If you’ve tuned in to one of the televised classic car auctions in recent years, you’ve no doubt seen buyers clamor for one of the pristine muscle cars from back in the heyday of performance, the late 1960s. Powerful engines later made extinct by the safety and environmental movements.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler were all turning their engineers loose to create essentially racing engines that were put into street-legal cars. The mighty Ford 428 and 429 Cobra Jets, Chevy 427 and 454, and Chrysler 440 and 426 Hemi were not to be messed with when the light turned green.
Of course, those cars had terrible brakes and couldn’t go around a corner very well by today’s standards. And now, their fearsome reputation of having the most power of all time is now being tarnished. Today, the muscle car wars are back, and some jaws have dropped this year.
The 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT, nicknamed Hellcat, puts out a mind-blowing 707 horsepower from its supercharged 6.2 liter V8. That completely blows away the 662 horsepower of the Ford Mustang GT500 (now technically out of production as Ford gears up for the 2015 Mustang), and is only usurped by a couple of special versions of European exotic cars.
To achieve that kind of performance, Chrysler’s engineers went through every part of the engine to the point that around 90% of the parts are different from the other Hemi V8s in their engine lineup. A whole lot of the rest of the car is beefed up too (transmission, rear axle, etc.) and airflow into and out of the engine and engine compartment was seen to as well.
For a driver to access all that power, he or she must have the special Red Key on hand. Without that (a digital smart key with a chip inside), the regular key limits the engine’s output to “just” 500 horsepower. There’s also an owner-programmable Valet Mode to further dial down the power to 300.
You can choose either a 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic transmission, the latter programmed for lightning-fast shifts should you choose to hustle the Hellcat around a race track.
Speaking of race tracks, the NHRA has certified the Challenger SRT at 10.8 seconds in the standing quarter mile with drag radials on the back, and 11.2 with the stock Pirelli street tires. Those times completely shatter the ones that the mighty Hemi cars from the late ‘60s were able to do.
Oh, and this car can lap a road course just fine too, with a firm suspension and massive brakes at all four corners. And while you’re doing this, you can have the climate control set to your favorite temperature and be quite comfortable. Back in the day, you were lucky if your muscle car had a simple heater on board. (Some customers ordered their cars without them to save weight.)
The Challenger Hellcat starts at just under $60,000, which is a heck of a deal for the amount of power it has. Then again, that’s a lot of money for a Dodge passenger coupe. Chrysler expects to sell only about 1200-1500 of these each year, but the “halo” value to the rest of the Challenger line is another reason for this car’s existence.
Right after driving the Hellcat, I got a turn in the V6-powered SXT model, which starts at just $27,000. It’s no slouch in the horsepower department itself, making just over 300, while also rated at 30 miles per gallon highway, thanks in part to its standard 8-speed automatic transmission. And it doesn’t look all that different from its 707 horsepower sibling.
Are these the “good old days” of muscle car horsepower all over again? You bet, and even better. Will they last? Hard to say, but you might want to grab a Challenger Hellcat when they go on sale later this month, just in case this muscle car era comes to a halt like the previous one did decades ago.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz