An Impartial Look At Dodge’s Legendary Challenger SRT Hellcat

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited on a virtual conference call with some of Dodge‘s big wigs. CEO, Tim Kuniskis was at the helm. He’s passionate about the brand he represents and you can clearly tell he’s tapped into the minds of Mopar faithful.

On the call, Tim broke down the whole Dodge SRT lineup for 2020 and 2021. He dove into the minutiae of what makes a company and brand like Dodge SRT tick. He described the development of vehicles like the insane Challenger SRT Super Stock, and also touched on the features and benefits shared across SRT platforms. You can read all about them, here.

He fielded questions from the other attendees while hitting on subjects like customer demands, debunking an ACR Challenger rumor, drag racing versus road racing, similarities and differences between the Challenger 1320, Redeye, Demon, and Super Stock.

Now, that’s all fantastic and it was a real pleasure to hear it come directly from a head at the house of Pentastar…but, what kind of journalist would I be if I simply regurgitated what Tim said without actually experiencing everything he was praising these cars for?

Legendary.

Sure, as I mentioned, he’s an extremely knowledgeable man with a lifetime of experience behind the wheel of many high-powered and prolific cars, but he also represents the brand, so he can’t exactly be impartial, especially when he’s addressing the press. That’s not a fault. His job isn’t to be impartial…mine is.

While I respect his opinion very much, and he fielded questions like “why not work on producing a smaller platform? [in reference to the Challenger]” honestly and openly, I still felt it prudent to do some “hands-on” journalism and report my real-world findings rather than simply take his word for it. After all, it’s what I would want as a reader…

Now, while it would be nice to be in the tax bracket to go out and buy a new Challenger Hellcat or Redeye, that’s just not in the cards for me at the moment…so what’s a guy to do?

Initially, I spoke with Dodge about borrowing a press car and reviewing it. They were gracious and agreed to let me borrow a Hellcat or 392 Scat Pack. But, as luck would have it, I ended up borrowing a different car.

Unrivaled power.

At the risk of going off on a tangent – one of the concerns I expressed in my interview with Dodge in a previous article, “Inside The Big Cat Family: Cracking The Hellcat Code” was the safety implications that come with selling the high-powered muscle cars to the general public. The age of horsepower is great, but so is safety, and I can tell you the people at Dodge take safety very seriously.

Safety First

Never has it been so easy and affordable to purchase a car capable of running sub-12-second quarter-mile times. But, in order to feel good about making those sales, Dodge partnered with the Bondurant School Of High-Performance Driving.

By purchasing a Demon, or SRT vehicle, new owners are entitled to a one-day course at Bondurant. And by purchasing a car like the Challenger 1320, owners are also enrolled with the NHRA and NMCA. So they’re all about safe, controlled environments.

Check out the next article when we head out to Bondurant and I learn how to operate one of these crazy contraptions.

This is where the story comes full circle. I called up Mike Kessler, Marketing and Sales Manager at Bondurant, and bounced my ideas off of him. He loved the angle and suggested that instead of dealing with shipping a car from Michigan out to California, we find a better way to get me behind the wheel of a Hellcat.

So, he offered to let me borrow one of their Challengers instead since they’re so close in Chandler, AZ. Then he had an even better idea. To fully illustrate what these amazing machines are capable of, he invited me out for the three-day high-performance driving course they offer and the one-day Demon drag course.

Now that’s investigative journalism for you! Honestly, I do this for you guys.

Bondurant is a fantastic place to establish new skills and put them to the test. The only things you have to worry about hitting are cones.

Seriously though, brevity aside, not only would this give me a chance to test and review the vehicle with relatively little experience behind the wheel, but to then go to the course and explain to all of you what the school is about and what these cars are capable of in trained and untrained hands.

Because, let’s face it, whether you’re watching car reviews on YouTube or reading them in a major publication, you can seldom be sure of the reviewer’s credentials. And while I do have experience driving many classic and late-model muscle cars for comparison, I am by no means an expert driver.

Another added benefit is being afforded the ability to be truly impartial. Borrowing a press vehicle for review can sometimes put people in a strange position where they may hold back something they don’t particularly like about a car.

