There's really only two things you need to know about the 2015 Dodge Charger Hellcat: it may be the most American car you can buy right now, and it's absolutely, unrepentantly clamshit insane. The idea of a well-appointed four-door family car with enough power to liquify everyone you love is crazy. And wonderful. But crazy.
(Full disclosure: Dodge flew me out to DC, let me drive their cars on a track, and fed me in the Library Of Congress. Did you know you could rent the Library of Congress for a dinner? I had no idea. I also didn't know that the Ben Franklin invented the Sloppy Joe, but I'm pretty sure I saw a mural that showed just that.)
Trying to explain this car to non-car people is a great way to take a step back from the insular world of gearheadom and realize just how absurd the whole thing is. You can try to personify it, for example. You could tell a friend to imagine a successful, middle aged man, probably an orthodontist or something, who has good taste, is a responsible and dedicated dad, but also has one of the most elaborate and well-appointed sex dungeons in three states. The car's kind of like that.
I mean, think about it: the Charger is a full-size, four-door sedan. It's the kind of car that was once the default sort of car in America, and is now something of a dying breed. A car designed to transport a whole family and their luggage in easy, air-conditioned comfort. And this car — this rational, eminently conventional and traditional sort of car — is also available in a version that's capable of going about three times the speed limit of anywhere in the country.
707 HP is an absurd palindrome of a number. I also drove the SRT 392 version of the charger, which makes a very healthy 485HP, and it was intensely fast. By any rational standard, that would be the insanely quick version — but, of course, it's not. Having a family sedan with 707 HP on tap is sort of like having a vacuum cleaner that could, if you wanted it to, vacuum the finish right off your hardwood and then keep going until it sucked a hole in the fabric of spacetime, which would then become a singularity that would suck in your entire home, family, pets, underpants, and the whole planet.
Sure, you probably wouldn't ever need to put your vacuum cleaner in 'destroy the known universe' mode, but you'd always know you could.
That right there, that idea that just knowing you could go 204 MPH in the car with your baby seats in it, that's both the fundamental motivation for this car and one of the key things that make it so uniquely American. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, accounting for a statistical margin of error, exactly 0.0% of people who buy a Charger Hellcat actually can or should drive it at 204 MPH.
This car may represent the greatest ratio of engineering to never-gonna-useitness this side of an atomic bomb. And while part of me says that makes this one of the stupidest vehicles around another part of me makes me love both it and my country, filling me with a perverse sort of patriotism.
See, even though it's made in Canada by poutine-gorged Canadians, the whole Charger line may just be one of the last truly American cars out there. Unlike so many other American (and Japanese, Korean, etc) car makers, Dodge (even if they're owned by Italians) has managed to avoid the lure of trying to make German/European-style performance sedans. Dodge hasn't fallen prey to the ravenous beast of alphanumeric naming, and the fundamental character and design of cars like the Charger are unmistakably American.
I got to drive the Charger Hellcat and other members of the Charger line last week, on the road and at West Virginia's Summit Point raceway.
Sitting in the Charger, you're greeted with an interior packed full of very up-to-date controls and LCD screens and autonomous driving aids, all made tangible with a competitive selection of soft-touch plastics and leather and other materials. It's on par, equipment-wise, with what's being offered from Europe or Japan. But the fundamental layout and shape and arrangement of the interior is absolutely an evolution of the big American sedans I grew up riding in in the 70s and 80s.
The dash is tall and panel-like, the interior is wide and roomy, and while the seats are nice, supportive buckets, it's so easy to imagine a nice long vinyl bench seat in there. The whole feel of the car is Detroit, and it may be the only American-branded sedan out right now that really feels that way.
I'm not going to say whether or not this is a good or bad thing — it just is. I will say that I do respect the decision, since I think there's a heritage there worth continuing. The exterior styling feels American as well — it's substantial, and a little deceptive. In bland colors, the car can be almost anonymous in profile, but the more you look at it, the more dramatic it is. The big side scallop and sculpted rear haunches I think are quite attractive and I appreciate the willingness to take some risks — in fact no body panels are shared with the previous generation car.
Plus, I think the new modernized lights and front end completely change the face of the car, giving it a pleasingly futuristic and clean look that emphasizes the cars width and manages to keep things uncluttered. The rear's 'racetrack' taillight may be the best expression of this decades-long quest for the ultimate single, wide taillight on cars, too. At night, there's nothing else that looks like it from the rear.
The combination of American and batshit crazy are pretty evident when driving the car as well. Fundamentally, this is a very easy car to drive. the 8-speed TorqueFlite (that name is also so American. It sounds like it came right out of some ad pitch you'd hear on Mad Men) shifts very quickly (200 ms), and if you don't go nuts on the throttle, the car is quite comfortable and well-behaved.
