Why Dodge Is Building a 707-Horsepower Hellcat Charger

Fiat Chrysler unveiled the 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat on Wednesday. Like its Challenger sibling, the Hellcat Charger is being positioned as an extreme high-performance car that is also a practical daily driver. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

To the surprise of approximately nobody, there will be a Hellcat-powered version of the refreshed for 2015 Dodge Charger sedan. Fiat Chrysler (NASDAQOTH: FIATY  ) officials said on Wednesday that the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat will go on sale in the first quarter of next year as a 2015 model. The Hellcat Charger features the same supercharged 707-horsepower V8 that was first revealed in its Challenger sibling back in May. 

The performance claims for the Challenger were shocking -- and unleashed a torrent of interest. The claims being made for the Charger are similarly dramatic. 

But why -- aside from "because they can" -- is Chrysler building this thing? Is there really a market for a 707-horsepower family sedan?

It's only "the quickest, fastest and most powerful sedan in the world"
"This is the quickest, fastest, and most powerful sedan in the world. There is no asterisk underneath that statement." So said Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis as the Charger SRT Hellcat was revealed at an event in Detroit on Wednesday morning. That's big talk; but the numbers he gave back up the claim.

The Hellcat Charger will go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds, Kuniskis said, with a top speed of 204 miles per hour. That's not quite as "quick" as the Hellcat Challenger, which scoots to 60 miles per hour in a claimed 3.5 seconds, but the Charger is faster overall, a function of its slightly sleeker aerodynamic profile. 

The rear of the Charger SRT Hellcat includes modifications intended to improve airflow, designer Mark Trostle said at an event on Wednesday. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

The Charger is also slightly faster in the quarter mile than the Challenger -- 11.0 versus 11.2 seconds on street tires. As with the Challenger, that time was certified by the National Hot Rod Association. (Kuniskis didn't reveal the Charger's trap speed.) 

Of course, the "most powerful" refers to the Hellcat engine. It's the same 6.2-liter supercharged version of Chrysler's Hemi V8, rated at 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque.

Aside from the engine, the Hellcat Charger has most of the same special features we saw on the Challenger. There's the heavy-duty, eight-speed, automatic transmission with paddle shifters, and a super-fast sport mode, the adjustable suspension, the huge Brembo brakes, and similar extensive modifications to enhance cooling of the big supercharged V8.

The Charger SRT Hellcat's interior includes most of the same special touches offered in the Challenger Hellcat. One key difference: No manual transmission is available on the Charger. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

The only major item missing from the Charger Hellcat's spec sheet is the heavy-duty six-speed manual transmission that is standard on the Challenger Hellcat. But that wasn't a surprise: Chrysler has never offered a manual transmission in the Charger.

In fact, none of it was a surprise. Except... viewed from a distance, the fact that this car exists at all in 2015 is quite remarkable. Who would buy such a thing? Why would Chrysler build it?

The thinking behind the Challenger Hellcat was pretty clear
Chrysler's reasons for building the Hellcat Challenger have been pretty clear from the moment it was announced. It's not just a profitable niche product; it's an attention getter that's already helping reshape perceptions of the Dodge brand -- before a single production version has shipped. Kuniskis said on Wednesday that the Dodge brand was the most-searched automotive brand on Google (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) in July, something he attributed to the sensational coverage surrounding the Challenger Hellcat.

But why build a Charger Hellcat? It's unlikely to make the same kind of media impression its two-door sibling did; the cat is already out of the bag, so to speak. 

Part of it is the continual repositioning of the Dodge brand, which, in its 100th year, is being re-booted as a performance-oriented brand in an effort to draw younger buyers into Chrysler showrooms. But beyond that, the case for this product has a lot to do with how Chrysler views the Charger.

Chrysler sees the Charger as a unique and valuable product
To Kuniskis, the Charger is a unique product. "It's a muscle car, a performance sedan, a family sedan; its success is that it can be any or all of those things," he said. 

He frequently points out that, while the Charger technically competes with other big sedans like General Motors' (NYSE: GM  ) Chevrolet Impala and Ford's (NYSE: F  ) Taurus, data from customers suggests that, in some ways, it's in a category of one -- rivaled mostly by other Chrysler Group products. In fact, 27% of Charger buyers don't even consider any other model, Kuniskis says.

The percentage of buyers who cross-shop the Dodge Charger sedan against key competitors, according to Chrysler data. From a presentation given by Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis in May of 2014. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

And sales have been growing, as Chrysler's ongoing incremental improvements to its big sedans have won the attention of more and more buyers. Retail sales of the Charger grew 194% from 2010 through 2013, Kuniskis noted in a presentation in May, compared to 18% growth for the overall full-sized sedan segment.

Retail sales growth of the Dodge Charger, 2010-2013. From a presentation given by Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis in May. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

Kuniskis said on Wednesday that he believed the media attention received by the Challenger Hellcat has helped bring more attention -- and orders -- to the whole line of refreshed for 2015 Challengers. He said that interest in, and demand for, the new "Scat Pack" version of the Challenger -- priced at about two-thirds of the cost of the $60,000 Challenger Hellcat -- has been huge. 

He attributes that interest to the media frenzy around the Hellcat. My sense is that that's the feat he's hoping to repeat with the Hellcat Charger: bringing more attention, interest, and praise to the entire Charger lineup.

How much will the Charger Hellcat cost? When will it be available?
We don't know yet how much it will cost. Chrysler hasn't yet released pricing for any of the 2015 Chargers. 

But the Challenger Hellcat starts at $59,995, including a federal "gas guzzler" tax, and the list of standard equipment is quite long. It's fair to guess that the Charger Hellcat will be a little more expensive. It is, after all, a bigger car, and comes standard with the automatic transmission that is optional on the Challenger -- but not a lot. I'll be surprised if the starting price is much more than $63,000. It may well be less.

As for when it will be available, Kuniskis said that the Charger Hellcat will go into production in the first quarter of 2015.

Finally, Kuniskis also made a point of saying that he wants to sell as many Hellcats -- Challengers and Chargers -- as possible, not least because every Hellcat on the street is great advertising for the Dodge brand. He has never said clearly how many Hellcats Chrysler is willing or able to produce, and he didn't on Wednesday. But he did say flatly that the widely spread rumor that Chrysler would limit production of the Hellcat Challenger to just 1,200 examples is false.

Again, we were left with the impression that Chrysler will build as many Hellcats as the market demands. It probably won't demand quite as many Hellcat Chargers as Challengers; but, once again, Kuniskis and Dodge have gotten the world's attention. 

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