Oh boy. They done messed around and let me have the red key (717hp).

By working with Bondurant and using one of their cars, it takes some pressure off of me as far as giving an honest review. And any editor, journalist, staff writer, etc. who tells you otherwise…well, I’d take that with a grain of salt. Then again, that’s just my opinion.

In any case, here’s my initial review of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat I was lucky enough to borrow for two weeks before returning to Bondurant for training. You can expect to read all about both the high-performance driving and drag racing course experiences very soon.

Disclaimer

I’ll lead with a disclaimer: This is my initial, unbiased, and most importantly, untrained impression of the car.
See, Dodge, in its infinite wisdom, knew if they were going to be outfitting the American public with something capable of cracking off a 0-60 time of 3.4 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 11.2 – oh, not to mention the 200mph top speed, it would behoove them to partner with an organization like Bondurant. Who specializes in teaching the uninitiated, the finer points of driving.

The team at Bondurant keeps the cars in tip-top shape. The only thing they asked of me, was to bring it back without any tire tread left. After 2500 miles, I think I put a very small dent in them.

So, let’s call this the “before” review: Before as in before I actually learn how to drive this thing to its full potential.
Because, more than the simple fun of just driving a race car at a race track, the school is also about developing and improving your driving skills to make professional or simply spirited driving more pleasurable and safe.

Apples To Apples

So, before we get into the actual review, I’d like to get something straight…I don’t own a 30k dollar Rolex, I don’t have extensive experience behind the wheel of famed supercars with Italian pedigree, I don’t have a charming British accent, and I certainly don’t own a pair of New Balances, flip flops, or cargo shorts.
What I do have, is a love for all things muscle. If it’s got an American V8 under the hood, chances are, I’m into it.
Bespoke, hand-crafted automobiles are incredible…I mean, they’re marvelous pieces of engineering, but they’re not the same as production cars. At least in the sense that they aren’t mass-produced.
American auto manufacturers, on the other hand, have been catering to the wanting masses for decades, and the car I’ve been sitting in is the culmination of a 50-year horsepower war between the big three. It’s as American as it gets.
I’ve noticed the car reviewers doing this at the highest level enter reviews such as these with a certain pretense. I would argue this is not the car for them. Because, this thing isn’t a Porsche GT3RS or a Ferrari 812 Superfast, but it definitely isn’t trying to be.
Now, I realize that’s a bit of a generalization, and I certainly don’t want to alienate any supercar owners out there. What I’m trying to say is, The Challenger Hellcat is brutish, powerful, and unapologetically ridiculous by comparison. Sure, it lacks some refinement of those aforementioned supercars, but it more than makes up for it with its unrelenting amounts of power, and it does so at a fraction of the price.
In fact, I challenge any of those with their noses in the air because of the Dodge nameplate to drive this monster and not giggle like a schoolgirl at the first blip of the throttle and subsequent blower-whine.

So, we’ll do away with the high-brow measuring sticks and I’ll try my best to give it a fair shake. coming from someone within Dodge’s target market, I’d imagine that means quite a bit more. I won’t try to hold it to a supercar standard I 1)know nothing about and 2) don’t care about. If you’re reading this, I hope it’s safe to say, you don’t either.

Value

At first, I thought they messed around and let me play with the rich kids. But, that’s not exactly the case, because while the performance and power numbers rival the cars I previously mentioned, the MSRP on the Challenger does not. It Starts at 58k. Not exactly chump change, but something the average person can certainly aspire to and attain.
I’m not going to bore you with specs or info that have already been reported to death. Instead, I’ll run down a few that matter quickly: The 2020 Hellcat has a 717 horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter HEMI V8 under the hood, which is a 10 horsepower increase from the previous year’s power output – Owed in part to the wicked and functional twin scoop hood.

