The typical Canadian – a value-conscious, reliability-obsessed, fuel efficiency-fretting car consumer – would be appalled. I am driving a 700-plus horsepower Hellcat as furiously fast as my ability and courage will allow. It’s a frivolous act of hedonism brought to me by Fiat-Chrysler’s Dodge brand.
Now, before you get your knickers knotted, I am not on city streets, but Portland International Raceway, a 3.17-kilometre gem which opened in 1960 and is an official city park. This fast circuit has 12 turns, some tilting off-camber, throwing you from the pavement. The signature features are a long straightaway in front of the pits and a gently curving, full-throttle stretch directly opposite, between turns 9 and 10.
The latter is a thrill in the aptly named 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat ($63,995) with its supercharged Hemi V-8 (707-hp/650 lb-ft of torque). This car has more guts than the former Arrows F1 car I drove a decade ago on the track in Valencia, Spain – the car in which Damon Hill won an F1 title.
But the Arrows was a lightweight, open-wheel, single-seat, purpose-built racer. The Hellcat is a big, heavy, street-legal four-seater loaded with safety gear – including electronic driving nannies that have been dialled down for action.
The Dodge people say the Hellcat is the most powerful production muscle car yet done and I don’t wish to waste track time nit-picking this fact. The chance to scare myself on a warm, clear, sunny summer day is not to be wasted. If someone has rolled a more powerful muscle car off a production line somewhere, no matter.
Once I’ve settled into the snug leather pilot’s seat with its SRT bolsters to keep me from sliding around, I ask if we’re using the red key or the black.
“Red,” says the professional racer riding shotgun to ensure I do not kill myself or damage the car. The red key means I have access to all the power. There is also a black key which limits access to all the roaring engine fun available. This is the key I would give to my 20-year-old son.
I push my left foot to engage the clutch as I stab the starter to fire up that Hemi. Then I goose the throttle and a hellacious howl explodes inside my racing helmet. Somewhere, David Suzuki has pulled aside his Toyota Prius hybrid and is weeping.
At last, we’re off. My shotgun passenger tells me to ease my way from the pits and onto the track, gaining speed as I row through the optional manual gearbox using the big, fat, shift ball in my right hand.
“If I do this,” he says, giving a tap to the centre dash, “start braking. If I do this” he adds, furiously tap-tap-tapping the dash, “then I want you to brake really hard. This is important. You gotta get your braking done before you turn. This is a big car and it will swap ends in a heartbeat if you don’t respect it. Now have some fun.”
The first couple of laps ease me into things, but soon my shotgun racer is urging me to push harder. I do. The low-profile rubber on the 20-inch hyper black aluminum wheels has more grip than I expected and the six-piston Brembo brakes with their red calipers are up to the task of slowing down this shockingly well-behaved beast. I avoid tossing the car around and my passenger is delighted to hold onto his cookies and overall health.
Yes, the Hellcat is a politically incorrect automobile. But the “sports specialty” segment where it competes for a handful of buyers is tiny in Canada – 1.3 per cent of the market. And that includes all the different Challenger variants, from the $28,895 SXT model with its 305-hp V-6 through the lesser V-8 models and to the Hellcat, as well as all the Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros sold.
Call me irresponsible, as Michael Bublé sings, and call me irresponsibly mad for the Hellcat.
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