“I heard you coming from up on the ridge,” said a grinning farmer, stepping down from a mud-spattered Ram 3500 at the fuel pump. “I figured something nasty was on the way.”
Something nasty. Something Canadian.
Meet the Challenger Hellcat, which doesn’t speak softly, but does carry a rather large stick. Where other retro-themed domestic nameplates have sharpened their cornering skills to become world-beaters at the track, the Challenger remains an unapologetically blunt instrument. Were we in medieval times, this car would be one of those spiky-ended weapons used for walloping the enemy over the head.
Speaking of medieval, let’s cut straight to the Hellcat’s headline-grabbing engine, a supercharged 6.2-litre V-8 that makes 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque. Dodge also provides this engine in the Charger sedan and, more recently, there’s the thundering Jeep Trackhawk, that most hellacious of SUVs.
Elsewhere in the industry, turbochargers and hybridized drive systems work hand in glove with clever traction control and stability aids to ensure driver ability is cossetted and flattered. Hellcat no do those things. Hellcat smash.
If you’re, I don’t know, the leader of the Green Party or something, you’re probably thinking this all sounds pretty irresponsible. Further, if you’re an American reader, you might be wondering how something like the Hellcat could even be built in Canada, that nice place full of Zambonis and maple syrup and people who say “sorry” all the time.
But as much as we are the country that produced the nimble hockey skills of Wayne Gretzky, we are also the birthplace of tough guy Dave Semenko. The Challenger Hellcat is built in Brampton, Ont., and is basically Canada dropping the gloves.
Besides which, Elizabeth May, things aren’t as inefficient as you might think. This particular Hellcat is a green choice (well, the paint is), and underneath its 1970s bulk are all kinds of older Mercedes chassis components, lifted from the days of the Daimler-Chrysler partnership. That’s practically recycling.
Then there’s the highway fuel economy, which is roughly the same as a Toyota Tacoma. Granted, a mid-size pickup truck is more flexible than a muscle car, but this is a coupe with the size, presence and power of an aircraft carrier. Get it out into the prairies, and it eats pavement the way a linebacker eats pasta.
Granted, you won’t find finesse in a Dodge Challenger unless you throw a dictionary in the passenger’s seat. But for charisma and comfort, this is a big, soft, friendly coupe with a semi-idiotic level of horsepower. It’s like owning the slobbery mastiff-mongrel from Turner & Hooch. Get the Hellcat out of the city, and everybody loves it.
Long-distance touring resembles the life of an alpha predator: mostly aimless loafing along, with the occasional burst of muscularity. There’s a manual transmission, and it’s a hoot, but the eight-speed automatic better suits the Hellcat; stab the throttle to get past a semi-trailer and the car dumps four gears and lunges forward.
Then settle into the wide bucket seats and watch that broad hood play foreground to a cleared and ever-changing horizon. Over consecutive thousand-plus-kilometre days, the Challenger’s cockpit was as comfortable as a couch. A Camaro or Mustang shrinks around you as pace increases. The Challenger feels like a La-Z-Boy equipped with JATO rockets.
Cornering behaviour is a masterclass in the differentiation between handling and road-holding. With steamroller rubber, the Hellcat can hold sweeping turns at surprisingly high speeds. However, it’s not built to dance through transitions. Surprising competency is here, but not much fun.
Instead, I came hammering out of the B.C.-Montana Kootenays and into Alberta’s prairies, windows down and Steppenwolf cranked. Passing an A&W somewhere near Fort Macleod, I noticed a classic car gathering, and cruised back around.
The sun was setting, burnishing chrome and paint with gold. Old-timers peered curiously at the newcomer. A young guy grabbed a picture of the Hellcat on his iPhone.
It was a strange blend of the old and the new, at the end of the day, and the Hellcat fitted into the nostalgia like the last piece of a puzzle. Times are changing. The future rushes at us headlong. Yet, in the twilight, there’s still room in this country for one last Jurassic bellow of fury and speed.
You’ll like this car if … your favourite tool to reach for is a sledgehammer.
- Base Price: $78,195
- Engine: 6.2-litre supercharged V-8
- Transmission/Drive: eight-speed automatic/rear-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100kms): 17.6 city/10.7 highway
- Alternatives: Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Ford Mustang GT350
Actual carbonfibre pieces save weight, carbonfibre-look stripes don’t. The Challenger tends more to the theatrical, though the scoops in the hood and additional intakes mounted in the centre of the headlights are functional.
While the plastics are a generation behind, the Challenger hides most of its cut-rate bits fairly well. The touchscreen infotainment is canted toward the driver and easy to use. Bucket seats are broad enough for larger drivers. This is a comfort-first environment.
Never mind the 0-100 km/h acceleration times – where the Hellcat is unstoppable is in passing. While on the move, the sheer force of that big, supercharged V-8 provides unending thrust to get past any line of dawdling 18-wheelers, even in short passing sections.
The SRT button on the dash allows the driver to adjust everything from suspension firmness to steering assist. Street mode is perfect for longer distance touring, or you can dial up the Sport to have the big Challenger respond better in the switchbacks.
Passenger space is reasonable, including seating for three in the rear at a pinch. The trunk holds 450 litres and has a large opening, making the Hellcat a great grand tourer.
The verdict: 9.0
It’s like a modern-day dinosaur that you can own as a pet. Cars such as these won’t be around much longer, so get your kicks in while you can.