That 6.2l supercharged monster is always lurking…

The one I borrowed happens to be the 6-speed manual version, because…well, why not? If Dodge is among the last holdouts in the school of row-your-own-boat, I’m going to take advantage of that for as long as I can. For those of you who prefer the comfort of an Auto, they do offer a 8-speed variant.
Now that we’ve got the specifics out of the way, there’s a long list of things I really love about this car and a very short list of things I don’t. So, here it goes.
Road manners 
It’s important to remember, while the Hellcat does boast 717 horsepower, it also has ice-cold air conditioning and that monster powerplant comes with a warranty…the fact that it also possesses seemingly limitless power has a way of making you forget that – save for the amenities, but we’ll get into that in another section.
With that said, there are some things you simply cannot forget while driving the Hellcat. Namely, its size. One thing that stuck out to me immediately was how large the car is. I know – I’m not reporting anything new here. Especially for Mustang and Camaro fanboys who’ve taken to calling the Challenger a boat.

We took Street Muscle’s project Daily Camaro out for a spin with the Hellcat. While it was no match for the big cat in a straight line, it did surprisingly well in the twisties for being more than 10 years older.

Having driven all three, I can see why. While driving the Hellcat back from Arizona to California there is a long stretch of two-lane highway that places you in between a concrete Jersey barrier and whatever happens to be in the slow-lane. If that vehicle is of the 18-wheeled variety, things can get a bit tight.
Staring out the passenger window and seeing a big rig mere inches away from you can be a tad unsettling. Fortunately, there’s more than enough passing power to get you out of there in a hurry. Still, the wide lane presence takes some getting used to, especially if you’re used to piloting something smaller.

Somewhere on Ortega Highway. 14 miles of twists and turns and the Hellcat was doing just fine, with no brake fade to speak of.

Conversely, it does afford you much better visibility when compared to vehicles in the same arena. If you’re used to driving Mustangs, Camaro, or dare I say, an Import, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find ample visibility in all of the Hellcat’s mirrors and over the shoulder. Not to mention the interior room.

Cockpit Design

Speaking of the interior, let’s talk about how far American manufacturers have come in the past couple of decades in terms of quality. Sure, the snobs I mentioned earlier will scoff at my previous statement, but it’s true and the Hellcat is proof. No more plastic dashes and flimsy trim, the quality of materials and attention to detail with regard to layout are exceptional.

While the Alcantara wrapped seats and steering wheel I was fortunate enough to have will cost buyers an additional $1,200, I can tell you, it’s money well spent. The heavily bolstered seats hold you in place during the inevitable lateral G’s, and as someone whose hands have a tendency to sweat, I appreciated the suede steering wheel – leather looks nice, but can become slippery.

Always go for suede/alcantara if it’s an option!

The factory shifter and cue-ball style knob on the Hellcat are perfect! I have seldom met a factory shifter I like, and an aftermarket short-shifter is among the first upgrades I make to any of my own automobiles, so this is saying quite a bit. Factory shifters often feel squishy and loose. The extra play is likely there as a sort of buffer for those unaccustomed to performance driving.

However, my experience with the Hellcat was much different. The short stick attached to the Tremec Six-Speed banged-off clean shifts with a satisfying click following each row. The fact that Dodge still offers a manual transmission in any of their products is a win in and of itself, to offer one that’s properly suited for performance driving is an even bigger win.

Have I mentioned how much I love Dodge SRT branding? The logo, the graphics, the hidden gems in the performance pages – all of it is masterful. It makes me feel nostalgic and futuristic at the same time.

Another aspect of the cockpit I truly enjoyed was the abundant amount of information everywhere I looked. At first, I questioned the lack of a heads-up display, but I also realize the Challenger platform isn’t as concerned with Nurburgring lap times as some of its competitors. Instead, the glow from the dash in the center console was more than enough for drag racers who aren’t too concerned with making adjustments or monitoring parameters while they’re making a pass down the dragstrip – those adjustments will be made before and after, so that really negates the need for a heads up display.

If you do want to monitor those things while you’re driving on the highway though, all one needs to do is glance at the gauges behind the steering wheel, and you can cycle through everything from your speed, radio, and drive modes.

Power delivery
 
Let’s talk about drive modes. Users have five drive modes to select from – Track, Sport, Custom, Default, and Eco.
Admittedly I didn’t spend much time driving it in any of the really exciting modes. It’s powerful, and I respect it enough so to keep the driver assists on for street driving. Perhaps that’s why people sometimes let these things get the best of them. The driver assists make it easy to think you’re a better driver than you actually are. So, making the transition to Track, Sport, or a Custom mode that disables driver assists could spell disaster for the uninitiated.

