by Daniel Bennett
Largely overlooked as the media and public focus on the 707-horespower Hellcat Challenger is the standard 392 car, still a highly respectable package with a great deal of power. This was the first of the 2015 Dodge Challengers I took out on a road course in Portland, with a good mix of curves, straights, streets, and freeways.
The whole media event experienceHellcat at the track
With Track mode, at first it felt too heavy, but after driving with it for a while, I decided that I would probably end up using that daily. It was firm, but not too firm. If I lived in a pothole prone area, I might change my tune on that a bit, but with the mostly smooth roads we have out here, it's just fine, especially if you enjoy “spirited” driving.
I grew to love that car in that trip. If I had my choice, I might well pick an SRT 392 over a Hellcat. The overall look and balance of the car that suits me. Enough power to have a ton of fun, and still be quicker than 99% of the cars on the road, but not so much that you are afraid to drive it at 10/10ths all the time.
At the track, my first car was a Challenger hellcat. Jim, the lead Portland Raceway instructor, said, “This car rewards smooth driving, and patience. If you are a herky jerky driver, and are impatient, you will not be able to drive this car well at all.”
They had the Hellcats all in Street mode for both traction control and suspension to help prevent drivers whose confidence exceeded their ability from destroying one of these cars, and to keep them from hurting themselves or someone else.
If you don't stay fairly close to the wall, the track will tend to suck you out into the weeds. In the dry, the Hellcats were seeing 140 there. My first time through at speed in the wet, I was at 110. By the last set of laps on the day, I touched 130 there.
About half way through that wall hugging back straight/sweeper, the race surface has some ripples to it that unsettle the chassis. Not so big a deal in the dry, but very unnerving in the wet, especially when you have a car that can break the tires loose at will at anything below 100mph in the wet.
Entering the straight for the first time at speed, I finally rolled into the Hellcat hard in 3rd gear for the first time. We were using the red key, so all 707hp and 650 ft/lbs of torque was available to me. Past 3/4 throttle in 3rd gear I was starting to get tire spin, Jim suggested I short-shift it to keep the torque down and lessen the tire spin potential. Suggestion followed. Dang! It works like a champ.
Up into 5th just before the braking zone. Hard on those superb brakes, 20% to set the car, 80% to slow it, then back to 20% for the corner. Downshifting at the same time as well, from 5th, to 4th, down to 3rd. I could have probably gone to 2nd in the dry, but that would have just been tire spin city in the wet. So, about 2000 rpm in 3rd rounding the sharp left of turn 2, gently rolling into the throttle across the changing track surface, till it smoothes, roll on it hard for a second, then on the brakes again to slow for the upcoming right. Still in 3rd gear, you maintain the throttle through the sweeper and through the transition into the off camber left sweeper that makes you wait and wait until you can apply power again.
I found the dry spot on the track, rolled into the power hard till the braking cones ahead. Brake, right, whoa squirrelly, lift gently and wait to apply throttle till the car is pointed straight, dangit! Roll into 4th, 5th right as we cross the bumpy part of the back stretch, braking cones fast approaching, downshift, brake, downshift, turn left, roll into it a bit, brake slightly, turn right on the entrance to the sweeper for the front straight. Rinse and repeat, and learn from your mistakes.
The hardest part about driving that car hard in the wet is the urge to use the throttle while in a turn or turning. All that will do is pivot the car around in the wrong way. So it's almost a tension, a strain, to not over use the throttle.
I had an interesting conversation with an SRT chassis engineer about the wheel hop. It comes down to tires and bushings. The factory has to use tires that will last a certain number of miles, with bushing material that does both damping of noise and resists displacement. For tires, noise damping usually wins out over displacement; these vehicles are built to the general public's standard, not the enthusiast's standard. If you use harder tires, it will lessen the hop, if you use softer tires, it will lessen the hop. If you could get more deflection resistant bushings for the rear suspension pieces it would lessen the hop, but at the factory level, none of that can be done because of the other criteria that those components have to meet. Good enough answer for me, and makes a ton of sense.
I then drove an SRT 392. The Hellcats I had been driving were stick cars (the autos were hard to get a ride in) so I was also very keen to try the ZF 8 speed out as well. I set everything to track mode in the SRT Performance Pages, got myself settled, and waited.
Here is the car that can be driven at 10/10ths at all times. I only had one guy in front of me, he was in a Scat Pack. I had caught up to him on the warmup lap, and passed him on the front straight at the beginning of lap 2. The ZF automatic is great for braking, as you can just pop the left lever to get engine braking downshifts while climbing all over those same brakes that the Hellcat wears. And then roll hard back into the throttle, and pop the right lever to upshift when you want, or just leave it be and the computer get it done.
The computer is pretty spot on. Half the time I was getting it just before it would do it on its own, the other half of the time it was just getting there as I was ready to bump it myself. By the end of the 4th lap, I was only a straightaway behind the last car behind. I don't know how much time I made up on them, but I was flying in comparison. I got out with a huge grin on my face and a spring to my step. That was a great feeling.
