By Adam Drapcho
TILTON — I consider myself a mild-mannered, modern man. For example, I have a farm share and I try to observe a mostly-vegetarian diet. My toddler has been to yoga. And yet, there are times when I'm reminded that, despite all of my forward-thinking airs, there are precious few genes that separates humans from our simian siblings. The most recent such reminder came when I heard the rumbling, window-rattling exhaust note of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat.
The Challenger line of engines starts with the SXT models, which is fitted with a 305-horsepower V6. Step up to the R/T models and venture into V8 territory, where the car is motivated by either a big, honking 5.7 liter engine making 375 hp or, if the "Scat Pack" option is selected, a bigger, honkier 6.4 liter engine cranking out 485 horsepower. But, standing head and shoulders above them all is powerplant in the SRT Hellcat, which straps a supercharger onto the biggest of those engines. With the help of 11.6 psi of boost, the Hellcat engine is capable of 707 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful production cars money can buy.
It takes a fair bit of money to acquire all that power. At a base suggested retail price of $60,000, the Hellcat is more than double the cost of the most modest Challenger available. Chances are that dealers will see if the market will bear an even higher price, as the limited-edition will be hard for customers to find. The red Hellcat with optional black aluminum hood at AutoServ of Tilton is the second one the dealership has been able to stock this year; they've already sold a yellow one to a lakeside summer resident who owns a string of pizza stores in Massachusetts.
Both of the Hellcats that AutoServ has taken delivery of have come equipped with a manual six-speed transmission. Dodge makes an automatic available, but Paul Gaudet, Jr., one of the dealership owners, said he'd only order Hellcats with manuals. It is, after all, "the return of the muscle car," as he said, and he figures its buyers will want to experience driving it, including doing their own shifting.
He's right, the manual transmission on the Hellcat is one worth experiencing. The leather-wrapped shift knob sits on a steel shaft bent towards the driver. Both the shifter and the clutch pedal require a certain amount of heft in their operation — not enough to difficult, but enough to remind the driver that the machinery in the transmission tunnel is stout enough to handle the better part of 1,000 horsepower.
It's a muscular transmission befitting the car it's in. Like the rest of the Hellcat, it makes an impression. The Challenger has road presence in spades. Long and wide, and with that classic silhouette, even the most antisocial-looking motorcyclists yielded the fast lane on the highway before we were within a quarter-mile. In Hellcat form, the Challenger sports a chin splitter, hood vents, a trunklid spoiler and 20-inch wheels wearing Z-rated tires. If the looks weren't enough, then there's the soundtrack. The V8 rumble turns to a roar under throttle, which soon pairs with the supercharger's whine-turn-scream as the RPMs rise. It's an intoxicating duet. Downshift and goose the throttle and you'll want to slow down just to do it again. Don't let the song carry you away, though. With 707 horsepower, you'll be in felony speeding territory within a matter of seconds.
Backing off the throttle and returning to legal levels of velocity, you notice something. The Hellcat, for all its superlative features, is surprisingly easy to drive. Yes, the blind spots are large, and the car fills out a lane in the same way that a 20-ounce porterhouse fills a plate, but the beast is perfectly happy — comfortable, even — to purr along at part-throttle. If the EPA estimates are correct, it will get 21 miles per gallon on the highway. Not too bad, considering its power level.
So, at the end of the drive, I find my evolved mind rationalizing its primitive lusts. For such a special car, and for someone with the means, $60,000 isn't really that much money. And, yes, its fuel economy would be bettered by most quarter-ton pickup trucks, but the Hellcat isn't a car that will be driven every day. Drive a Prius during the week and your carbon footprint will still be better than most. Humans are a complicated creature and can't live on tofu alone. I think I'll have steak tonight.
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