After a long day of whipping the steering wheel left and right, it felt great to put the A/C on and cruise home.

The five driving modes cater to a variety of driving styles. Depending on the aggressiveness of the driver and road conditions, drivers can select from the five aforementioned modes. Thus, I left it in default for most of the time I had the car and chose to save the tire-frying shenanigans for my forthcoming trip to Bondurant where I’d spend three days in a controlled environment. There, the worst damage I could cause would be to an orange cone. Lest I become one of those media guys who wrecks a press car.

Now, I’m no stranger to popping a clutch or two and making a cloud of smoke and flying bits of rubber. I’d just prefer to do that in a car I actually own. Of course, the moment I got behind the wheel, that all went out the window. My inner hellion now a permanent fixture atop both shoulders whispering smoke-filled words of encouragement – “a little burnout wouldn’t hurt.” Still, I resisted…

By toggling the touch-screen display, drivers can customize their settings – turning on and off the driver assists.

That said, I had to give a thorough review, and the power delivery on the Hellcat is superb. The low-end grunt of the 6.2-Liter supercharged behemoth under the hood makes for exciting stoplight to stoplight acceleration and freeway on-ramp pulls. The power curve is a lot less linear than some of its competitors though. This is not to say it runs out of grunt near the top end, it’s just more abrupt on the low end. Whereas Mustangs and Camaro take a bit more time to put you into the back of your seat – of course, this has nothing to do with track times – it is simply a seat of the pants comparison.

In fact, there was one occasion where a new Tesla Model S pulled up next to me in the opposite staging lane – er, I mean, stoplight. The Model S is known for being an electric torque powerhouse, so it was only natural, the youngster behind the wheel would rev his wind-up toy at me…at least, I think he did – I couldn’t hear it, but the staredown was implicit.

This is definitely my favorite screen within Performance Pages. The graphics are something out of an F-22 Raptor.

Once the light turned green, we had a bit of a go at it, and the Hellcat more than held its own. In fact, some would say it won. But, that implies we were racing, which we weren’t *wink, wink*, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Accessories & Command Center

The Hellcat’s Performance Pages are where drivers can access drive modes. The graphics used to illustrate the enabling or disabling of certain features are epic! I have to hand it to the engineers and designers at Dodge, they are masters of tapping into what their audience loves about the brand. Perhaps that’s why the platform hasn’t experienced any major aesthetic changes since its inception.

You can even monitor things like G-force!

On the inside though, things like the 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment center have gotten a lot spicier! The graphic used to manage features like the magnetic ride suspension is like something out of a retro-futuristic action movie. The floating chassis is illuminated in different colors – yellow, orange, and red – depending on what mode is selected and which features are enabled. This is also where you can engage all the fun bits like line-lock and launch control which I was tempted to play with, but you’ll have to wait until the next piece of editorial at Bondurant for that.

This is clearly a Hellcat Redeye with the red key optioned at 797 horsepower unlike the 717 horsepower version I had, but I guess that will have to wait until next time.

By pressing the “SRT” button on the dash, each Challenger SRT drive mode is available and has a subset of system tuning: Power levels of 500 or 700 hp (apparently, I’m not the only cautious one), Traction, and Suspension. Track and Sport don’t accommodate all driving styles, so Custom mode is meant to bridge any gap between aggressive and casual driving. In there, individual systems are adjustable. Systems like the magnetic ride suspension.

Braking & Handling

So, I know that up until now I have made several comparisons between the mighty Challenger Hellcat and its domestic competitors. I stand by those comparisons. Yet, I feel it worth addressing the fact that if Dodge SRT were truly trying to “compete” with Ford and Chevy in any arena beyond the drag strip, the company would build a particular model to do so. The 2021 Dodge Challenger 392 Scat Pack T/A Widebody might just be the one to do that, but I imagine the “SRT performance-tuned chassis with SRT high-performance adaptive suspension” will be comprised of the same components the Hellcat I piloted had…

Save for the tail lights, grille, wide body, and a few other minor changes, the Challenger remains relatively the same. That’s because it works, people love it, and they sell like crazy!

