stylistically, not much has changed since the waning days of the Bush Era, though a revised grille and rear fascia (inspired by the ’71 model) debuted in 2015 to give it a little new life, and it still looks great. The Mustang and Camaro may have been through several generations while the Challenger is still in generation one, but I can’t help but love it for that. Think of it this way: The Mustang has been in constant production for 53 years, the Camaro for 44 nonconsecutive. The classic E-Body Challenger only had four years. Consider this making up for lost time.
As for the Hellcat’s tells: There really aren’t many of them. Out back, the simple lip spoiler wears an SRT badge, just like the SRT 392 model. The loud TorRed paint, faux carbon fiber racing stripes, and big 20-inch painted forged wheels aren’t unique to the Hellcat either. The big giveaways are the Hellcat badges on the front fenders, and some serious under-the-radar plumbing upgrades. It wears the pre-facelift grille, and its inboard parking lamps have been replaced by “Air Catcher” cold-air intakes. Its unique aluminum hood was designed to keep the engine cool, and a lower fascia works to suck as much air into the supercharger as possible. It’s a different look than other Challengers, but unless you know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t attract any more attention. In a city where there are a lot of Challengers, the Hellcat stayed under the radar — or at least as under the radar as a bright red muscle car could.
Exterior pros and cons
+ It’s an old design, but it still looks great.
+ Hellcat-specific upgrades are purely functional and don’t detract from the Challenger’s clean look.
+ TorRed and racing stripes scream fun.
– It may be a coupe, but you can’t hide the fact that the Challenger is one big car.
– We didn’t love the faux carbon fiber stripes; classic black would’ve worked better against the red.
Here’s the whole ballgame: Without the engine, this is just another $26,995 Challenger. A V8 engine may not have made Ward’s 10 Best this year, but the supercharged 6.2 liter Hellcat Hemi is one of the most important engines to come out of this century. In 2014, 700-plus horsepower was the stuff of six-figure supercars. Then came the Hellcat, and suddenly for the price of a loaded Jeep Grand Cherokee, you could buy a car that could go zero to 60 in 3.6 seconds (3.9 with the manual), and top out at 199 miles per hour. The four-door Charger could top the 200 mark. After 130 years, cheap horsepower has well and truly come to the gas-powered internal combustion engine. The world is a better place for it.
The Hellcat is an exotic yet familiar beast. You can get the pushrod 6.2 Hemi across the FCA lineup, but once that massive supercharger gets going, it lets out a wail like the ghost of all the Blower Bentleys combined. My tester came equipped with the Tremec six-speed manual, which may be a little slower than the auto, but hey, if you’ve got the most powerful muscle car of all time, you might as well be able to row your own gears and enjoy it to the fullest. It’s a great gearbox, albeit in an old-school way. Shifts are long and heavy, but each one feels purposeful, and it suits the retro vibe of the car.
Of course, that transmission needs to handle a lot of torque — 650 pound-feet to be exact — and so the clutch needs to behave accordingly. Thankfully, Los Angeles isn’t quite as hilly as San Francisco, but I will say this: After my time with the Hellcat, I got pretty good at hill starting the thing, and my left leg was a lot stronger than it was a week before. In a straight line, the Hellcat is a beast. On hills and in traffic, the beast turns on you, and it will leave you exhausted.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ 707 horsepower, 650 pound-feet, $62,495 (our tester rang up at $67,775). ‘Nuff said.
+ Shifts may be long, but the Tremec six-speed is a gem.
+ The ’60s-era Hemi Orange engine block is a nice, low-key retro touch.
– Working the clutch in stop-and-go traffic counts as your daily leg workout.
– While we did see an average of 20 on the highway, the 13 mile per gallon city estimate proved to be optimistic. In LA traffic, we routinely saw single digits.
– It never ran hot, even in the worst LA traffic, but heat comes off that engine for hours.
The 1971 cosplay carries on into the interior, where if you squint just right, it doesn’t look all that different from the original Challenger. There are acres of black plastic in here, but luckily, it’s of high quality, and unlike the E-Bodies of yore, there are no squeaks and rattles. But the canted center console is here, as is the driver-focused dash design and deeply scalloped doors. Even the chunky steering wheel recalls the Mopar “Tuff Wheel” of the ’70s, albeit without the circular horn button. And refreshingly, this is a muscle car where the back seats are actually usable, although legroom is still compromised back there. Overall, the cabin is retro without feeling completely held back by tradition, just like the exterior.
A car that costs nearly $70,000 should feel special, even if its engine is the star of the show. Luckily, the Hellcat doesn’t disappoint; the contrast stitched leather seats are comfortable and well-bolstered, and are both heated and ventilated — which were perfect for Southern California in November. The leather-wrapped steering wheel felt nice, and the engine-turned aluminum accents and red dials did a lot to break up all that black. Plus, that pulsing red Start button just beckons to you to get in and have fun.
Interior pros and cons
+ A cool, retro design without being too precious about the past.
+ Fit and finish is strong, and seats are comfortable and well-bolstered.
+ Engine-turned aluminum console and red gauges did a good job of breaking up all the dark surfaces.
– Where’s the optional Pistol Grip shifter?!
– Even if you opt for upholstery in other colors, there’s a lot of black inside.
– Using the center cup holders makes shifting awkward; I ended up using the one in the door most of the time.
Tech and safety
Putting a 707 horsepower powerplant in an existing car is a little more difficult than dropping in a big motor under the hood and charging more. The Hellcat had a number of tweaks made to its engine, suspension, and ECU, and they’re all pretty apparent once you get behind the wheel. Launch control, the traction control button, and the SRT button, which controls the adjustable driving modes, all beckon you every time you adjust the AC or radio.
