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How to train your Hellcat

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Spencer Hall drove a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat around for a week. You can try to train this car, but it's still going to be a beast.

How did you get a 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat?

I was afraid I would be bored at the Masters so I called Dodge and asked them to drop off a car at my house: a 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, the most powerful American production car ever made. You might think this would be a process more complex than a few phone calls, but it was not. This was most of the conversation.

Dodge: So, what will this be?

Me: I'm going to drive this car to the Masters and back, and write about it. I'm not sure how you go about it, but what I would like to do, if you can talk about it, and the insurance checks out, and you somehow end up dropping off a car at my house, is take the car, and write about how it's--

Dodge: Does April 3rd work for you? We'll drop it off at your house.

Yes, yes. That worked for me.

I heard it before I saw it: a guttural, butt-rocking sound not unlike what you'd hear if you could sleep inside a cat's purring larynx. It was nuke green with black highlights and sitting in my driveway and once the man from the fleet had left, I sat there with the red key in my hand staring at it. It stared back. I swear it did.

Why this car?

Because the lead engineer used the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" in describing it to me. Because it has 707 horsepower and yet doesn't require clearance from a control tower to operate in public spaces. Because it looks like the old classic Challenger if you fed it anime ponies and nandralone and locked it in a gym for a year with Hafthór Júlíus Björnsson.

There is more. Because the first man in Colorado who bought one destroyed it less than a mile out of the dealership. Because the car had been described with every synonym of "fearful" and "pants-shittingly fast" by professionals with way more experience redlining fast automobiles than I had. Because when you start it, a glowing red demon cat head flashes on the touchscreen. Because Dodge says it goes zero to 60 in three seconds and change with a max speed of 204 mph. Because most people have agreed that numbers can't really cover the insanity of its power.

Because they said I could have it? Because they said I could have it.

So did it bite?

No. But it could have: Hit the accelerator and get more than 30 percent into the throttle and the fight-or-flight reflex kicks in and begins shutting down frontal lobe performance immediately. Other reviews have mentioned how the Hellcat's supercharged V8 can't find enough runway on most public roads to properly hit its afterburners. This is true, but you can slide the car's significant ass completely sideways on my street. My street is a residential road about 1/16th of a mile long. 650 pound-feet of torque doesn't really care about how long your street is, or whether the Hellcat is sliding sideways towards a pack of zombies or a basket of puppies. Either way you do it, you're giggling maniacally the whole time.

Basically I'm getting to the thing Jeremy Clarkson said about Porsche, which is that it does not tolerate fools. This car is sort of like that, but it also wants to be friends -- the kind of friends who sometimes throw bottles at each other's heads and randomly slaps you just to make sure you're paying enough attention to them.

You can drive it at a reasonable bit of speed, and it handles like a big, comfortable sedan with reasonable-to-good ride if you keep it below the speed limit. The seats are plush, the various gear you get for your money is slick and engaging enough. Look, Dodge made you a space shuttle with a family-friendly interior! It'll still rip through the sound barrier three seconds after liftoff, and the nice fabric of those seats will muffle the screams of your Mars-bound passengers.

That sounds paradoxical.

Pretty much everything about the Hellcat is. For instance: the Hellcat is a performance car that can't really hit corners with confidence. Neither could a Saturn V rocket, but still. Its handling is pretty good for a car loaded with a nuclear reactor's worth of power up front, but if you're a performance technician hoping to get a WRX with a muscle car engine, well you probably don't understand physics, economics or several other disciplines at the same time.

I took this car on the curvy surface roads of Augusta. Every time I hammered the throttle (again: tapping your toe to get maybe 20 percent of the engine's capacity) it just wanted to barrel through the trees, possibly a living room or two, and come out unscathed and not even panting on the other side of the bend. This car is a locomotive without a track. Treat it accordingly.

Hellcat

But that's still fun, yes?

At local speeds driven by normal humans it is not the exact definition of "fun." It's not un-fun, but it's certainly doesn't feel natural to drive this car at anything less than 70 mph, anywhere. One time at the dog park some dude brought his Presa Canario. A Presa is a giant pitbull, basically: thick necked, iron-jawed, rippling with muscle. Being an idiot, I went to pet it. It didn't eat me, but it started growling when I stopped. That's how you end up petting a giant war dog for fifteen minutes while its owner says, "No, the growling is a good thing. Don't stop. He won't like that."

That dog is the Hellcat. You are the idiot petting it when you drive it at a speed below Mach 1.

Okay but what about when you can take it above 70 mph?

It is a ripped muscle god touring its domain wearing a zebra print speedo and giant novelty sunglasses.

