Why Fiat S.p.A.'s Insane 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat Matters

A hot new-muscle car for Fiat Chrysler's "new" performance brand.

May 25, 2014 at 2:31PM

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Fiat Chrysler said this week that the 2015 Dodge Challenger would be available with a new supercharged V8 called the "Hellcat." The Challenger SRT Hellcat includes modifications to enhance cooling, durability, and aerodynamics. Source: Fiat Chrysler

"Okay, first we'll take a Hemi V8 that makes crazy amounts of power. Then we'll give it a huge supercharger so that it's even crazier. Then we'll put it in a very red Challenger. We'll give it extra-big radiators so it doesn't overheat when we do 200 miles per hour. Then we'll sell it."

It sounds like the kind of thing my car-crazy friends and I would have dreamed up when we were 14. (In fact, it sounds like the kind of thing we did dream up back then.)

Apparently, the folks running Fiat Chrysler's (NASDAQOTH:FIATY) Dodge brand have been hanging with the same kind of crew, because that's exactly what they did with the wildest version yet of their Dodge Challenger muscle car.

One angry kitty: Meet the "Hellcat"
What is this "Hellcat?" It's a new V8 engine, and it will power a 600-plus horsepower version of the shamelessly retro Dodge Challenger. (It's also expected to land in a Charger sometime next year.) 

Dodge officials said this past Tuesday that the refreshed-for-2015 Dodge Challenger SRT will be available with the Hellcat, a 6.2 liter supercharged version of the company's Hemi V8. 

The Hellcat takes its name from a World War II-era U.S. Navy fighter aircraft. Exact power figures for the new engine haven't yet been established, but FCA promises more than 600 horsepower and 575 lb-ft of torque.

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The new Hellcat V8 under the hood of a 2015 Dodge Challenger. Source: Fiat Chrysler

It's the most powerful V8 engine ever offered by Chrysler, they said. That's a big statement in light of Chrysler's fabled muscle-car heritage. But Chrysler's muscle-car heyday was decades ago, brought to a screeching halt in the early 1970s by rising gas prices and tightening emissions rules.

Those emissions rules are far tighter nowadays, and gas prices are a lot higher. So what's the deal with this new over-the-top Challenger?

It's a crazy product that exists for hard-headed business reasons
It may seem like a ridiculous product to some, but there are several good business reasons behind FCA's decision to offer a car like this. First and foremost, the Dodge brand is being repositioned. Fiat and Chrysler have finally competed their merger, and the combined company released its five-year business plan earlier this month. 

Under that plan, the Chrysler brand will become FCA's mainstream U.S. brand, offering family sedans and kid-haulers. Dodge, meanwhile, will lose its minivans, and refocus on high performance in an effort to draw more youthful buyers.

A high-performance brand needs at least one or two seriously fast cars. Dodge has the Viper, a sports car that will run with the best from Porsche and Ferrari -- but that's a six-figure specialty product made in tiny numbers. 

The Hellcat-powered Challenger won't be cheap, and it will probably also sell in very limited numbers.  But it will be considerably cheaper than the Viper -- and its existence should help sell more mundane Challengers. (The 2014 Challenger starts at $26,495 for a V6-powered model.)   

But there's more to the Hellcat's story than that.

You may not have noticed, but there's a horsepower war going on
Despite the fact that premium unleaded is running close to $4.00 a gallon in many parts of the country, there's a horsepower war going on between the automakers. It's not just Detroit, either.

The German luxury-car makers each have offerings with more than 500 horsepower, as does Cadillac with its ferocious CTS-V -- and Nissan's (NASDAQOTH:NSANY) Infiniti brand may soon join them. Even Hyundai (NASDAQOTH:HYMTF) offers its Genesis sedan with a 429-horsepower V8. After all, today's high-performance cars make good business sense, at least when they're expensive and built in relatively low numbers.

But Detroit is the source of the Challenger's traditional rivals, Ford's (NYSE:F) Mustang and General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevrolet Camaro. And both of those models are already available with supercharged V8s that rival the Challenger's new Hellcat.

Ford's 2014 Shelby GT500 Mustang has a 662 horsepower supercharged 5.8 liter V8, while Chevy's Camaro ZL1 has a supercharged 6.2 liter V8 making 580 horsepower. Those numbers may not mean much to some readers, so let's be clear about this: These are profoundly fast cars. 

That Mustang will break 200 mph. It'll hit 140 mph in third gear. The Camaro tops out at a mere 180 miles per hour, but it'll go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds. And both are well-equipped for a day at the track.

Gas mileage is pretty awful, of course. But they both meet EPA emissions regulations and come with standard new-car warranties.  Modern technology makes that possible -- but you'll pay for it, and not just at the gas pump.

These aren't cheap cars
While a base 2014 Mustang starts at $22,510, and the Camaro begins at $23,555, the GT500 will run you $55,110, and the ZL1 $56,350. Those are substantial premiums that include substantial profits for Ford and GM -- and both have available options that can push the price tags well over $60,000, and the profits even higher. (Of course, we should note that the GT500 is about to be discontinued. Ford has an all-new Mustang coming for 2015, and the GT500's successor has yet to be revealed.) 

FCA hasn't announced pricing for the Challenger SRT Hellcat yet. But it's a safe bet that it will fall in the same range as its Detroit rivals.

The upshot: A very fast Dodge
Fifty-five thousand dollars, or thereabouts, is a lot of money for a Dodge Challenger, which is, after all, a design that dates all the way back to 2008 -- even with a supercharged Hemi. But the market has shown that there are buyers for these kinds of cars at that kind of price, and FCA is sure to win more than a few. Dodge brand chief Tim Kuniskis said this week that the company wouldn't limit production of the Hellcat, at least at first -- they'll build as many as their dealers order.

Still, with a new Mustang coming this fall, and an all-new Camaro expected next year, the Challenger might need more than a supercharged Hemi to keep its sales numbers up until its replacement arrives late in 2018. 

What do you think? Is the Hellcat just what the doctor ordered for Dodge? Or is it a dose of the wrong medicine for this proud old American brand? Scroll down to leave a comment with your thoughts.

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John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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