Until its 707-horsepower Hellcat version showed up, the Dodge Challenger had been playing back-up singer among the muscle car trio, standing in the shadows and swinging its ample hips while the Mustang and Camaro ruled the stage. Now all eyes are on Dodge. And the 2018 Challenger SRT Demon, which I put through its drag-racing paces this week at Lucas Oil Speedway in Indianapolis, reminds us that insane horsepower and straight-line stomp—and not the road-racing skills of the modern Ford and Chevy—remains the true measure of greatness for many muscleheads. After months of hype worthy of the upcoming Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight, the Demon knocked me on my heels with its supercharged, 840-horsepower V8 might. However, with apologies to the Demon’s legion of fans, I can’t reveal exactly how that uppercut felt until next week, when Dodge’s embargo on driving impressions lifts—or at least until a blogger from Kazakhstan jumps the gun. Until then, here are my first impressions on the Demon. (Cue the scary music, or some vintage hardcore.)
1. It’s nice to not have to argue
Like car fans at the local pub, equally booze-soaked auto journalists love to be right, to crush dissent, to forge the most airtight argument over which car is the best. But there was no arguing in Indianapolis, no lecturing some pasty Jeremy Clarkson wannabe who still believes American cars are all crap. We’ll take your $2.7 million Bugatti Chiron, and see you one $86,000 Demon, because the Dodge is quicker, with its Guinness-certified quarter-mile scamper of 9.65 seconds at 140 mph. The Dodge scorches 30 mph in one second flat, and reaches 60 mph in a (conservative) 2.3 seconds.
2. The Demon’s front tires really do leave the ground
As part of that Guinness record, the Demon is the first production car that can pop a wheelie, standing on its hind legs for up to 2.9 feet as it leaves the starting line. We personally witnessed its Schwinn-skinny front tires, just 4.5 inches wide, perform lift-off when drivers got the launch just right. Sticky-yet-street-legal Nitto
rear tires help with that; so does the Demon’s softer suspension versus the Hellcat, its greater compliance allowing a much faster weight transfer to the car’s rear. Suspension changes alone give the Demon 11 percent more rear grip during acceleration. Tally up the myriad engineering changes from the Hellcat, including a five percent mass reduction (that's 200 pound) and 25 percent more Newtonian force, and it’s easy to see why the Demon takes flight while the Hellcat stays on four feet.
3. Dodge chief disses passive cars, autonomous wimps
The previous morning, a demonic thunderstorm and torrential rain battered our paddock shelter at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delaying our Demon test until the floodwaters dispersed. Tim Kuniskis, Fiat Chrysler’s head of passenger car brands, plowed ahead with a thunderous tech presentation, reminding us of what the Demon represents and why we were there.
“We’re not at the point of soulless, driverless pods yet,” Kuniskis said. “We don’t apologize for Dodge’s differences. We celebrate them.”
Invoking Sixties classics like the 426 Hemi Challenger, the LS6 Corvette, and Ford 429 Cobra Jet, Kuniskis said that fans are still talking about those cars a half-century later. The Demon, Hellcat, and other SRT models, he said, are largely for people who missed that original muscle-car era, but who still want a piece of the action. Dodge’s hold-the-fort, blast-from-the-past strategy is working, he said: Even as passenger cars’ share of the U.S. market has plummeted 25 percent since 2008, sales of the Dodge Challenger and Charger are up 40 percent at retail over that span.
4. So many ways to launch
At the Lucas Oil dragstrip, I sampled three different methods for launching the Dodge like a stone from a nuclear-fueled slingshot. First, the old-fashioned way: Holding the brake pedal with my left foot for a tire-warming burnout in the staging area, and again for a brake-torque start. The other two methods, straight from the drag racer’s bag of tricks, show how hard Dodge worked to make the Demon safe and accessible for thrill-seeking buyers. A Line Lock function, accessed via the terrific Performance Pages in the center touch screen, automatically holds front brakes for your smoky burnout, with no need to finesse the pedal. Next, the TransBrake, a first for any production car, binds the output shaft of the eight-speed TorqueFlite transmission to hold the car steady; a function that also prevents competitors from accidentally rolling forward and tripping the race timer. Simply ramp up the engine revs to where you want ‘em, drop a steering wheel shift paddle, and rocket to quarter-mile glory. Finally, a fully automated, Drag-mode Launch Assist lets you precisely set engine speed (in finer 100-rpm increments, versus 250 rpm for the Hellcat) before releasing the foot brake and howling “Yippee-ki-yay.” That launch assist uses wheel speed sensors to momentarily reduce engine torque when it senses wheel slip; the driver never has to lift off throttle, and the system sharply reduces driveline loads from wheel hop, reducing wear and the potential for damage. Go ahead, use the Launch Assist ten times, or 1,000: It’s fully under warranty, regardless.
5. Can’t get your grease-stained mitts on a rare Demon?
The Dodge SRT division has consolation prizes. We drove a Durango SRT, a three-row SUV that Dodge bills as America’s fastest and most powerful. That includes a 4.4-second rip to 60 mph and an NHRA-certified quarter-mile in 12.9 seconds. That shove comes courtesy of a 475-horsepower, 392-cubic-inch Hemi V8. (Fuck the metric system, y’all.) The handsome Durango showed off a burly exhaust burp and surprisingly confident AWD grip on the rain-pelted road course at the historic Brickyard. The Durango will both outrun and out-tow anything in its class, with a newly generous 8,700-pound capacity that I sampled by trailering a sweet Formula 240 Bowrider model by the Indiana-based boatmaker. (The day’s flash floods and washed-out roads had me thinking about launching the boat, Noah-style, instead of the Dodge.) Power-hungry outdoors types can have the Durango SRT beginning around October at $64,090 to start.
6. For Dodge boys who appreciate curves, there's the Challenger SRT Hellcat Widebody.
For $72,590, the 707-hp Hellcat Widebody is all about lateral grip, where the Demon is ruthlessly engineered for the longitudinal, straight-line variety. The Widebody adds menacing
fender flares with 3.5 inches more width, new driver-selectable electric steering and massive 20x11 inch “Devil’s Rim” aluminum wheels with Pirelli P Zero tires. So equipped, the Widebody beat the standard Hellcat by nearly two seconds per lap around Fiat Chrysler’s 1.7-mile road course.
7. Keep the carpetbaggers at bay
Some speculators are already punching their calculators over the limited-production Demon. As ever, I'd love to see these folks get hosed, because they give car connoisseurship a bad name, just as hedge funders who scarf up overpriced Damien Hirst sculptures give art-collecting a bad name. Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands for Fiat Chrysler, said it’s inevitable that some owners will look to immediately resell their Demon, or put it under a garage blanket for a Rip Van Winkle nap, hoping it will appreciate like mad. But these are Mopars, not Ming vases. Dodge executives agree, saying the Demon’s rightful destiny is to be Street King, not Trailer Queen. The best possible outcome would be for Dodge to sell out the year’s run of 3,300 Demons—3,000 for America, the rest for Canada—and then suddenly announce production of another 3,300 cars for 2019, and again in 2020, as long as demand allows. Pull the rug out from under the rank opportunists, and let them play their Monopoly games with Ferraris instead.