A Day at the Track in a 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
By Bradley Iger
January 23, 2015
When we went to Portland last July to get some seat time in the Challenger Hellcat, one of the biggest surprises we took from the event was the car’s relatively well-mannered behavior on Portland International Raceway’s road course. It is without a doubt a big car – a grand touring vehicle by nature – but it was clear that engineers at Dodge had spent some time dialing out some of the persistent understeer that had become a hallmark of Challenger handling in models past, resulting in a much more neutral balance and a car that was much easier to corral around a race track than its reputation would suggest.
As is often the case at new car launch events, many different activities were packaged into a single day. Our time on the road course was just one element of a much larger package, and all Hellcat evaluations consisted of three laps per session (including warm-up and cool-down laps) with an instructor riding shotgun. While that’s enough to get a sense of the car in the situation, we thought it would be interesting to see what it was like to really live with the Challenger Hellcat in that context – heading out to the track, hitting multiple lapping sessions unrestricted, then heading home – to get a better sense of what potential owners can expect from this new high performance offering that implies a high level of flexibility in terms of its real-world usefulness and ability to entertain on and off the track.
As far as day to day driving goes, the first thing that strikes you about the Challenger Hellcat is how “normal” it behaves while just puttering around town. Sure, the clutch is substantially beefier than the one fitted to the standard Challenger manual gearbox in other models, and the suspension is stiffer as well (though the adjustable dampers go a long way in that regard), but ultimately, it’s a little bit shocking how easy it is to drive a 700 horsepower street car in city traffic in 2015:
As a grand touring instrument, the Challenger is top notch, even in this most aggressive iteration. Those large dimensions and that long wheelbase come in handy here – you never feel cramped, the ride isn’t harsh, and you’ll rarely be short for cargo space or room for your friends. That’s beyond rare for cars with this level of performance.
And about that performance – while it’s easy enough to drive this car conservatively, the car’s ability to unleash utter savagery at your whim is something that must be understood and utilized with a measure of real caution. At about 4:30 in the video above, you’ll see your author gingerly merging onto the freeway in second gear. As we make a pass and attempt to let the engine stretch its legs a bit, an overly generous dip into the throttle instantly turns into rolling burnout at about 60 mph. While the event itself was relatively free of drama, one thing is clear – this is not a drivetrain to be trifled with. We’d be lying if we said it wasn’t fun, but the truth of the matter is that this level of performance, paired with such an ease of access to it, is something that must be respected or you run the risk of really getting yourself into trouble.
One of the virtues of living in Southern California is our lack of seasons, and our week with the Hellcat was filled with dry, temperate days – except for the one day we scheduled track time at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
While not a monsoon, it was the kind of rain that strings you along with hopes of dry tarmac later in the day, and instead incrementally adds pools of standing water into areas of the track where you could have sworn they weren’t there the lap before. But, we figured if this guy is willing to brave it, we’ve really got no excuse.
After a few laps of getting acclimated to the track with its 20 corners and banked main straight, we decided to open up the taps a bit. But before we get to our notes on its driving manners, it must be said that this car really does sound incredible at wide open throttle – even those out in the stands get an impressive aural show from this supercharged 6.2-liter V8 and its active exhaust system:
Once things got moving at a brisk pace, we figured that if the understeer that characterized previous Challengers would reappear anywhere, it would be here on a wet road course. If you try hard enough and really over shoot a corner, just about any car will understeer. But truth be told, the Challenger stayed largely neutral both at turn-in and mid corner despite these less than ideal conditions. As you might imagine though, oversteer on exit was a behavior we had to contend with frequently with the combination of limited grip and high horsepower.
We found ourselves splitting the difference between full electronic intervention, which helped settle things significantly but allowed little rotation, and disabling those driving aids, which required very careful and patient application of the throttle along with fast corrections, as following the tarmac through the side windows became a far too regular occurrence – not exactly shocking with 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque under foot and a set of 275mm wide summer tires making contact with the pavement. Also not surprisingly, the banked straight is where the Hellcat truly shined, and left basically everything else (sans McLaren) for dead.
Among the Challenger SRT Hellcat’s three suspension damping settings, we found ourselves happier with Sport rather than Track on the Auto Club Speedway Sports Car course. After a few laps in Track mode, which is truly a firm setting, we noticed that the car was less stable on-throttle through imperfect sections of the course, such as the section of the follow-through after Turn 11:
Switching to the Sport setting allowed the rear suspension to compress a bit more, giving the car more stability through that section while allowing us to stay on the throttle, and we noticed little disadvantage in terms of body roll or brake dive in other parts of course as a result.
At the Portland event, SRT engineers stated that one of their goals was to make certain that the Hellcat had adequate cooling to run 20 minute lapping sessions without losing power from supercharger heat soak. We ran four half-hour sessions throughout the day, with each lap including a 140+ mph blast down the main straight (as well as a second, 120-130 mph sprint from Turn 10 to Turn 12), and not once did we notice a dip in the Hellcat’s seemingly endless well of power. It’s hard to say if things would have been different under dry conditions, but given the fact that each lap consisted of at least two substantial pulls at wide open throttle, it’s our impression at this point is that the cooling system is very much up to the task. It’s worth noting that the big Brembo brake package, with its 15.4 inch, six-piston Brembo brakes up front, and 13.8 inch discs and four-piston calipers out back, performed quite well here too, with consistent pedal feel and a reassuring amount of bite. However, it’s also clear that a more substantial wheel and tire package would likely also improve upon what’s already here by a worthwhile amount if hitting the road course and eating up twisty roads is an activity one plans to do with the Challenger Hellcat regularly.
While it’s not a sports car by dimension, design or mission, it’s undeniable that the Challenger Hellcat is still quite a bit of fun in that context. As we said before, comparing this car to vehicles like the Porsche 911 and C7 Z06 borders on absurd – just compare the physical dimensions of those cars to this one and it becomes clear why that is.
But if we must, it’s worth remembering that not only do those cars cost substantially more, they fall short in terms of the flexibility a package like this offers – five real adults can sit comfortably in this car, and because of its sedan origins, the trunk is positively massive. It’s comfortable. It’s effortless to drive in traffic. And it’s got a ridiculous amount of performance attached to a price tag that undercuts even the most de-contented versions of the majority of sports cars on sale today. Can a 700 horsepower muscle car be versatile – even practical, in some bizarre way? The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat proves to us that it’s totally feasible.