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by Patrick Rall
When the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat hit the market, it made a big splash in the American high performance world. With 707 horsepower, the Hellcat Challenger is the sixth most powerful 2-door car in the world, trailing only the LaFerrari, McLaren P1, Porsche 918, Lamborghini Veneno, and Ferrari F12.
Critics of the Hellcat cars (mainly Mustang, Camaro, and Corvette owners) have been quick to say that the 707-hp Challenger is “only fast in a straight line.” Fortunately, I have put a great many miles on each of the Hellcat cars on multiple road courses and I can say with confidence that they handle far better than any of the other Challenger cars. Do they handle as well as the Camaro ZL1, Camaro Z28 or new Mustang GT350? No — but that really doesn’t matter for two very simple reasons.
No muscle cars handle all that well when compared to a truer “sports car” like the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911, or Corvette Stingray. The two best-handling muscle cars of all time are arguably the fifth generation Camaro Z28 and ZL1. The Z28 made it around the Nürburgring in just 7 minutes and 37 seconds while the ZL1 took 7 minutes and 41 seconds. The Z28 has a 505 horsepower engine and a suspension setup specifically for track use, while the ZL1 packs a 580hp supercharged mill along with a adaptive suspension.
GM did a remarkable job in creating the modern Z28 as a streetable track car while the ZL1 is more of a proper street-driven high performance car. There is no question that they are both incredible cornering machines for the muscle car segment, but to realize those capabilities, you need to have the cars on a road course and you need to have the skills to exercise those capabilities.
Were you to take a slightly above average driver and put him in the 2015 Camaro Z28, the 2015 Camaro ZL1, and the 2015 Hellcat Challenger on a road course, I believe very strongly that the lap times would be relatively close between all three, as the average driver would be able to get down the straights quicker with the big horsepower Hellcat, while only being able to get through the turns slightly quicker with the stronger-handling Camaros. Now, if you were to throw a professional racer in all three cars, the Camaros would likely stomp the Hellcat Challenger, especially on a road course that is tighter and more intricate — where the Hellcat car cannot exercise all of that power.
The vast majority of the people buying the Camaro Z28, the Camaro ZL1, and the Hellcat Challenger are not professionals, and the advantages in cornering are going to be overshadowed by the average guy’s ability to speed down a straightaway at much higher speeds.
Also, unless you are driving on a road course all of the time, the advantages in cornering abilities of the two Camaros won’t make any difference in most races. I have been involved in more than my fair share of races out in the wild, and in almost no cases were there turns involved. I understand that some people like to street race in areas where they are blasting around turns, but even those are gentle, sloping turns that really don’t test the cornering ability of either car. I also understand that there are street racers out there who have watched too much Fast and the Furious, so they go out and race around big, open world courses and in those cases, the Camaros might have the advantage, but again, how many new Camaro, Mustang and Hellcat Challenger owners are doing that? Not many…if any.
Since the dawn of the muscle car era, there has been one key venue for proving that your Mopar is faster than your neighbor’s Camaro – the quarter mile drag strip. Sure, road racing has become more popular with muscle car owners in recent years, but if you attend an SCCA autocross event or an event at your local road course, you will see far more Mazda Miatas than you will modern muscle cars.
So, while we are seeing a growing number of Challenger, Camaro and Mustang owners at tracks with turns, there is no question that at the amateur level, drag racing is more common and more popular than road racing or autocross across America. If you go to any drag strip in the USA, you will see plenty of cars that aren’t traditional “muscle cars,” but you will see more Camaros, Challengers, and Mustangs than anything else.
While we are seeing more models like the Camaro Z28, the Camaro ZL1, and the upcoming Shelby GT350 Mustang, muscle car owners in this country spend far more time drag racing and running short stoplight blasts on the street. In designing the Hellcat Challenger, the team made sure that it handled better than any Mopar muscle car in the past, but they knew what the owners of this muscle car and all muscle car do the most – go fast in a straight line.
In the end, the critics are right – the Hellcat Challenger doesn’t handle as well as the Camaro Z28 or ZL1, but that concern only applies to people who spend their racing time on a road course. Aside from that very small segment of the muscle car collective, the Hellcat Challenger is the most dominant muscle car, as it does best what muscle car owners do the most.
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