For a car that was originally built for Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-Am Series in the ’70s, we can only hope it will have vastly superior handling. Although, the 305 wide tires it will be shod with are actually the same as those on the Hellcat. And the official press release from Dodge was still boasting quarter-mile times, line-lock equipment, and burnouts, so…fingers crossed for improved handling.
Now, I know we aren’t here to talk about the potential of a car that hasn’t come out yet. We’re here to talk about the Hellcat. Still, it seems relevant to mention their new “Trans Am” variant is still focused on drag racing.
I’m not purporting that the Hellcat can’t handle, it just doesn’t handle as well as other cars in the same arena. The magnetic ride suspension adjusts on-the-fly for stiffness and softness to spice things up or smooth them out. Yet, the SRT active suspension management seems outmatched by the burly 4,400-pound Challenger.

The visibility should be mentioned again. Blind spots are a non-factor with the Hellcat. On the rare occasion you experience one, the ample amount of sensors removes all doubt.

For example, I am very familiar with the twists and turns of Southern California’s fabled Ortega Highway. The 14-mile stretch of pavement is known for being one of California’s deadliest roads if that’s any indication…
I have taken many a Camaro, Mustang, and now Challenger through the gauntlet there. Not all sections of the two-lane highway are well maintained, but the Challenger seemed particularly upset by mid-corner bumps – likely owing to the sheer amount of torque the Hellcat produces, its longer wheelbase, and propensity for body roll (respectfully). I tried all the driving modes whilst traveling up and down Ortega, and there were several times I questioned whether or not the ass end of the Challenger would slide out on me. Thankfully, the massive Brembo calipers did a fantastic job hauling the big Mopar to a halt. There was no brake chatter or fading to speak of, even after the hour-long trip over the winding highway.

The twin snorkel hood scoops look menacing and are a vast improvement aesthetically and for performance, adding more than 10 horsepower worth of airflow to the already stout Hellcat powerplant.

Of course, all of this speaks more to driver ability than to the ultimate performance of the Hellcat. There is no doubt, it can be driven far beyond the level I was pushing it to – but it should be said, I drove it the same way I’ve driven every other car I’ve taken there and that adhesion threshold seemed just a tad more shallow. I suppose only time will tell, and I am fully prepared to be proven wrong once I attend Bondurant’s Three-Day High-Performance Driving Course.

Final Thoughts

I know I harped on that handling bit, but I’m not the first to do so. And frankly, I don’t think Dodge fans or Dodge SRT itself really cares. After driving the masterpiece of Mopar engineering that is the Hellcat for a few weeks…I don’t really either.
The Hellcat’s straight-line performance, ridiculous amounts of power, movie star good looks, and that drool-inducing blower whine make it the most fun car I’ve driven in a very long time! And that’s the point – not tenths of a second around the Nurburgring.

I’ve never driven a modern car that got more thumbs-up, or so many people asking me to roll the window down to tell me they love it, or simply to share that they had one back in the day. It also makes people want to race you…for some reason.

If you want an ear-to-ear smile every time you sit in the driver seat and chirp the tires from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd – this is the car. And sure, it leaves some performance on the table in certain areas, but it’s a damn capable car, and you’re certainly not going to think about any of that when you switch this bad boy into Sport or Track mode and let er’ rip. Besides, there’s no such thing as perfect…
I highly suspect my opinion will change once I take the 3 day Course at Bondurant. Dodge execs say this thing can handle as well as the best of them – so with a little training, perhaps I can prove myself and anyone who calls it a boat, wrong. But until then, who cares what the haters say? Dodge is going to keep doing what it does best – making gratuitous amounts of tire smoke, beating the competition by bus lengths, and of course, outselling them by A LOT!

Article Sources

About the author

Vinny Costa

Fast cars, motorcycles, and loud music are what get Vinny’s blood pumping. Catch him behind the wheel of his ’68 Firebird. Chances are, Black Sabbath will be playing in the background.
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