It's when the transmission shifts to 3rd and the tires are still spinning that the depth of the power sinks in. The Hellcat stays straight, content to write its signature on the pavement as long as needed. The smoke is absurdly dense. And it doesn't stop.
There's no mistaking a Charger. You simply listen and look for a cloud of tire smoke.
Emerging from that cloud less than a decade before this Hellcat was a similarly large sedan with alpha-male styling and a big V8. Named after Dodge's Street & Race Technology group, the SRT8 was the first performance variant of the reborn Charger. It shares no body panels with its Hellcat descendant, but park the two next to each other and you'll see similar proportions. The story's the same when you sit in the driver seat.
Drive both, and you'll sense the roots.
Large, in Charge
When the Charger returned in 2005, the question facing new owners at every stoplight was, "That thing got a Hemi?" The SRT8 did. Its 6.1-liter V8 offered 425 horsepower, equaling the rating of the 426-cubic-inch "Elephant" Hemi of the 1960s. But because engines prior to 1972 were rated with the more optimistic gross rating, the new mill's net rating made it the most powerful V8 Chrysler had ever put into a car.
Less than a decade later, the Charger Hellcat arrives, and it requires no such nuance to explain its superiority. Its supercharged 6.2-liter V8 makes 707 hp, once again breaking the record at Chrysler and simultaneously making the Hellcat one of the most powerful new cars available today. The power is such that it comes with a separate black safety key that limits output to 500 hp: 75 more than the SRT8.
Oh, and it'll do 204 mph.
On the Boulevard
The two Chargers here (our red long-term 2007 SRT8 and the white 2015 Hellcat) are separated by nearly a decade of automotive advancement. The differences in their powertrains alone are many and vast: 282 hp, 230 pound-feet of torque and three gears. Yet they both use the LX platform, and this parallel means their character is similar, even if the way they look and the speeds they reach are wildly different.
Both cars have swagger, from their imposing hood scoops to their 20-inch wheels. The SRT8 is all slab sides and angry headlights, while the Hellcat's scalloped doors and Stormtrooper-like fascia make it modern. Each wears an SRT badge on the driver side of its grille.
Behind the wheel, the Hellcat's engine is a bright neon sign you can't avoid. The power is so plentiful and so easily accessed that it gives you bad ideas — constantly. On-ramps, empty streets: They're all blank canvases in dire need of tire marks.
The SRT8 seems happier at calmer speeds, but it's no less boastful. The modified exhaust on our car resonates through the interior and drones at freeway speed. It proudly announces when this red Charger arrives and when it leaves. The Hellcat is quieter inside, but the tone is more pleasant. Electronically controlled exhaust flaps open and shut depending on throttle position, letting the engine play its full song when appropriate.
The SRT8's loud exhaust makes the 425 hp sound strong, but the five-speed's long gearing spreads it thin. The chasm between 2nd and 3rd gears in particular makes for a vacuum of acceleration. The Hellcat has a gear in every spot the SRT8 doesn't, eight in total. It responds quickly to the paddle shifters, and changes gears smoothly when you're putting about around town. In fact, the Hellcat's low-speed demeanor is almost as impressive as its speed. Your mom could drive it with no complaints.
Down the Strip
You flex a muscle car on the drag strip, and few from the factory do it better than the Hellcat. With its 3.4 pounds-per-horsepower advantage, the Hellcat is undoubtedly the strongman here. But it cleverly matches its brawn with brain, offering tools that help its driver down the strip faster and more consistently.
A suite of gauges helps monitor vitals, like the temp of the inlet air or engine and transmission oil. Launch control lets the driver match the engine speed to the track surface, reducing the work required at the staging lights. It's more consistent, too, but after a few attempts, we shave off a few tenths by starting in 2nd gear and controlling the launch ourselves.
The SRT8 lacks the Hellcat's power, driving, aids or complexity. And while its acceleration pales relative to the Hellcat's, attaining it is simple: Mash the gas. The lack of work means drivers can watch the Hellcat disappear — either ahead or behind in a cloud of tire smoke.
When the Hellcat gets it right, its 11.8-second pass puts it 1.7 seconds ahead of the SRT8. It traps at 124.4 mph, too — 18.9 mph faster than the SRT8. Considering the difficulty it has launching, it's easy to see the Hellcat in the low 11s or even high 10s with the right hardware.
Physics are hardly kind to the large, heavy Chargers. Yet both feel nicely balanced, and their long wheelbases and torque delivery make them eager drifters. The Hellcat's growth spurt included its weight. After all, immense power comes with immense cooling and durability needs. At 4,586 pounds, the Hellcat carries 375 pounds more than the simpler SRT8.
The difference shows up in handling tests. Wider tires and electronically adjustable Bilstein dampers help the Hellcat generate 0.92g average around the skid pad, but our SRT8, with aging shocks and no fancy modern controls, follows up with a 0.89g run. A good performance from the SRT8, but when it comes to driving off the corner, the Hellcat's horsepower advantage and superior gearing spread makes it far more entertaining. Powerslides are always within reach.
Both Chargers use Brembo brakes, sharing the same rear 13.8-inch diameter rotor/four-piston caliper setup. With a 14.2-inch rotor/four-piston system on the front, the SRT8 records a 114-foot best stop from 60 mph. The Hellcat's front brakes are necessarily more serious, with 15.4-inch rotors and six-piston calipers. Acting on wider P Zero tires, the newer Brembos return shorter stopping distances, besting the SRT8 by 11 feet.
Of course, the Charger's priorities lie elsewhere. Turning and stopping are pleasant bonuses. Let us then quantify the difference between these two in the most scientific way possible: a burnout. The SRT8 has three-fifths the horsepower of the Hellcat. Logic dictates it should be able to do three-fifths the burnout.
So imagine our disappointment when the SRT8 simply accelerates away when its driver stomps the throttle. What, we have to use both feet? Modern horsepower makes us lazy.
Hold the SRT8 in place with the brake, apply throttle, and it'll smoke 'em no problem. But the smoke stops as soon as you release the brake. Much to our disappointment, and that of untold onlookers, the SRT8 has too much traction.
The Hellcat does not have this problem. Turn off traction control, hit the throttle and you'll find yourself spinning the tires through 3rd gear. The absurd length of the burnout is matched only by the plumes of smoke. It looks like a wildfire. The P Zeros don't seem to lose much tread in the process, so you can John Force your way down every boulevard, much to everyone's delight.
What have we learned? Burnout quality increases exponentially with horsepower. Call it the Hellcat Principle.
After the Smoke
The Hellcat accelerates faster, stops shorter and does the bigger burnout. It takes an obvious win and dominates this hugely lopsided pairing. How could it not? You'd need something with jet-assisted take-off to make a bigger impression.
The near decade-old SRT8 we bought for $20,600 had no chance against the thoroughly modern $69,070 as-tested Hellcat. But the link between these two cars remains fascinating.
Put yourself back in 2006 and sit in the driver seat of a new Charger SRT8. You're at a stoplight, ready to field another Hemi-related query from someone in a lifted truck. Instead, this person tells you the future. They say, "Not long from now, that car you're in will have more than 700 horsepower and a top speed of 204 mph. It'll do 11-second quarter-mile passes."
You'd think they were crazy. And you'd be right. Which is why we love the Hellcat.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.