The Dodge Hellcat Family Vacation
Photography by Jonathan WC Mills and Jacob GP Mills
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The idea was simple. I wanted to drive a Hellcat. Dodge was obliging but in motor-journalist world they also prefer you, ‘pitch’ an idea. This means you have some sort of, ‘angle’ that will carry the story to ensure said manufacturer in question doesn’t look silly for giving you the car in the first place.
Me: “So, you’re calling the Dodge Charger Hellcat a, ‘family’ sedan.”
Person from Dodge: “Yes.”
“I want to take it on a family vacation.”
Me: “It’s a 3,000 mile trip to Idaho with four people and all of their luggage.”
(This was a little too easy.)
“How about if I put a canoe on top?”
The canoe didn’t work out. But the rest of the arrangement went smoothly, and a few months later the nice delivery people showed up in the blistering red speed machine you see in these pictures. Unlike, say, a Lamborghini, there was little ceremony and even less instruction. Sign here, take the keys and you’re good to go. Well, that’s not entirely true. The delivery guy smiled when handing over the keys. “You driving this?” I nodded yes. He nods back: “It’s a handful.”
700+ horsepower usually is.
Here’s the odd thing. You get in, turn on the car and drive it. It’s not intimidating at all. Other than the fact that I was worried if sneezed I’d launch myself into the next block. 650 ft/lb of torque will do that. Besides the prodigious throttle and substantial noise of the supercharged V8, it was perfectly docile. “Nice kitty,” I thought to myself.
That night, we packed for our journey. My son and me getting all of our belongings into a single duffle with my wife and her four or five bags making up the difference. Because I’m old school and a little bit militant, we were up at 5 am and rumbling up the street to pick up my son’s friend who was traveling with us.
A word on this. Having your children finally reach an age where they can travel with a friend is awesome, and this was my sons first big trip with a buddy. I figured with huge rear seats, rear A/C, USB ports and premium leather the boys would be happy, and I was right. Picking up Jaydon also meant another large suitcase. However, the trunk in the Charger is what I call a, ‘three body job’ and it it happily swallowed the whole shebang. Color me impressed.
Idaho is an 800 mile trip from Los Angeles that I have traveled dozens of times in all types of weather and in all types of cars, including a 1989 Suburban and a Jeep Wrangler with no doors. Immediate Hellcat impressions? My wife loves it. Those readers of my columns assuredly know by now that I love my wife but she ‘tolerates’ my hobby and when she gets on-board a car, it’s a big deal. “It’s comfortable” is about the best compliment I can expect to receive. In order to keep it comfortable I left the car in ECO mode (yes, there is one, I don’t know what it does exactly, but it netted me 24 mpg average on the highway) and cruised along at a comfortable, undisclosed speed.
Let’s talk about speed. In the Hellcat it’s unavoidable. Your speedo. Old fashioned and round, goes to 200 mph. Just seeing that number is nuts. Most cars have always given their speedometers a cushion, but not the Hellcat. It will, in fact, go faster than the speedometer indicates. Think about that for a minute. Legal speeds leave a whole lot of room on that dial. In fact it’s so easy to exceed the speed limit that Dodge (as do many other manufacturers) includes a speed warning function that you’re able to set to a determined maximum. Go above, and a helpful chime sounds. Smart.
Sadly, this function wasn’t in use six hours into the trip on US 93 north of Las Vegas when I barrelled over a low crest and saw a parked Police Officer. However, the gods were smiling that day because despite going well past the posted limit (“70 mph? Who knew!”) the man in the very crisp and official uniform wrote me up and sent me on my way with a ‘no ding’ ticket.“ I wrote you up at 75 in a 70 zone on a rural highway. Just send in the ticket and you won’t have any issues with your insurance.” He even asked what year the Hellcat was. I was relieved.
