2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon Sends Its Rivals Straight to Hell

After months of hype, we drive Dodge's unholy, record-setting beast on the drag strip. 

2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
FCA US LLC—© 2017 FCA US LLC

2018 Challenger SRT Demon: Fast as advertised

A first for me, after two decades of reviewing cars: I never took a single curve in the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, unless you count a swing back to the starting line at Lucas Oil Speedway’s dragstrip. Yet I feel perfectly qualified to give the Demon a big thumbs-up. Because, let’s be honest: No one is buying an 840-horsepower Demon to tackle a winding road course or climb Pikes Peak. (If you love Dodge Challengers, and hope to lasso Camaros and Mustangs on curves, try the $72,590 Challenger SRT Widebody instead.)

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Wheels up in Indianapolis

No, the SRT Demon is the industry’s ultimate straight arrow, a wheelie-popping, nuclear-powered crossbow that—in the most capable hands—can clock a quarter-mile in 9.65 seconds at 140 mph, faster than any production car in history. As for a street squirt, the SRT Demon will hit 30 mph in one second flat, and get to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds. Even if a $900,000 Porsche 918 Spyder comes along, or a $2.7 million Bugatti Chiron, it’s going to be an interesting race. And how often do rarities like that come along?

Dodge Challenger SRT Demon melds old-school, new tech

Like all Challengers, the Demon is largely a time-traveler from Detroit’s stoplight-racing past. But I prefer to imagine the time machine set in the opposite direction: How a hot rodder of the late Sixties, idling in his 426 Hemi, would react to see a Demon roll up and blow him away, yet so safely and effortlessly that June Cleaver might be behind the wheel. He’d definitely recognize his Mopar’s retro descendant, but the sight of the Demon’s receding taillights would be a life-altering experience.

If paying $86,090 for that innocent, American Graffiti-style pleasure sounds ridiculous, then you’re not Demon material anyway. A Porsche Cayman S, BMW M4, Chevy Corvette, or even a 650-hp Camaro ZL1 might be more your speed. Just don’t test that speed against a Demon when your wheels are pointed straight. It will not go well, as my dance with the Demon proved. Those dance steps are mostly a breeze, though the paddle-activated launch sequence that incorporates the TransBrake takes a few tries to master. That bit of technology—familiar in drag racing, but a first for a showroom car—binds the output shaft of the eight-speed automatic transmission to hold the Dodge steady as you lift  your foot off the brake. Next, ramp up engine revs as high as 2,350 rpm (any higher might overpower the brakes), drop the paddle shifter, and rocket to glory. The system also eases driveline lash and launch impact on components.

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Snapping necks is one of Demon's favorite pastimes

That’s some impact, considering the supercharged, 6.2-liter Hemi V-8 and its now-notorious 840 horsepower and 770 pound-feet of torque. With dual fuel pumps and beefed up components versus the 707-hp Hellcat, including double the piston cooling, the engine adds a massive 2,700-cc supercharger (versus the ‘Cat’s 2,300 cc’s). The engine uses 90 horsepower just to drive the belted supercharger, and its twin air-compressing screws that turn at a respective 15,000 and 25,000 rpm. The V-8's thermal energy could boil a gallon of water from room temperature in 1.2 seconds. With its production-record induction rate, including the industry’s largest functional hood scoop, the Dodge inhales atmosphere at 1,150 cubic feet per minute. Connect its induction to the cabin, and the Demon would theoretically suck up all its air in 800 feet of full-throttle travel.

SRT Demon thrives on racing fuel or premium unleaded

Unleashing that full 840 horses requires the nominal $1 upcharge for the optional "Demon Crate", including a powertrain control module and dashboard switch that optimizes the engine for 100-plus octane racing fuel. That power-boosting function won’t activate if the car’s knock sensors detect lower octane fuel, including a mix of premium and racing grades. Minus the option, or driven in Street or Sport modes, the Dodge makes 808 horsepower and 717 pound-feet on 92-octane unleaded. Can you live with that?

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Demon slurps air through the industry's biggest, greediest hood scoop

I skip straight to the driver-selectable Drag Mode, where Torque Reserve is another key to NASA-quality launches. When engine revs reach 950 rpm, the supercharger bypass valve closes to “prefill” it with boost. With both Torque Reserve and TransBrake activated, the SRT Demon has more than 8 psi of boost available from a standing start, and a pre-loaded driveline that applies maximum torque just 150 milliseconds after I drop the shift paddle. (Most drivers, Dodge engineers say, show about 30 percent faster reaction times via the paddle shifter than with their right foot). Basically, the dual systems build up more driveline force than you could possibly control with the foot brake. And together, the TransBrake and Torque Reserve trim 0.1 seconds from quarter-mile times, or up to a full car length—often the difference between victory and free beers or defeat and drinking alone.

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840 horsepower on 100-octane racing fuel, or 808 with premium unleaded

I’m grateful for the opportunity to run quarter-miles at all in this monster, so I don’t complain (much) that we’re not getting timed runs with paper slips commemorating our times. But Dodge is still eager to show its evil baby at its best. (“Damien,” I feel, will make a great personalized plate.) After working late into the previous night to clear a lake of water and debris off the Indy strip following torrential rains the day before, track workers lay down a thick rubber layer in the staging area with a kind of drag-racing Zamboni. That’s followed by sprays of “glue” to create a professional, NHRA-style surface. It’s so sticky that it nearly pulls my shoes off my feet.

Demon storms the Indy strip, supercharger at full howl

So how does it feel to grab the Demon by the horns? Remember Leonardo DiCaprio flying on the Titanic’s bow? It’s like that, only much faster, and with less chance of disaster. I roll the Dodge into the strip’s burnout box and get a little frisky, choking myself with smoke from the nearly-groove-free Nitto drag radial tires. Those street-legal radials, sized 315/40ZR18, deliver twice the grip of the Hellcat’s Pirelli P Zeros, and a 15-percent-larger contact patch. Dodge deflated them to 20 psi for me for even more traction. Up front are the Schwinn-skinny “Front Runner” tires, just 4.5 inches wide, that owners can also unpack with their $1 Demon Crate. The Dodge comes with four standard-sized 20-inch wheels and tires, so the Demon Crate essentially gives you two extra rear tires for free. (Considering that the fast-wearing rubber might last 1,000 miles, you’re going to need them).

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Optional, drag-ready front tires are just 4.5 inches wide

I creep up to trigger the vertical row of lights on the strip’s Christmas tree, and turn this muscle freak loose. Stuck to the prepped pavement like double-sided tape, the Demon hooks up like no street machine I’ve driven. I’m wearing a borrowed, too-large helmet, and the unexpected violence of the start snaps my neck and yanks the helmet halfway off my noggin. As advertised, the Demon pulls a wheelie, its front wheels rising off the pavement for a brief instant.

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Street-legal, super-sticky Nitto drag radials are another industry coup

From there, it’s all cake, foot to the floor and keeping the Demon in the racing groove, the dual tracks of built-up rubber and chemicals that deliver maximum friction. The supercharger’s whine could drown out a Trump vs. Clinton debate, so loud that I can barely hear the Hemi V-8 wrapped around it. Despite its amped-up torque convertor, the eight-speed automatic still seems a weak performance link, sluicing through gears with passenger-car smoothness but not the instant engagement of, say, Porsche’s dual-clutch PDK.

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Warming up in the strip's burnout box. Save money for tires. 

On later runs, I prefer the old-fashioned way, holding the brake with my left foot and massaging the throttle with my right. As with some ‘Stangs and Camaros, there’s also a line lock function to hold front brakes for smoky burnouts, even when you’re just screwing around. The function also lets drivers perform a controlled rolling burnout—without running over hooting, unsuspecting bystanders—by engaging for up to 200 rear-wheel revolutions.

SRT Demon: So many ways to launch

Using both TransBrake and traditional starts—and daring some peeks at the speedometer—I’m hitting between 130 and 135 mph at the quarter-mile trap, well off the Demon’s Guinness-record rate. Still, it’s as fast as I’ve traveled from a standing start in anything shy of a purpose-built racecar.

Scary.

The pushbutton drag mode also switches adaptive front Bilstein shocks to their softest setting, and the rears to their firmest for both compression and rebound. Paddle shifters switch on, cabin cooling diverts to the PowerChiller (more on that later), and the torque convertor’s lockup point is raised. Steering relaxes to avoid sudden twitches and ensure maximum stability at breakneck speeds.

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Scarier.

There’s also a nifty, fully automated launch control, accessed through the terrific Performance Pages on the Demon’s 8.4-inch UConnect infotainment screen. Drivers set initial engine speed in fine 100-rpm increments, versus 250 rpm for the 707-hp SRT Hellcat. As the Demon scorches off, the system reacts to wheel spin or hop by easing off the throttle. That reduces driveline stress and potential damage, so launch the Demon 1,000 times if you like; The car will stay under warranty. But skilled drag racers should consistently beat the launch control’s acceleration times, because they can sense and adjust to traction losses before they get out of hand.

Demon vs. Hellcat is no contest

On a similar track in Englishtown, N.J., I had, um, a hell of a time launching a Hellcat when I secured one for a private test. The combination of a blazing summer day and overmatched Pirelli P Zero tires had me spinning my wheels, despite my best efforts. The Demon is the exact opposite: On this perfect surface, the issue isn’t giving it too much throttle, too soon, but too little and not quickly enough. Add up the myriad changes—mass reduction, engine, tires, torque converter, rear axle, TransBrake—and the Dodge applies 30 percent more Newtonian force to the pavement than the Hellcat. 

And where my Hellcat quickly succumbed to heat soak after a handful of runs, the Demon is over-engineered to keep internal temperatures from sapping performance and to keep parts from succumbing to incredible stresses. Additional inlets help reduce the temperature of induction air by more than 30 degrees Fahrenheit versus the Hellcat. 

Then there’s the PowerChiller, and I don’t mean the champagne fridge from a Rolls-Royce. The system diverts air-conditioning refrigerant to a finned heat exchanger that’s roughly the size of a closed fist. The chilled coolant then flows to the supercharger’s heat exchangers, reducing charge air temperatures by up to 10 degrees Celsius. With the A/C so diverted, my Demon’s cabin got as hot as a pig roaster during my runs, but that’s a small price to pay for winning times. Heck, I was so happy and hooting at the finish line that I kept forgetting to roll the windows back down to breathe. Dodge also doubled the durability of launch-related components, including a 20-percent-thicker prop shaft. Shut down the engine, and the cooling fan and one cooling circuit pump keep running to lower supercharger temperatures, keeping the Demon ready for its next run. Drivers can track that coolant temperature on the touchscreen.

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Looking badass in Destroyer Gray, among Demon's most flattering colors 

I was dying to assault the streets of Indianapolis in the Demon, but no fuzzy dice. Dodge handed me the keys to a manual-transmission Hellcat Widebody for that purpose, and I drove it through Biblical thunderstorms with nary a hiccup. 

The Demon should be an even bigger creampuff in everyday driving and commuting than the Hellcat. (Just not in the rain, with those nearly groove-free drag tires that can’t disperse much water). Remember, the Demon is all about longitudinal acceleration. Its cushy-tuned Bilstein dampers and springs—the latter a respective 35 and 28 percent softer vs. the Hellcat—are designed to allow fast, maximum weight transfer to those all-conquering rear tires whenever you nail the gas. Remarkably, those suspension changes alone increase rear tire grip by 11 percent. Since body roll isn’t a priority, the Demon’s weight-saving hollow sway bars are also far more compliant, including a 75 percent lower rate up front. 

Still, though the Dodge’s aerodynamics and V-rated Nitto tires hold top speed to a modest 168 mph—versus 200 mph for the Hellcat—that Gumby-soft rubber also generates roughly 1.0 g’s of lateral grip, on par with top sports cars. It also beats the Hellcat’s 0.93 g and 0.97 for the Widebody, so it’s not like the Demon is some overcooked lasagna noodle.

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Get used to seeing the Demon's taillights

Yet talking lateral g’s with a typical Demon fan will be like speaking ancient Greek. Theirs is a more barbaric tongue, where curves are for wimps and oiled muscle rules. Try a shout-out to Baal or Moloch instead, the latter the demon-god of child sacrifice. Pointed straight toward its altar, the SRT Demon will stack its enemies and set them ablaze. All in good fun.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.