Dodge Challenger Hellcat is wickedly fun to drive

The No. 1 market for Hellcats isn't Detroit or Dallas but Southern California, the land of Prius and Tesla

I hadn't driven a muscle car in years when I slid somewhat hesitantly behind the wheel of the 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat.

But within a few blocks I had cut off a school bus, dusted two old ladies in a Camry and tattooed a strip of hot rubber through a hospital zone, laughing all the way.

This is a good ol' boy of a car — a broad-shouldered bully that makes you want to grab a Dixie beer and a chaw of tobacco and tear down the road like you're running from the revenuer man.

Dodge is paying homage to big Detroit steel of the past with its Challenger and four-door Charger Hellcat cars — except with double the muscle, at 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. The 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V-8 barely fits under the hood.

These are big-bore, big-ticket throwbacks that burn gas like it still costs a buck a gallon and spew enough CO2 to make every trip to the supermarket a one-man smog alert.

But America surprised Dodge. The company has not been able to manufacture Hellcats fast enough to keep pace with demand, and recently had to ask dealers to stop taking orders.

Curiously, the No. 1 market for the Hellcats isn't Detroit or Dallas but Southern California, the land of Prius and Tesla.

In fact, according to stats provided by the research firm True Car, the person most likely to be driving a Hellcat is a man between the ages of 34 and 60. Living in Los Angeles.

OK, so that's me.

The Hellcat is wickedly fun to drive, and not nearly as scary as that first fishtail out of the parking lot implies. The handling is firm, the braking is crisp and the muscular motor seems to demand aggressive driving. The Hellcat won't force you to drive like a jerk, but … it'll help.

The engine and suspension are tunable through a dashboard application. Available driving modes include Sport, Track, Custom and — laughably — "Eco." The engine can be told to produce the full 700 horsepower, the restrained 500 horsepower or a planet-saving 300 horsepower.

There's even a "Valet" mode, which takes most of the fun out of the Hellcat and may prevent the guy who parks the car from putting it into a ditch or getting arrested.

Standard equipment includes traction control, stability control and other safety features like a tire-pressure monitoring system, rear stabilizer bar and "rain brake support," which should keep the back end on the ground during wet weather.

There's even "Track Experience" software that will log your laps at Willow Springs.

The engine power is distributed through an eight-speed automatic transmission that can be manipulated in semi-manual mode with optional paddle shifters. A true stick shift is also available.

It's actually fastest in automatic mode, but using the paddle shifters is more fun and leaves more rubber on the road.

This coupe is as big as station wagon — 16 feet long and 4,100 pounds. So it's a little ungainly in parking lots and the steep streets in the hilly sections of Los Angeles — unless you're remaking the San Francisco chase scenes from "Bullitt."

Sneak it onto a clear stretch of highway and it's CHP bait. The Hellcat goes from zero to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds — if you can keep from shredding the tires — and then keeps going as far past 60 as you care to take it. The speedometer goes to 200 mph — because it needs to.

The car's appetite for asphalt is a little scary, but the raw power is intoxicating. Fortunately, the Dodge engineers fitted with the Hellcat with big-bore Brembo brakes. It stops fast too.

The interior is comfortable and quiet, though not so quiet that you can't hear the Hellcat growl every time you light it up. The front seats are embracing, highly adjustable, heated and air conditioned. Each Hellcat also comes with Bluetooth, SiriusXM radio, an 8.4-inch touch screen and a Harman Kardon sound system.

I had real trouble picking the right soundtrack for this automobile. The Hellcat put me in a redneck mood — I can say that; I'm from North Carolina — that felt half hillbilly and half rock 'n' roll. It wasn't quite ZZ Top or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. It wasn't exactly Steve Earle or Dwight Yoakum. In the end, I settled on a menu of Jimmy Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Booker T and the MGs.

Everything is in easy reach. The densely programmed touch-screen panel is easy to operate, though the programming options are so rich that you need a computer programmer or a teenager to guide you though it.

Visibility to the sides and rear, though helped by a backup camera and blind-side warning signals, are not great — perhaps on the assumption that you'll be going so fast that no other vehicles will be anywhere near you.

The trunk is too small for a family vacation, and getting in and out of the back seat is a job for a contortionist. There are other annoyances too, like the door handles, which are low, out of sight and difficult to reach comfortably.

The fuel economy won't win any prizes. Dodge and the EPA rate the Hellcat at 13 miles per gallon city and 22 highway for a combined 16 mpg. If you drive it like I did, you won't get anything near that.

The Hellcat is a hot ride, and even in Southern California is still relatively rare. So it gets a lot of attention. A single guy could get some pretty serious action driving this automobile — but only if he was interested in meeting other single guys driving the same kind of car.

Dodge has made the entry-level Challenger for less than $30,000. But the Hellcats start just below $60,000. The one I was driving, boosted by options like a $995 "Satin Black" aluminum hood, the $1,995 "TorqueFlite" transmission with paddle shifters and a $1,700 "Gas Guzzler Tax," cost $65,070.

Would I spend that kind of money on this car? No. But would I spend another week in the Hellcat? Hellyes.

charles.fleming@latimes.com

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