I had an absolute blast with that one. The Hellcat was hard work to drive fast. The SRT 392 was just a hoot to drive fast. I am not sure that the Hellcat would have been any quicker on this day. I know I had a huge grin when I got out of the SRT 392, whereas getting out of the Hellcats it was more akin to relief at not dying this time out.
I did have a chance to take each of the “lesser” cars out; all had good and consistent fit and finish, and the instructors said the Hellcats were all identical in feel and performance. Kudos to the good folks at Brampton.
The SXT felt nice. It was pretty Spartan, and honestly, I can agree with the complaints about the small face radio. The 5” thing has no place in the middle of that big opening. The V6, while not a powerhouse, is certainly adequate for moving the Challenger around. The shifts seemed kind of mushy to me, but on reflecting back, I had just gotten out of a SRT392 in track mode shifting, and that's so crisp and quick, that it would make a light switch seem mushy. So for the average commuter, that is just looking for a dang good looking car, with enough power to be enjoyable, and still return good mileage, the SXT is your car. I would however recommend stepping up to the Track Pack package on the car. It lowers the ride height by 1/2”, and gives you the paddle shifters that are fun to use. I believe it also gives rev matching downshifts.
Next up was the 5.7 R/T. I have spent many thousands of miles driving an 2009 R/T Challenger; it feels pretty much the same as far as power goes, though the 8 speed does, along with the revised suspension bits, make the car seem more connected than the previous generation. Again, I would recommend the Track Pack for added driving enjoyment. This is a perfect car for someone who wants a middle of the road solution. More power and options than the SXT level, but still wants to maintain a modicum of mileage capability.
R/T Scat Pack 392. This is basically the old SRT Core model, but for less money, and more content. This is your bang for the buck car, the truest muscle car of the bunch frankly. Big engine, few options, brash looks. Same power as the SRT 392, but with the last generation brakes, a two mode suspension, and not all the trick toys. It does however share the exhaust system so you get that same rock band soundtrack. The Shaker version is the sharpest looking in my opinion, and you can at least option the Scat Pack cars with the red suede inserts.
If you want to go fast in a relatively straight line for as budget minded as you can be, this is your ride. This is today's 383 Road Runner/ Super Bee. It is entirely possible that this car could be quicker on a drag strip than the SRT 392. Not by much, but by some. The added options and such in the SRT392 will tend to slow it down some in comparison to the more Spartan Scat Pack car.
SRT 392. The SRT 392 strikes such a balance of power, poise and overall performance, that it really is a shame that it is being so overshadowed by its belligerent big brother. The Hellcat is phenomenal, but this SRT 392 is something else altogether. It benefits from the Hellcat suspension and brakes, while not gaining the weight of all the supercharger bits and supporting pieces. It has its own, unique hood, that SRT claims was based off of the Viper GTS hood, but all I see is AAR 'Cuda when I see that hood on an E-body shape.
Where the Hellcat is Thor's hammer, ready to decimate small villages with a single blow, the SRT 392 could be likened more to a jeweler's hammer. Just the right size, not to heavy, not too light, with the ability to craft such beautiful works that it dazzles the mind. Is it so terrible that we have this and the monster that is the Hellcat to choose from? Please do not overlook this car if you are shopping in this price range.
Hellcat. That word alone has already made such a huge impression on the automotive world, that by itself, the word evokes thoughts of brutal power, unyielding force, and a general toughness that so eloquently describe this car. Pick your poison, stick shift for those that want to truly master and tame the beast, or a superb automatic, for those that want to get every last bit out of this monster that can be extracted.
If you want the baddest of the bad, the best of the best, and are unafraid to have your lion taming chair and whip at the ready every time to start this 'Cat, then this is your calling. This car is not for the faint of heart. While it can be driven civilly, and can be civil, it is in no way shape or form tame. It really is akin to someone taking a baby wild tiger cub into their home. Yes, they can train it to be nice, yes it will socialize, and yes, it will most likely never be an issue. But, after it's fully grown, at its heart, and always within a microsecond of reaction or a mistake on your part, it is a wild, untamed beast that with one swipe or bite can kill you. This car should come with a manual that on the outside has a wrapper, which says “Handle with Caution!”
I might be slightly overstating it to get a point across, but I want to leave the impression that this car is too much for most people to handle. Chrysler has done a phenomenal job in taming this beast. But even they admit (Tim Kusinikis) that this car is for the 5%. Not the 5% that can afford it though, the 5% that knows how to responsibly use the power. Because, there will always be that temptation to use the red key and find out what it will do. Regrettably, I think that possibly, not many Hellcats will make it to their tenth birthday.
The car is an absolute wonder, it can do amazing things, is more exciting to drive than a box full of fireworks that has caught on fire, and, in the right hands, will be an absolutely brutal opponent in the car wars that are the drag strip and the standing mile, and even on Road Race courses. If you relish a challenge, then the Dodge SRT Hellcat Challenger has growled its response to that challenge.
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