After a week of slamming the Hellcat around my neighborhood and accidentally hitting freakish speeds attempting simple passes on Atlanta interstates, I drove to Augusta for the Masters. Putting the Hellcat on open, untrafficked road was a revelation. Its character completely reversed. The Hellcat was made to carve long lines -- like, NASA-long lines, the kind you take when you use New Zealand as a left turn signal for a quick flyover of Hawaii on your way to a landing in Alaska. Put on "King Shit" by Yo Gotti and T.I., hit the supercharger and get an earful of satanic whine/roar, and -- ohhhh! -- we're having a moment. We are definitely having a moment in this car when all of that is working together.

About that noise--

Oh, yeah. There's another contradiction: you won't be able to hear the really cool song you picked just for this mind-melting convergence of beat and horsepower and empty road without cops.

The car has a stereo and I'm not sure why because you can't hear shit when the engine's on. The lead engineer for Hellcat said the design team wanted the entire neighborhood to know when you were starting the car, but did not want to violate noise ordinances. The engine is loud, just a pugnaciously, assripping kind of loudness on a ludicrous scale. It sounds so good and so composed you don't mind, especially because the engine is its own herald. It cranks at start for just a little bit longer than it should; the effect is one of waking up a sleeping demon that really wanted to nap for a while longer, and wants to yell at you for it.

That sound helps in one respect. People don't just stop to look at this car: left-lane malingerers fly out of the way on the sound alone, and bail for slower territory like you're a state trooper. The H&K stereo might be good? Honestly, we don't know. You could turn it up almost all the way and still lose to the Hellcat's engine noise, which is the car's real sound system, anyway.

People look at you?

People will film you. Four dudes in an Infiniti in downtown ATL filmed me popping the accelerator and leapfrogging five car lengths at a time. They asked me to do this twice. Other drivers took photos. One Challenger driver pulled up alongside the Hellcat, rolled the window down, and tipped his cap. Three cars wanted to race. I formed a Vin Diesel/Paul Walker type relationship with a BMW on I-20 between Atlanta and Augusta when the posted speed limits felt like insults to both of our cars. I love this man and he loves me. We could have driven to the sun. The Hellcat would have gotten there first.

How was your mileage?

LOLLLLLLLLL.

Hellcat

Is it a manageable car?

Back to that paradoxical thing about the Hellcat. It could be a manageable car. You could button this werewolf up and take it to the office and make it wear a suit and file forms and do spreadsheets. It could do that. It might eat a co-worker in the break room once, or chew the armrests off an Aeron chair out of frustration. But it could do that.

It would hate it, too. Driving seems like the wrong word when you operate the Hellcat. The steering is a bit touchless, but that doesn't matter because again, this isn't driving. You suggest what this car does: it kind of decides the rest.

it's a huge rocket hell-sled for delivering the devil's dark groceries.

There isn't a public road in the United States where you can hit what this car is capable of in a straight line. It feels like an anime telepath not quite in control of their city-obliterating powers. It has a back-up camera and is fully compliant with all federally-mandated safety regulations, and yet could do respectable lap times at Talladega in its as-sold format. Words can't describe how savage this car feels under throttle, but they can tell you what it looks like when it's pretending to be a semi-normal vehicle.

That doesn't sound manageable.

It shouldn't. This car cannot be handled casually. It just can't: it's a huge rocket hell-sled for delivering the devil's dark groceries. I mean it: this car could end you if you were to forget precisely what it was capable of at speed.

Then why--

BECAUSE IT IS PERFECT AND BREATHTAKING AND AAGGGGGGHHHHHHHH.

I don't want anything to change about this car. It does not belong to the world of the rational. Brilliant people with advanced degrees and years of experience were drafted to build something of borderline delusional power. It has supercar power for Corvette pricing, starting at $59,000 for the base model, and only going up to $65K fully loaded. It's like Dodge figured out how to make Tsar Bomba out of things you can buy at Lowe's. It is not rational how cheap this car is for what you get.

It's also not rational for me to recommend or not recommend it. Any desire for the Hellcat will be, by definition, irrational. I put a car seat in the back and took my kid to school and laughed for five minutes straight because a dragon does not commute. No one needs this car for any utility. The Great Hunger is not upon us, and you do not need to Mad Max it out of your city just yet. (And if you did: 15 mpg doesn't put you very far into the safety of the Wastes, as badass as you might look while doing it.)

It is a beast. No amount of shaving can hide the hair on its knuckles, and the idea of you "picking" one seems insane to someone who's driven one. The Hellcat probably just shows up at your house one day and demands food and love, and you have no choice but to feed it.

To hell with utility, though. Once I got out of town, I did find a clean stretch of I-20. I hit the engine from a good gallop and expected the same head-snapping, Apollo launch thrust. It arrived, but what replaced it after the initial launch was spellbinding.

Over a certain speed on the highway, the car switches from fission to fusion, and you start making your own calm bubble in what feels like boundless velocity. Some cars shake, and other cars constantly feel like they're sawing away at the fabric of time. In its element, the Hellcat runs like it's in a perpetual state of re-entry into the atmosphere. It just burns.

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