However, getting back on our way revealed the insidious nature of being cited for excessive speed. It has a chilling effect. You find yourself making very specific decisions about how fast you’re willing to set the cruise control. In the Hellcat, a loaded gun of a car if there ever was one, this meant gritted teeth for an additional 8 hours of driving. At least it was comfortable.
A word on that.
“Comfort’ is often a dirty word when discussing performance cars. A race car, by virtue of what it is, isn’t comfortable. For the rest of us softer middle-age types with families, comfort isn’t an afterthought, it’s an imperative. This is particularly true when you’re asking your wife to ride along on an 800 mile jaunt through Nevada during high summer. A trip my wife’s family used to make in the ’80s when the faster you went, the hotter it got! In any case, the Hellcat is a 21st Century vehicle with air conditioning and vented seats. Vented seats!
The Dodge Brothers would presumably roll over in their graves, but I’m no fan of back sweat and after a whole day of driving including our brush with the law I was truly a believer in those vented seats. They were amazing. We got out of the car and felt…pretty damn good.
There was also the factor of safety and confidence. Confidence while driving is something many people take for granted. I know our fearless CEO drives vintage Alfa Romeos knowing that they could leave him stranded on the side of the road at any time (and do). This is a reasonable thing in a city like Los Angeles where Uber and a tow truck are minutes away. This is not such a reasonable proposition on the side of the “Alien Highway” in rural Nevada in 100 degree heat.
Inclimate weather, rain, snow hail etc. can also cause a slide in confidence. The Hellcat, the like the Honeybadger I learned about on the internet, didn’t care about rain…and we spent six hours plowing through a full on thunderstorm; sheets of pounding water, limited visibility, partially flooded roads and lightening close enough to send the hair up on our arms. Gnarly.
This would be stressful in any car, but to my surprise and delight the Hellcat took it in stride. It’s a heavy beast which gave it a corresponding well-planted assurance on the road. The brakes, as I note later, are superb and easily modulated and it’s also quiet inside, vault quiet. Impressive indeed and after six hours of weather challenged two-lane highways filled with tractor trailers and RVs, I pulled into my in-laws driveway quietly impressed by the simple fact the Hellcat never left me feeling nervous. It performed as a family hauler should, protecting us from the elements and inspiring confidence.
The one thing no one tells people, or perhaps not enough, is that small American towns tend to use speed limits as a way to generate revenue. That means most of them keep you checked to 25 mph. In a Hellcat, this is punishment. The car strains. It idles along but it’s actually difficult to modulate the throttle. This is a car that can propel an insane person to eight times the stated speed limit of a typical small town. Being constantly pressured to go faster by the very vehicle you’re inside of isn’t always the best thing ever. It’s like riding with a teenager in the passenger seat that will happily encourage you to break the law.
The other thing about a small and wealthy enclave in the mountains is that most of them are fairly conservative in both politics and lifestyle. As such, the Hellcat, particularly the lurid red one in our possession, is not conservative at all. In fact, despite the relative lack of badging just about anyone within 100 feet would instantly know that, something wicked was on its way: a bark, and a quick blip of the throttle, and then a smooth idle. Subtle isn’t the Hellcat’s game and that’s fine. It’s not a perfect family car in that regard, your mother-in-law will NOT approve of the start up which is pretty anti-social. I loved it.
All week long the car garnered a lot of looks. Not from women (which probably suited my wife just fine) but quite a few teenagers mouths fell open and one even ran up and begged me to “give it some revs”. I obliged. Most people simply gave me a thumbs up, the universal endorsement. I will happily admit the car made me feel pretty damn great and given its relative affordability this feeling is well within the reach of the mere mortal. Which goes a fair distance towards explaining why Dodge can’t seem to sell them fast enough…that, and 700 horsepower.
