I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking if I wanted to drive his Dodge Challenger Hellcat. I found this to be a strange departure from the e-mails I typically get from readers, which generally include a.) profanity, and b.) at least one use of the phrase “You suck.”
And this is how I ended up on a twisty road in central Pennsylvania last weekend, trying to regain my composure after I almost ran off the road.
But let’s go back to the start. When I first got the e-mail from Mike, who runs the YouTube channel Street Speed 717 and owns the Hellcat in question, I decided I would create a video and write a column that detailed some of the Hellcat’s more unique features. Actually, I decided I would compare the Hellcat to my Aston Martin – but as the Aston enters week two in the shop, it became clear that this idea was approximately as likely as the Martin O’Malley presidential bid.
So that’s when I decided that I would highlight some of the Hellcat’s more unique traits and features. For instance: everyone knows the Hellcat’s rear tires can produce about as much smoke as wartime Detroit.
But did you know the Hellcat has an air intake in place of a headlight on one side, and a fake headlight on the other side? (This is the kind of hard-hitting reporting you get from Doug DeMuro. This, and Volkswagen Touareg jokes.)
Actually, the fake headlight isn’t my favorite unusual thing about the Hellcat. My favorite is the key situation. When you buy a Hellcat, you’re given two keys: a black key and a red key. The red key unlocks the car’s full performance potential, giving it a raucous 707 horsepower. The black key, however, “limits” the Hellcat to a conservative, rational 500 horsepower.
When I first learned this, I burst out laughing. What’s the point of “only” 500 horsepower? So you can give the black key to a valet and tell him that he’ll have to limit his 0-to-60 pulls to 4.2 seconds, instead of 3.9 seconds? So you can give the black key to your son on his prom night, and sternly inform him that he’ll have to keep it to 180 mph, instead of the full 200?
Really, though, I wish I had been using the black key when The Incident happened.
Allow me to explain the situation. A few minutes into my drive with Mike, I asked him to put the car in “Track” mode. This is because Mike told me that track mode tightens up the suspension, and improves the exhaust noise, and removes a bunch of electronic nannies. Track mode sounded like the way I wanted to enjoy my Hellcat experience.
Now, since you’ve probably already guessed what’s coming next, I have to say something in my defense: I’ve driven literally dozens of cars with all kinds of stupid modes, and I’ve never actually felt any sort of measurable difference between them. Seriously: these days, everything has a performance mode, or a track mode, or an eco mode, or a comfort mode. The Hyundai Santa Fe has a sport mode. That’s the level we’ve reached. The Hyundai Santa Fe. Pretty soon, they’ll be putting sport modes on compact cars, pickup trucks, golf carts, desktop printers, etc.
So whenever I change the “drive mode” in some car, I sort of ignore it and keep driving roughly the same way – and that’s exactly what happened in the Hellcat. Just a few minutes after Mike made the switch, I forgot he had done it. Yes, it tightened up the handling, but we were on wet roads, and I was taking it easy, so I didn’t really notice anything.
Or, I should say, I didn’t really notice anything until I floored the accelerator.
Here’s what happened: after miles of twisty roads, we finally reached an open, straight area where I thought I could let the Hellcat loose for one brief stab of the throttle. I was in a high gear, I wanted to hear the noise, and I wanted to feel the power. So I straightened the wheel, and I pushed down the gas at around 50 mph. At 50 mph, the rear wheels immediately broke loose and the car started sliding around like a modded 240SX leaving cars and coffee.
Although it doesn’t look like much in the video, I was terrified. Fortunately, I took immediate preventative measures: I took my foot off the accelerator. I straightened the steering wheel. I authoritatively pushed the brakes. And then, when we were going straight again, I begged Mike to put the car in valet mode and limit the power to approximately the same level as you get with a standard iPhone.
And with that, my Hellcat experience was over.
As far as I’m concerned, the Hellcat is a little too much for me: too much power, too much speed, too much muscle. In my mind, the horsepower escalation war is over, and Chrysler has won it. As for me, I’ll stick to my sub-400 horsepower cars—and when I see a Hellcat on the street, I’ll give a knowing glance and a respectful nod.
And then I’ll take cover.