In traffic on the way to the track, it was a quiet, one-finger-on-the-wheel sort of thing. Like American cars have been for decades. Acceleration was, of course, quite good, even in the sub 500 HP cars. Steering was precise (and speed-sensitive) if a bit removed from the feel of the road, but the car did handle and maneuver in a way that ignored its considerable size and weight.
Once on the track, with TRACK mode set on the controls and the Red Key in use (the Hellcat comes with a red key for full power use and a black one for valets and untrustworthy simpletons like myself) the car's rampant bonkersism became alarmingly clear.
The track at Summit Point isn't overly fast, but it does have one pretty decent, if a bit short, straight. On that straight, without even really trying hard, that Hellcat gets to about 140 MPH without breaking a sweat (to compare, the 392, non-supercharged versions get to about 120). You come out of the turn on to the straight and stomp the gas, and the uncut speed-heroin gets injected between your toes, and every sensible thought you had gets blasted out the back of your skull.
The braking point arrives alarmingly quickly, and the massive brakes (6 piston front, 4 piston rear) manage to turn 100 MPH of speed into invisible heat astoundingly fast, and with almost no histrionics. You come in hot at 140, put some pressure on that pedal, and you rapidly and confidently end up at 40 MPH. Those brakes are seriously impressive.
I've driven two other cars with comparable levels of power to this four-door sedan on a track: a Lamborghini Aventador and the Ford GT 500. Both of these cars were much more overtly aggressive in the way they drove. The Lambo was like a purpose-built speedbot, with dramatically mechanical shifts and a very sophisticated and busy feeling, and the GT500 felt like driving a golem with rocket skates. Both fun, both impressive, and both much more focused on reminding you that you're in a machine designed just to go fast.
The Charger Hellcat, though, felt just like a big American sedan (admittedly with much tighter handling and braking) that you could somehow, magically make go hair-meltingly fast. Which is why it's so goddamn insane. It's cunning and stealthy. You could own one of these for months, driving like it was any other car, until that one day came that made you want to step on the gas and the next thing you know you're hurtling into an orphanage/kitteneteria at 198 MPH, with no regrets whatsoever. This car requires the self-control of a castrated saint who thinks you're watching him.
Keep in mind that this is a car that can get gas mileage in the 20s until you really stomp it, and then I think you can empty the tank in 20 minutes or so.
I don't know what the hell to think of this car. Part of me loves it, part of me loves that Dodge is building it, but another big part of me knows just how richly, lavishly insipid it is. If you own one, you're never going to really be able to experience what this car is capable of until the day comes that you snap and decide to plow you, three passengers, and a good number of well-packed suitcases right the fuck off the side of a mountain or something.
Now, what does make a bit more sense are the lower-powered versions of this car, and perhaps most notably, the Police Interceptor variant.
Yes, we got to drive around a fully-loaded cop car and play with the sirens and lights and loudspeaker and all that. The cop version even doubles down on the Americana aspect by having a column-shift transmission — when was the last car you saw with one of those?
Chasing after other cars on the track in the cop car was a blast not just because of the movie-scenes replayed in your head (I pleaded for a bunch of empty cardboard boxes we could drive through, cop-through-alley style, but no luck) but because the cop car was actually set up in what may be the ideal track car version of the Charger.
The 392 engine has 475 lb-ft of torque that gives great acceleration, and the whole cop package includes beefed up suspension and a set of heavy front brakes that stop just about as well as the Hellcat's more exotic, lighter setup. The guy in charge of the police car division made the excellent point that if you're looking for a ready-to-roll track day car, you can do really well by picking up a used cop Charger from an auction.
I think he's really on to something, as I found the cop car setup to be the sweet spot of the cars I ran on the track — quick, surprisingly nimble for its size, fantastic stopping power, and about 200 lbs lighter than the Hellcat. Plus, you might be able to pick one up with that screen and seamless, hose-down-able back seat!
In the end, I have to say I'm really conflicted about the Charger Hellcat. It's impressive and ridiculous. I suppose when the alien invaders are scrutinizing our culture, trying to figure out how we mate via Snapchat on our pocket-databars, they'll eventually find a Charger Hellcat, and I think that might just explain everything.
Once they evaluate the engineering behind a car designed to transport a whole famili-cluster of humans in comfort, but also with the potential to go screaming across the land at Mach 0.26, they should be able to understand that, fundamentally, we're a pack of dangerous, thrill-seeking, destructive lunatics. And then they'll probably get the hell off Earth. Especially if they get their hands on a Tesla Model SD right afterwards.
God bless America.