You can select between Track, Sport, and Street, and you can also adjust traction through the Default screen — a lot more is customizable. There’s also a full suite of digital gauges that monitor everything from coolant temperature to G-forces in cornering.
Oh, and other than performance, the Hellcat comes standard with FCA’s excellent UConnect infotainment system with an 8.4-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash, and 7-inch MID nestled between the speedo and tach. There’s also dual-zone climate control, the aforementioned heated and cooled seats, and 18-speaker Harman Kardon stereo with trunk-mounted subwoofer, all standard.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ Most of the Hellcat’s tech is focused on making it go fast and keeping it on the road.
+ The fast and easy to use UConnect is one of my favorite infotainment systems on the market.
+ If you’re ever tired of listening to the 6.2 liter V8 (hypothetically speaking), the Harman Kardon stereo is fantastic.
– All the fine-tuning functions were great, but a hill start function would’ve been nice. Very nice.
In 2015, sales of manual to automatic Challenger Hellcats were nearly even. For 2016, the auto outsold the stick by nearly two-to-one. Despite the auto being quicker, you could say that this is blasphemy, and frankly, I’d agree with you. But nearly 20,000 sales in two years tell us something important: Hellcats aren’t the rare, drag strip toys gearheads, or really FCA, thought they’d be. People are buying them as daily drivers, and as such, they’re going with the easier automatic. To put it mildly, they’re missing out. The Hellcat is a big, brutish, and difficult thing to drive, and it deserves your undivided attention. In return, it gives you a one-of-a-kind experience.
Sorry, Mercedes G-Wagen, the Hellcat with the six-speed manual is as close to a new 1970s car as you’ll find on the market today. Beyond its retro long hood/short deck proportions, there are more throwbacks to the Nixon Era than you’d expect. The rear trunk has a high sill, but it’s cavernous inside. Open the big, squarish hood, and there’s still a lot of front end between you and the 6.2 liter Hellcat. Swing open the massive coupe doors, and there’s enough black plastic to build several Local Motors Stratis. The parking brake is a floor-mounted pedal that makes a loud thunk! when you pull the plastic dash-mounted release handle. The shifter leans deferentially toward you, and each throw is long and purposeful, like it was designed to look good on camera. Say what you will about the Hellcat, but this thing has a flair for the dramatic.
One afternoon, Justin Lloyd-Miller and I shook the Hellcat down in Malibu Canyon. On the one hand — surprise — the 4,469 pound car wasn’t much of a corner-carver. If anything, it handled like a Sherman tank: precise and deliberate, with the entire car locked in as if it was on tracks. Then again, we had traction control on, and decided not to hit the corners at the limit. Steering is heavy and direct, the suspension is firm but not teeth-rattling, there’s very little body roll for such a big car, and the brakes are strong but don’t obnoxiously bite.
Here’s another surprise: In a straight line, the Hellcat is incredible. FCA only gave me the red key (the black key is for everyday driving and limits total power to 500 horses), and while I did what I suspect most Hellcat owners do and kept it on public roads (a drag strip test will have to wait for another day), I was glad to have all seven-oh-seven horses at my disposal. Step on it and make the tires chirp — not roast ’em, just chirp — then keep it straight as you step on it and run through the gears. It’s supercar-quick as you get up to highway speed, and it keeps pulling if you really want to tempt fate, be it losing the rear end or the wrath of the CHP. You expect a V8-powered muscle car to be fast, but good God, this completely redefines American speed. All for the better, I say.
Wrap up and review
Smokey and the Bandit. Yeah, yeah, it was a Pontiac Trans Am, but that first scene where Burt Reynolds is introduced and he makes that little high pitched laugh; you will make that sound driving the Hellcat. At least once every time you’re in the car. Doesn’t matter where you’re going, what you’re doing, or who with. You will chirp like Burt. This is what the Hellcat does to grown men. Dodge might as well put it on the window sticker as standard equipment.
Episode 3 of The Grand Tour painted the Hellcat in a stark, cartoonish light. Cars like the Aston Martin DB11 and Rolls-Royce Dawn are tasteful and civilized, and the loud, red, equally powerful Hellcat is brutish and crass. Modern performance cars are civilized and tasteful; the Hellcat is obnoxious and tasteless. A Big Mac to the rest of the world’s filet mignon. But you shouldn’t feel like you have to choose between the two camps. The Dodge isn’t a supercar, and you would be a fool for thinking it is. It’s just as cool as one though, and can embarrass a lot of them. You just don’t have to sell your house, kids, and kidneys for it. If you’re that short on cash, you can probably get away with one kidney even up for a Hellcat. Good luck getting a new Aston for that.
And it would be worth it, because as far as muscle cars go, the Hellcat is pure, unadulterated fun. Just think of all the people who have already wrecked them; they were probably having a blast until the moment they finally lost it! But that’s also part of what makes the Hellcat so special: It needs to be respected. You don’t just hop in and floor it, you need to interact with it and learn how it behaves, like a Porsche 911 Turbo, Dodge Viper, Mercedes-AMG GT S, or any other pure driver’s car worth its salt. The fact that Dodge elbowed its way back to that level with brute force alone is nothing short of astonishing. Don’t forget: At the end of the day, the Challenger Hellcat is still a muscle car. It just lives up to the hype and then some. And is more powerful than a Ferrari 488GTB, Lamborghini Aventador, and McLaren 675LT.
So does the Hellcat make you cool? Who cares? It’s a throwback to a time that never really existed, and whenever you go there it looks, sounds, and feels perfect. Besides, before anyone has the chance to start talking about you, they’ll be lost in a cloud of tire smoke and you’ll already be at the next stop light.