I have mentioned to my colleagues that humanity seems to be nearing the apogee of gasoline-engineered horsepower. Change is in the wind, as well it should be, but at this particular moment in time it strikes me that engineers have been given the opportunity to make NASA numbers. The kind of horsepower that would seem exclusively the realm of blown funny cars and open wheeled racers a decade ago. These engineers seem to be sitting in a room somewhere (probably Detroit) saying, “I wonder if we can squeeze seven hundred horsepower out of this beast before the bean counters shut us down? Let’s do it!”
Thank goodness for them.
Change will come, in fact my next car…and certainly the one after that will probably use electricity in some form another for a good portion of its propulsion. Nothing wrong with that. Tesla has shown us the way. But there is a strong argument made by the Charger Hellcat that if you can…you probably should. That’s why people are buying them. They instinctively know that entropy means change and the Hellcat is a delicious taste of the past, a giant piece of gasoline cake with ice cream. The automotive equivalent of a mid-life crisis. All of it.
But I digress.
The Hellcat got us through the week without a hiccup. It shuttled us to all the vacation activities we could cram into the week (ice skating, golfing, river rafting, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, eating, more eating…a wedding for a couple of great car people and more than one local BBQ). Along the way I was able to check out the power output of the Hellcat by offering a few rides to friends.
Who all seemed to promptly lose their minds.
The Hellcat is disturbing that way. You get into a leather clad four door sedan. I look at you and smile. You buckle in. You think, “This will be ‘fun’. That changes the minute I press launch control and stand on it.
I started asking people if they were ready to, “fast forward” because that’s the best way to describe the Hellcat’s acceleration. It’s a fast forward button on reality. You were in one place and BRAAAAAAAP!!!! you’re in another. I routinely hit triple digits from 60 mph in the length of two tractor trailers. Passing a chain of cars wasn’t a chore, it was a glorious sprint towards another dimension. The Hellcat rearranges what you think possible in a large sedan and does it without complaint, over and over again. The best part? It sounds exactly like Dom’s supercharged Charger in the Fast and Furious movies. A sound I’d never truly appreciated until I got behind the wheel of the Hellcat. I mean…that noise is CRAZY.
But it wasn’t some wild muscle car from the ’60s. This was a luxury car with anchors for brakes and a ZF transmission that could snap off shifts in milliseconds. The six pot Brembo’s are some of the best I’ve ever used. Period. Easily modulated and smooth as butter. I never felt like I ran out of stopping power. On a 6000-lb sled with 6.4L of iron bolted over the front axle that is no small feat. The transmission was equally excellent, shifting quickly and efficiently in RACE mode and smooth and lazy in STREET. Taken as a whole it was all rather astounding.
The kids liked it, too. We had a nice afternoon on a deserted road by the dump getting some of the pictures you see here. “Wanna try launch control?” Yeeaaaahhhh!!!!”
It was a great week. Every day the Hellcat exceeded expectations, it wasn’t a Mercedes and the fit and finish were definitely pre-production. The materials, other than the ones you actually touch, were pretty much what you’d expect from a Dodge. Yet…it’s also a 700 HORSEPOWER SUPER SEDAN for less than half the cost of the AMG SL63 I drove a few months ago. In defense of the AMG it did come equipped with massage functionality in the seats, adaptive cruise control and a $6,000 set of carbon brakes.
But take it from me, in no known universe—except maybe your local country club—is the SL63 $100,000 better than the Hellcat. Period.
Vacation should be a mixture of both relaxation and fun and this one certainly was. We headed home feeling pretty great until we got stuck outside Vegas on a Sunday at 5 p.m. (I should have known) in 118 degrees heat.
That’s not a typo by the way. One Hundred and Eighteen in dead stop traffic. Four of us after a week of vacation and ten hours on the road. Truly, a recipe for disaster…and the car’s temperature never budged. The A/C continued to deliver cold air and the Hellcat didn’t blink. It shrugged off the temperature like it was nothing.
I’m old enough that this means something. It means that those same engineers I mentioned earlier not only built a 700 hp fun machine but made sure it worked so well a family of four could take it on a week long vacation.
I want one.