by David Zatz in November 2014 (5)
After a two hour ride-and-drive through Washington, DC and West Virginia, we arrived at the Summit Point race track, built in 1969 and consisting largely of sharp turns (the map doesn't really give it credit). By then, it was raining and the track was thoroughly soaked, diminishing the experience somewhat.
One instructor said that, in dry weather, they'd gotten 140 mph out of the Hellcat before slowing down for the next curve. Now, a careful driver could still hit triple digits, but flooring the pedal had to be done more gradually, reducing the acceleration and the fun.
The rain didn't stop the instructors from demonstrating how quickly you can whip through the turns — in minivans. Pros who normally raced high-powered cars took new Dodge Caravans filled with writers around the track's turns at fairly high speed, showing how surprising the minivan can be, from slamming through turns to screaming down the straights. You can see a little of it in the rather poor video.
From the minivans on, we did one warmup lap, one performance lap, and one cooldown lap, mainly to help the brakes last through a large number of laps by a large number of drivers. In each case we did “lead-follow,” with five mixed Chargers (two R/Ts, a Scat Pack and an SRT 392, and a Charger Pursuit) in one group, and four Hellcats in the other.
In my case, not having track training, the laps were distressingly similar, though I took advantage of the straights in the performance laps (albeit realizing in the end that I was letting off the pedal too early in the all-too-short main straight — before I reached the first braking indicator). I wasn't the slowest driver in the group, but I wasn't too close to the fastest, either. (Fortunately, you can refer to Dan Bennett's experiences in the Challenger Hellcat, too; Dan is used to driving high-performance cars around the track, in the rain.)
I started out with a Charger R/T, the least powerful car in the group, for my first set; if the V6 had been available, I'd have taken that and worked my way up. The R/Ts were both equipped with the optional Road & Track package, which provided some customization. The cars all had full stability and traction control on, because of the rain.
In the first warmup lap, I matched the course instructors' minivan performance, and thanks to constant instructions from the pro (which I'd requested) and placement of cones around the track to show where I was supposed to be at any particular time.
For the second lap, I got into the groove, and was able to keep pace with the car in front. I was surprised at how well the car clung to the curves in the rain — far better than any reasonable person would expect it to.
These were nasty curves, and there were slick areas where the pavement had been resealed or polished by years of racing. The Charger was fun to run from low speeds in the sharp curve to 85 in the straight, trying to ignore the Charger Pursuit behind me. I kept on letting off the gas too early in the straight, but still, the car's Performance Pages — which come with the Road & Track package — had shown that the fastest speed it had run before me was 81 mph, so maybe that wasn't too bad. I am sure triple digits were in the works for a driver with more experience, or even for me, on a dry track.
The real trick to this raceway was the curves — anyone can run fast in a straight line, but the curves are where you separate a newbie (like me) from experienced racers. I did as the instructor said, braked early and slowly, accelerated out of the turns, and applied light throttle through the turn to keep the front tires down. Note to self: find a way into the SRT Track Experience.
There was no question but that the car had enough power; the grip on the wet roads was surprising, and there was a lot more room to push it more, though wanting to keep the shape intact, I generally played it safe. I did wish for more, or longer, straights, and, following warnings by the instructors, when I floored it relatively slowly. I know the Charger was capable of much more, even on the wet pavement, from the earlier drive.
Later on, in another Charger R/T, with the track partly dry and partly wet, I found myself skidding several times as I suddenly hit slick sections of track. Letting off the gas for a moment brought control back instantly; the instructor pointed out I could also steer into the skid while maintaining power. If I was in an actual race, with my actual car, I might just have done that. With company cars, I didn't want to take the risk, especially in a demonstration with little riding on the outcome.
The instructor said he was used to grabbing the wheel when novices got into trouble and tried turning the wheel further in the direction they wanted to go, rather than the direction of the skid; fortunately I didn't undergo that humbling experience, but I also didn't quite keep up with the leader. It was still impressive to see and feel the traction and stability control systems at work; they almost instantly bring the heavy car back under control, making it ready for the next burst of acceleration.
The Dodge Charger Pursuit car is nearly identical in powertrain to the SE/SXT and R/T, but has a stiffer suspension so you feel more bumps, and a five-speed automatic which slows things down quite a bit (though not enough to prevent the car from constantly setting the top course speeds in Michigan State Police testing),
Patrick Rall added: “I did several hard laps in the pursuit, chasing an SRT 392 model. I was able to close on that far more powerful model through the curvy part of the track, but it would blow me away in the straights. I was pushing it hard, trying to catch that SRT, and compared to the R/T, I was able to brake much later from higher speeds. The Charger police car is still stiff, but it felt a whole lot better on the road course than the civilian Charger R/T. I can definitely see the advantage in a pursuit scenario, and having worked for a police motor pool, I have more experience driving police cars than the average person. Even with the staggered start, I could run down a Charger R/T with a similarly skilled driver. If they could ditched the impact-rated steel police wheels and replaced them with a set of low profile tires on wide wheels, it would be a beast.”
We were encouraged to use the lights — but to set them up before moving. Otherwise, well, bad things could happen. Really, it's more fun to be in the vehicle with the lights... in any case, the pursuit cars are outfitted to make it easier for police to integrate their gear, including small computers, and there are all sorts of provisions in the trunk for stowing equipment.You probably don't want to buy the pursuit car for yourself, though. Starting in 2014, they toughened up the front suspensions, but they remain stiffer and less convenient than standard Chargers; and the five speed versus the civilian eight-speed is an no-brainer.
While the Charger R/T is more responsive (particularly in powertrain — the short lag between hitting the gas pedal and surging forward) than most cars in the price range, they are nothing compared with the 6.4-powered Charger Scat Pack and SRT 392.
Why are there two cars with the same engine? The Scat Pack has a lower price, few options, lesser (but still potent brakes), and a two mode suspension, while the SRT has many more (electronic) suspension, steering, and powertrain adjustments. In short, the SRT provides frills, more customization, and a level of cornering likely needed almost exclusively in racing. If all you want is that straight-line boost at a reasonable price, the Scat Pack is the way to get it.
The SRT shares the Hellcat's brakes; they have 20% more swept area than the old SRT, and six-piston calipers, making a panic stop a serious event. I didn't do an especially hard stop, given the rain and exhortions to, um, not do that. As for power, 485 hp and 470 lb-ft is nothing to sneeze at, even if it's less than the Hellcat in “black key” mode (yes, we got the red keys), which puts out an impressive 500 horsepower.
Daniel Bennett pointed out that, while it has far less power, the SRT 392 has a better balance, and “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.” The Charger R/T and SRT both stay pretty neutral in turns, at least as fast as one could turn in the rain.
Both SRTs come with a 3-mode suspension that ranges from cruising to track-solid. The comfort setting is ideal for everyday driving; the others are best for smooth tracks. Even in the rain, the Hellcat handled the corners well, despite its slightly less favorable weight balance (the V6 is 52/48, the R/T is 53/47, and the Hellcat is 52/48), and heavier overall weight.
The SRT 392, again, has the Hellcat suspension and brakes, but not the weight of its more powerful brother. It provides that instant-on feel, neck-snapping acceleration, and agility, despite more weight than the Scat Pack.
The Hellcat is what you'd expect it to be in a straight line — thrilling and incredibly fast. Reaching double digits in the brief straight was not hard in the rain, and in the dry, the instructor said 140 came up easily. Still, the Charger SRT Hellcat clearly needs to be driven respectfully; providing the same pedal inputs as I had in the Charger R/T resulted not in mild acceleration, but in neck-snapping jumps. You can drive it gently, but only with care. Hit the gas hard or use the paddle shifter to drop a gear — instantly, in track mode — and it'll burn rubber even at speed; both SRTs also now automatically match revs on downshifts.
If the R/T was fun in the straight, the Hellcat was positively thrilling. Heck, it was thrilling just to watch the Hellcats flying by, even the slower second group in the video. I only wish the track had been dry enough for me to try a quick flooring-the-pedal — despite Dan's warnings that it's an invitation to go into the bushes. At 1,200 rpm, this car produces more torque (411 lb-ft) than the R/T does at peak. It just zooms, while the supercharger whistles and the exhaust roars. The power ratings don't lie; the performance of the Hellcat is stunning.
The eight-speed has to be mentioned again, here. It's worlds away from the Mercedes five-speed, and can shift faster than people can perceive it. Normally the software slows things down, so there's a delay between hitting the paddle and the shift, but in track mode, it happens just about as soon as you press the paddle; in sport mode, it's quite fast as well; and even in normal mode, it's far faster than in the 2014s. The delays of past AutoSticks are pretty much gone regardless of settings, at least in the cars we drove (Road & Track package and up). I didn't even try using the paddles on the Hellcat, it simply didn't need them. A professional in dry weather might find them handy.
Each of the Chargers, even the V6, is rewarding in its own way — all have impressive performance for their size, reasonable gas mileage for their size and performance, and even the Hellcat is much easier to drive than, say, a Corvette, Viper, 662-hp Shelby Mustang, 580-hp Camaro ZL1, or 505-hp Camaro Z/28. It's a serious muscle car, but you can use it to drive your kids to the supermarket, as long as you don't make any sudden moves. That's almost as impressive as the 204 mph top speed, the insane acceleration times, or the fact that a four door family sedan can whip its two-door, similarly-priced competition.
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