We Go On and Off the Track in a Hellcat
Big, brazen, and completely brutal, the war hammer known as the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat sits next to the entrance to the track, claws retracted, waiting for its next prey to unknowingly plop down in its red stitched seats. All day long I had been avoiding this heavy-handed slice of hell on wheels, knowing that at some point I had to man up and take it for a spin around the circuit.
Driving a Hellcat isn’t some small undertaking that you nonchalantly dive into one afternoon, calmly embracing the fact that 707 horsepower of colon-cleansing terror is a fantastic way to ruin your bombachas. But sometimes you have to grab the tiger by the tail, and so with a deep breath I dove inside the cabin, palms sweating, and camera at the ready.
What greeted me was a brilliant red and black interior that seamlessly blended well-crafted nostalgia and modern day mobility into a sports car cabin that was just as inviting as the exterior was intimidating. Throwback, orb-like gauge pods with classic Mopar lettering sat on both sides of MID displays, which morphed in and out as driving modes were selected, all while grippy sport pedals lay beneath, patiently awaiting a driver’s heel. Cubbies, pockets, cupholders, and infotainment knobs all were exactly where they should be, and in a medieval monster like the Hellcat, these considerations are an alluring way for buyers to realize that this is not just some track car, and that it too has a place on our city streets.
Bolstered but not back-biting, the SRT’s seats are fantastic to fall into, and after a little adjusting you will realize that while the Challenger has blind spots that are about the same size as Mel Gibson’s last bar tab, once you come to grips with this fact it really isn’t as bad as it appears from the outside. The Hurst-style shifter remains a modern day FCA staple when the manual transmission is not in place, the steering wheel is both meaty and well laid-out, and the overall fit, finish, and quality of the materials in the cabin are far better than one might expect to find, as the words “spot on” come to mind.
Driving modes can be selected via the large, 8.4-inch, center-mounted touchscreen, where opting for sport, track, and street modes reward you with an info layout that shows how power is being delivered and where fine tuning may be required. Once selected, drivers can opt for a slew of different digital gauges, shift light RPM timing sets, transmission and differential engagement set-ups, and G-force calculation, which remains a favorite takeaway from this whole experience for me.
Once I started feeling relatively comfortable with all of the interior adjustments, and my confidence was about as ready as it ever would be, I put the Hellcat in drive and rumbled my way down toward the track. I had originally chosen “track mode” for my initial setup, but after browsing over the benefits, I changed my choice to the less aggressive but still ferocious “sport mode” at the last moment just in case the car proved to be a bit more than I could handle. Waiting in the staging lane, I perused my chosen settings once more, and then took off down the straightaway, rambunctiously lunging toward the first corner. But in all of my fiddling with the center console settings, and fretting over what driving mode to put the car into, I had neglected to notice a little yellow light on the left gauge pod, which was trying to notify me that the Hellcat’s traction control was still turned off.
Needless to say, my handling of corner numero uno was not as graceful as I had hoped, and upon exiting the turn the ass end of the car pushed sideways, throwing me off course, and out into the grass. As yellow flags waved, I sat shocked, staring blankly at my gauge cluster. My first chance at taking a turn in a proper muscle car and I muck it all up royally. It was then that I noticed that oh-so-slight yellow lamp, informing me that my traction control had not been engaged, and I smiled.
After putting the beast back on the track, this time with my traction completely in abundance, I found myself getting pitted, as the marshals wanted to make sure that a deranged bee had not stung me in the face or something of that nature. I sheepishly admitted that I had failed to notice that the traction control had been disengaged, and after a moment of contemplation I was allowed back on the race course. Then, with the supercharger singing, and the rear differential working in overtime, I sailed around the track, this time hitting every angle of the tarmac properly, with nary a sign of wheel slip along the way.
To say that this thing is nimble would be a flat-out lie, as its 4,439-pound curb weight is more than most small SUVs, and when hitting an apex you feel more like you are overpowering the corner, rather than working around it. But those massive, 20×9.5-inch wheels remain wrapped in Z-rated Pirelli rubber, so grip is way better than one might expect in the handling department, and while it certainly howls, I found that the 550-horsepower Range Rover SVR was far louder than the Hellcat on the exhaust side. There also are those beastly, six-pot Brembo brakes up front, which grasp 15.4-inch two-piece rotors, while 13.8-inch discs are slowed by four-pot version out back, which makes bringing this two ton slice of American muscle to stop a lot easier than one might think.
This car really is far more controlled and crisp than one might expect, and while it may have an insane amount of power, it rolls around a track in a far more noble manner than it may first appear, due partially to its over-sized sway bars and fully adjustable dampers. Couple that with instant boost from the a massive supercharger, a rear differential that is just as clever as it is chunky (when engaged properly mind you), and you have a Hellcat that doesn’t mind coming when it is called, and is well-bred to boot.
But don’t ever forget what this car is deep down inside, because the minute you take it for a lap cat it will claw you to shreds, because 707-horsepower and 650 foot-pounds of torque is no laughing matter when you are suddenly sideways at 90 miles-per hour. Oh, and good luck getting your hands on one too, because the last time we checked these demon kitties were still back-ordered, and dealers can’t even keep them on the lot. Which is interesting, considering all of the woes FCA has seen over the years, as it gets hit with everything from plant strikes to recalls, with quality ratings in many segments rolling in way at the bottom of the barrel. Who knows, maybe focusing more on the extreme than the mundane could be the company’s new calling card…
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