July 31, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Pumping iron: The 2015 Dodge Challenger

To call the new, earth-shaking 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT the “Hellcat” seems an understatement.

Were there copyright issues with T-Rex, Godzilla or The Kraken?

Dodge executives say the 2015 Challenger standard-bearer is based on the legendary World War II Grumman Hellcat, the Zero-fighter that ruled the Pacific Ocean skies. Dodge’s supercharged maw seems like something dive-bombing from the sky, all right — but more like a ferocious, fire-breathing dragon. I’m talking Desolation of Smaug here — not that cutie in “How to Train Your Dragon.” I mean, you can hear this thing coming with its shrieking, front air inductor before the 6.2-liter hemi blows you off your feet with its huge, 8 inch-wide, rear dual exhaust outlets.

The supercharged Hellcat leads an army of updated 2015 Challengers into battle in the white hot War of the Muscle Cars. Not since these affordable weapons were birthed in the fiery crucible of the 1960s and ’70s have we seen such an arms race.

Reigning class leader Camaro has added both horsepower and handling to its arsenal with the 580 horsepower ZL1 howitzer and the Z28 cruise missile. Not to be outdone, Dodge’s SRT Hellcat boasts the segment’s most powerful engine ever, adding to an ammo depot that already includes 5.7- and 6.4-liter hemis. And waiting in the wings is Ford with its new, sleek Mustang which finally matches its rivals with an independent rear suspension.

Remember when Planet Washington wanted to save GM and Chrysler so they could build 40 mpg tin cans? Really? Ask the one million faithful at the Dream Cruise this August to name their dream cars. I’m betting the Big Three of Camaro, Challenger, Mustang top the list.

“If you missed the first muscle car era,” says Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis, “don’t miss this one.”

Kuniskis leads the combined Dodge-SRT regiment in Gen. Sergio Marchionne’s re-ordered army. Dodge is the cavalry. The horsepower guys. The point of the spear. With his natural swagger and passion for cars, Kuniskis would have made the brawling Dodge brothers proud. This guy chews nails for breakfast.

Introducing his steel soldier, Kuniskis barks out details like “Apocalypse Now” Lt. Col. Kilgore: “The Hellcat has 650 lb.-feet of torque. Top speed of 182 mph. Quarter-mile in 11.2 seconds. It’s loud, obnoxious, pure evil.”

The Challenger is unapologetically menacing.

Like the 2014 Camaro, the Challenger’s cowl has been narrowed from the 2008-14 generation. Its deep-set eyes are even more hooded under an extended brow. By comparison, the 2015 Mustang’s Fusion-like grille and swept headlights are softer. Dashing. European. That’s by design as Ford has recast its muscle car as a sports car to broaden its international reach. Challenger, by contrast, is steroid-fed, all-beef, All-American muscle.

Dodge media materials don’t boast of g-loads or drag coefficients. That’s sports car prattle. It boasts of the Challenger’s quarter-mile times. That’s Yankee drag-strip talk.

And the Hellcat goes like stink. So powerful is this beast that it comes with two keys: One black, the other red. Only the red gives you access to the full 707 horses.

Good choice. I mashed the pedal at Portland International Raceway, and ... actually, I didn’t. Never mash a pedal connected to 700 horsepower. Even with measured throttle, this hellion has wheel spin in first and second gears off the line. With a manual shifter, you could spin the rear tires to dust. For more consistent starts, launch control is available. Just 12 seconds later, I was doing 120 mph-plus across the quarter mile.

But where to use such a weapon?

Let’s face it. 707 horsepower is a stunt. A model in hot pants to get folks in the showroom. And at a starting price of $59,995 it will only appeal to a few. Saner minds and smaller bank accounts will find plenty of pleasure in the $37,495, 465 horsepower. 5.7-liter hemi or the $27,995, 3.6-liter base Challenger.

The V-8s have so much torque that they are akin to riding a bull through a rodeo barrel course. By contrast the Pentastar V-6 allows you to master the Challenger’s big chassis. The Challenger is hardly nimble. At nearly 4,500 pounds and that big boat anchor up front, the Hellcat can feel like a rocking horse. Raring to go in a straight line, but nose heavy under braking and nervous in tight bends. Fortunately, the Challenger’s electronic stability control is superb, and the V-6 reduces overall weight to 3,800 pounds — bringing 52-48 balance while still offering plenty of giddyap and a throaty exhaust brap.

Speaking of manners, the updated Challenger has brains to match its brawn.

With electronic steering, electronic shifter and an eight-speed transmission, the Challenger has gained fuel efficiency to go with its bigger biceps. The V-8 options are all less thirsty, and the V-6 boasts 30 mpg on the highway.

The previous-gen Challenger needed an interior decorator. Not the 2015 model. This SRT has been watching HGTV. The new Dodge features soft vinyls and choice details like aluminum bezels that trace the three stylish trapezoids housing the instrument cluster, console and shifter island. The result is a tasteful Dodge interior with a style all its own.

The car’s exterior is also harmonious, simple.

Like its muscle car brethren, the Challenger is respectful of its heritage. Where the outgoing model took its design inspiration from the 1970 car, the 2015 update mimics the 1971 model’s split grille and split tail-light design. But unlike Camaro’s fake side gills, the Challenger eschews ornamentation. Form follows function.

The result is a surprisingly clean, consistent design from base SXT to King SRT. While the Challenger’s 10 trim packages come with a dizzying array of options, a 27-grand V-6 does not look like Megan Fox’s kid sister next to the 60-grand Hellcat. And with its functional rear seat — the two-door Challenger is built on the same platform as the roomy, four-door Dodge Charger. Unlike its tight Camaro and Mustang mates, you can comfortably drive the whole family to the Woodward Dream Cruise.

But when you get there, let them out at Dairy Mart to get ice cream. Then pull out the red key and go light the fires of Hell. You sure this thing shouldn’t be called Nostradamus?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Dodge Challenger SXT Plus / Dodge