Hellcat Engine Puts Spotlight on Dodge

Dodge on Wednesday unveiled its 2015 Charger SRT Hellcat, and this isn’t your typical family sedan.

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The Charger SRT Hellcat, the car maker's second vehicle powered by a 707-horsepower engine, has a top speed of 204 miles per hour, goes from zero to 60 in just 3.7 seconds and travels the quarter mile in 11 seconds on street tires.

Dodge said it will be "the world’s most powerful sedan" when it arrives in the first quarter of next year. The supercharged Hemi engine was codenamed Hellcat by Dodge engineers, and the name stuck.

The four-door Charger follows on the heels of the Challenger SRT Hellcat, which created plenty of buzz after its debut last month. Tim Kuniskis, the president and CEO of Dodge and SRT, said Dodge was the top-searched automotive brand on Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) last month, a first for the company.

Dodge expects its Hellcat products will spur interest in the rest of the brand’s lineup. The Hellcat-powered Challenger and Charger are what the industry refers to as halo cars — top-performing vehicles that draw attention to the brand.

Kuniskis said the new 707-horsepower Charger and Challenger highlight the flexibility of the platform and could accelerate demand for other versions of the muscle cars, in addition to other Dodge vehicles like the compact Dart.

“This excitement and public pandemonium around Hellcat has a lot more people looking at Dodge,” Kuniskis added.

Initially, demand for the Hellcats could exceed production capacity, according to Kuniskis. But he isn’t concerned about that possibility, given the various options below them.

Dodge redesigned the Charger sedan and Challenger coupe for model-year 2015, improving the interiors and updating the exterior styling. In addition to the base model and SRT versions, Challengers will come in R/T variants. The Challenger R/T Scat Pack, for instance, will feature 485 horsepower. The Charger will also be available in several different models, including R/T and R/T Road & Track.

Roughly half of Charger sales are currently generated by a six-cylinder engine that packs around 300 horsepower. Kuniskis said Dodge can capitalize on the excitement around its powerful Hellcat engine, while acknowledging that not everybody needs 707 horsepower under the hood.

Kuniskis also dispelled a rumor that Dodge intends to make a limited number of Challenger SRT Hellcats, noting the car’s starting price of $59,995. Pricing on the Hellcat-powered Charger will be released in a few months.

“You really just have to decide if you want a two-door or four-door. It’s not like you need to look at another brand,” Kuniskis said. “They’re playing the part of what a halo car is supposed to do, which is to help sell other vehicles.”

The early numbers are providing a good picture of how the Charger SRT Hellcat can benefit Dodge’s entire lineup. The Charger, Challenger and Dart accounted for three of the top 10 vehicles searched on Google last month, Kuniskis noted. “Obviously, that’s what justifies building cars like this.”

Dodge said the Charger particularly resonates with young and affluent buyers. Buyers on average are 15 years younger than competing full-size sedans, according to the company. Since 2009, sales of the Charger have jumped 62%, double the growth in the overall segment.

Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer said the Charger SRT Hellcat could bring new Dodge customers to showrooms, although it’s hard to measure the exact correlation. Market share will be the best gauge of the Hellcat’s success as a halo car, he added.

The Charger ended 2013 with its best sales year since 2007, lifting its market share by 3.2 percentage points over the course of four years.

“Numbers are very important to people in that segment. When your numbers are the best, you can convert people,” Brauer said of the SRT Hellcats.

Brauer also noted that Dodge is “basically doing a pre-emptive strike” ahead of Ford Motor Co.’s (NYSE:F) rollout of the all-new 2015 Mustang, which is expected to attract new buyers with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

The Hellcat provides a solid foundation for Dodge’s future as the performance brand of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Dodge will be shedding the Grand Caravan minivan and turning its attention to vehicles like those in the SRT lineup.

Even though orders have yet to begin, Kuniskis is already hearing from customers who want to purchase the Challenger SRT Hellcat.

Brauer believes the Hellcats show “a real willingness to go to any degree to establish a brand reputation and a sense of dominance in terms of performance.” Under Fiat’s ownership, the company also brought back the Viper sports car.

“These cars are a great way to get people in the door,” Brauer said.