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Auburn Hills — Dodge wasn’t prepared for the popularity of its new 707-horsepower SRT Hellcat models. All 2015 model-year cars already are spoken for, and dealers this week began ordering the 2016 models.

But even if it’s hard for enthusiasts to buy the current Dodge Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcats — named after their supercharged Hemi engine — the high-performance muscle cars have people talking about the brand. They are buying Dodge and Hellcat merchandise. And they’re attending Dodge events across the country, including an estimated 40,200 people at Woodward Dream Cruise events.

“It’s an absolute milestone of Dodge history,” Dodge and SRT President and CEO Tim Kuniskis said recently in his Auburn Hills office. “It’s the ’71 Hemi all over again.”

Demand for the cars led to months-long waiting lists and a small number of dealers engaging in irresponsible ordering practices, including accepting deposits and orders despite limited supply without telling customers their orders may not be filled.

Hundreds of orders for the 2015 model-year were canceled so Dodge could wipe the slate clean for the 2016 model-year. Dealers could start ordering 2016 model-year Hellcats on Monday under a new system that Kuniskis describes as a “radical change” that will not allow dealers to place more orders than they’ve been allocated.

The company is more than doubling Hellcat production for the 2016 model year. It would not release full production numbers for model-year 2015, but Kuniskis said the company had sold about 4,500 Hellcats through early August — mainly Challengers.

The automaker expanded dynamometer testing capabilities to meet that goal. Each Hellcat engine is tested for 42 minutes. Kuniskis said the extreme testing was the main “bottleneck” for the first model year.

“Our supply chain guys did, I think, an amazing job,” he said. “The number that we planned to build to where we actually ended is a huge increase. From Day One, they were pedaling hard to figure out how to make more.”

Fiat Chrysler on Monday told The Detroit News the price of both cars will go up for the 2016 model year: The Challenger SRT Hellcat will start at $62,495, up $2,500. The 2016 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat starts at $65,945, up $1,950. Dodge says the increased prices are due to enhanced standard equipment, including navigation and Laguna leather. Prices exclude destination and gas guzzler tax.

Customers whose orders were canceled will be able to get the muscle cars at the 2015 model-year price.

‘Secret sauce’

Even though the number of Hellcats produced is relatively small, the impact of the vehicles can be felt across the brand, officials say.

“Hellcat is part of a broader brand strategy that I think is working pretty well for Dodge,” said Lincoln Merrihew, senior vice president, client services, of research firm Millward Brown Digital. “Even if they’re breaking even on that car, you talk about the notoriety it has, the brand awareness and the attention it’s getting. It’s paid for itself already.”

Merrihew also points out the partnerships the brand has been able to make, including the Gas Monkey Garage’s “Fast N’Loud” on the Discovery channel.

Kuniskis’ office is filled with small reminders of just some of the things the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles mainstream performance brand has been involved with in recent years — from Mötley Crüe to Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” Ron Burgundy and, of course, the Hellcats.

Dodge reports the brand’s merchandise sales have substantially increased since the Hellcats were introduced last year, and are some of the company’s best.

“I have quite a few fast cars and I have to say Chrysler did an outstanding job,” said Craig Belevender, 52, of Clarkston, who took his 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to last week’s inaugural “Roadkill Nights powered by Dodge” event for the Dream Cruise.

“It’s definitely one of the fastest production cars I’ve ever driven in my life.”

Kuniskis says the “secret sauce” for the Hellcat models is that people see the $60,000-plus vehicles as useable and accessible: “It wasn’t a $150,000 car, because a $150,000 car is not relevant to me,” he said. “It’s expensive, but it’s reachable.”

Expanding Hellcat

Merrihew argues the“next step” is taking the strength of the Hellcat brand and leveraging it across the Dodge lineup while staying “true to Hellcat and true to the products.”

Kuniskis, when asked about expanding the Hellcat engine to other vehicles, said the brand is focused on its current demand.

“Everybody’s asking for it,” he said. “The problem I’ve got is I can’t build all the Chargers and Challengers.”

Some Dodge Viper owners have been lobbying for a Hellcat version of the American sports car, or at least an increase in performance.

“We, as Viper owners, it’s a matter of pride,” said Tom Gerard of Windsor, owner of a 2003 SRT10 Viper.

“We’re the flagship. Sort of like the Corvette is for GM. Having the Hellcat have nearly 60 more horsepower than we do (isn’t right).”

Kuniskis has said on numerous occasions the Viper will not get a Hellcat engine because it doesn’t align with what the Viper is: An exotic track car with “perfect” 50/50 weight ratio and a V-10 engine.

“I put 200-250 pounds on the nose of a Viper, it’s no longer my track car,” said Kuniskis, adding the 2016 Viper ACR that was unveiled earlier this year is “the craziest track car ever.”

“ACR is even more extreme than a Hellcat,” he said. “If you sit down and compare the two cars back to back, the ACR is far more of an extreme car.”

Ripple effect

The “value of the Hellcat,” Kuniskis says, is to sell the brand’s other cars.

The vehicle’s ripple effect can easily be seen in Challenger sales — up 38 percent through July in the U.S. Still, Dodge sales are down 16 percent through July in the U.S.

The decline is blamed on a 98-percent drop in sales of its midsize Avenger (production ceased in early 2014), and a 45-percent dip in sales of the Dodge Grand Caravan because a three-month plant retooling held up production.

Excluding Avenger sales, the brand would be close to its 2014 sales through the first seven months of the year, thanks to increased sales for the majority of its other products.

Dodge U.S. sales are expected to increase to 600,000 vehicles in 2018, as it churns out new products that align with its position as a “mainstream performance brand.”

“I just need to be this cool performance brand that people want to come and be part of,” Kuniskis said. “That gives you some creative license to do some stuff that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t trying to not offend everybody.”

mwayland@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2504

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