July 26, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Q&Auto: The motorhead behind the new Challenger Hellcat

Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis with the new, 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT hellcat. (Dodge)

Inside Tim Kuniskis chest beats a Hemi V8.

As Dodge launches its updated, 2015 Challenger lineup this summer — including the ferocious, signature, 707 horsepower SRT Hellcat — there is no one more eager to get behind the wheel than Dodge’s CEO, a motorhead from Rochester, New York. “I started drag racing my first car when I was 21,” says Kuniskis, 47. “My father was a chemist. He didn’t understand what I was doing.”

The chemistry between Kuniskis and Challenger is undeniable. This guy knows cars inside and out, casually rattling off the car’s specs at Challenger’s launch in Portland, Oregon. The Challenger is a no-nonsense car. No fake air ports. No extraneous spoilers. Purpose-built. Not unlike its CEO. Kuniskis is direct, unvarnished. If five words answer a question, five words will do.

A 22-year Chrysler veteran — including a recent stint as Fiat’s North America chief — he lives and breathes cars. With roaring Challenger hemis providing the background music at Portland International Raceway, I sat down with Kuniskis to talk Hellcats, Darts, and cruising.

Q: What are you driving at the Woodward Dream Cruise?

Kuniskis: I’m struggling with that one right now. I can bring a Hellcat to the Dream Cruise. But my personal car is a ’71 Challenger RT big block car. I built a new drive train for it which is strapped to a 500-cubic inch motor. It’s a blast to drive. But it’s not running right now — I’m in the process of putting a shaker on the car.

Q: Where did the Hellcat name come from?

Kuniskis: Hellcat is a new name for Dodge — named after a World War II aircraft. First super-charged Hemi ever. First supercharged V8 we’ve ever had. Think of the progression in five years (since the 2008 Challenger). We launched with 6.1 liters, 425 horsepower and 19 miles per gallon. We went to 700 horsepower and our fuel economy went up.

Q: Big picture. What’s Dodge look like in five years?

Kuniskis: We want to be the Charger of every segment we compete in. If you put the Charger on a spread sheet, it is a full size-four-door sedan. It competes with Taurus, Avalon — yet, it doesn’t get cross-shopped with ... those cars. It stands apart from the segment. To me, that’s the ultimate goal of Dodge — to have that different car for every segment we choose to be in. That is what the ’15 Challenger is getting closer to being. We had three issues holding back the current generation. First, the interior. We had people who said we want something more technologically advanced, nicer. Check, we fixed that. The second issue was the automatic transmission. We had a five-speed transmission ... but it was not giving us a performance or fuel economy advantage. Now we have the eight-speed. Now you have the performance and fuel economy benefit. I don’t want to go head-to-head with Mustang and Camaro. They’ve got great cars. The secret to the Hellcat is you can get all the performance, all the acceleration, and get 20 mpg in a 700-horsepower car. That’s the Charger formula. I want something different. I want something fun.

Q: You have high performance SRTs like the Viper and Challenger. Then you have the Dart. Is it going to become a performance vehicle?

Kuniskis: To make it perfectly aligned with Dodge, do we need to get more performance in the car? Absolutely. But a GT Dart is a good, fun car. Dart is an outlier like Charger. It is in-between compact and midsize. It is a lot more than a compact — it looks great, handles great. I would like to get more performance in it, but in the last three years we’ve set all time sales records.

Q: Is there a convertible in the Challenger’s future?

Kuniskis: It’s not a big segment — just 150,000 units a year at retail. Convertible is a very, very, small player.

Q: You guys had a heck of a weekend up in Mosport (LeMans series race, July 13). SRT Viper on the pole in GT. A Viper won GT2. How important is racing to Dodge-SRT brand?

Kuniskis: We like it. It give us a halo, a performance benefit.

Find Henry Payne at hpayne@detroitnews.com.