Dodge began revving up the hype machine for the 840-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Demon back in January, smack in the middle of steadily rising demand for all things SUV.
Calling the factory dragster the “most-powerful, street-legal production car ever,” it released 13 slickly produced video teasers. Dodge then unveiled the Demon in a Vegas-style spectacle ahead of April’s New York auto show. The street-legal dragster was Vin Diesel’s ride in “Fate of the Furious,” and it made cameos in rap videos.
All for a car that Dodge planned to make only 3,000 copies of. But, then, the purpose of all the hype was never to sell $85,000 Demons. It was to sell less-expensive showroom versions of Dodge’s Challenger and Charger performance cars — and it’s working.
Within days of the Demon’s premiere in New York, the press had pointed at the tight line parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV seemed to be driving. A New York Daily News headline posed the question: “Was Dodge’s insane Challenger SRT Demon a much needed win for FCA, or an old-fashioned waste of time?”
Automotive News welcomed the unveiling with its own musing: “Dodge Demon: Devilishly clever or evil incarnate?” The concerns were the same: Had Dodge wasted time and resources on a niche “halo” project intended to sell the lesser cars in its lineup, or had it struck marketing gold?
In August, a full seven months after the first PR move, Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands at FCA, offered an unequivocal answer.
“We haven’t built the first one yet, but people have been talking about this car since January,” he said. “So the hype has been building and selling other Challengers. Our Challenger sales are through the roof. We’re having an all-time record year to date.”
Sales figures for August back up Kuniskis’ take.
Technically speaking, the Demon is a sedan at a time when consumers are running away from them. In the first eight months of this year, passenger car sales have dropped more than 11 percent from the previous year. Eight months into last year, sedans accounted for 41.5 percent of vehicle sales. So far this year, they make up 37.9 percent.
Chevy Camaro’s August sales were down 10.5 percent this year. Ford Mustang’s were down 33.3 percent, although Mustang’s numbers have been impacted by consumers awaiting the refreshed 2018 model.
August sales figures for the Dodge Challenger, however, showed a much different trajectory:
■Challenger’s August 2017 sales grew 18.8 percent from the previous year.
■Through August, Challenger’s year-to-date sales are up 4.5 percent over 2016.
■Dodge’s Charger has seen more of a mixed bag, with August sales up 11 percent from the previous year, and year-to-date sales lagging 6.5 percent from the same stretch in 2016.
Karl Brauer, senior director of content and executive publisher at Cox Automotive, believes Dodge’s move with the Demon is paying off.
“If anything, I think it was brilliant,” he said. Kuniskis “was smart.”
In 2010, Fiat Chrysler spun off Ram Trucks from Dodge, a move that narrowed the scope of Dodge’s offerings. It also opened the door for Dodge to double-down on its historic image as a producer of performance vehicles, affectionately known as “muscle cars.”
The Challenger, Brauer said, is Dodge’s “core remaining product,” and by creating the Demon off its platform, company officials have enhanced the brand.
For Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, it’s too early to be sure if Dodge’s gamble has paid off.
“Demon’s reason for being is to create buzz around the brand, as well as a one-off special edition that would be profitable to deliver,” she said. “The car has been fantastic at generating buzz, but it is too early to determine if it has had a deep halo effect on Dodge brand sales.”
Dodge minimized its risk by building its campaign around something that is, essentially, a souped-up version of a car already in production. “The entire cost of the Demon program has been justified,” Brauer said, “regardless of what the actual car itself produces in sales.”
Dodge has worked to maintain the Demon’s exposure throughout 2017, managing to keep the car in the spotlight long after its April debut. That same month, the Demon had its starring role in “Fate of the Furious,” which has grossed more than $1 billion globally. The Demon also turned up in music videos from Pitbull, 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa.
In June, during a media event in Chelsea, Kuniskis spoke of the influence Demon’s design was having on the rest of the Dodge lineup. That included the Challenger Hellcat wide-body model as well as the 2018 Durango SRT, which the company labeled “America’s fastest, most powerful and most capable three-row SUV.”
And last month, the Demon was the focus of the third annual Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge at Pontiac’s M-1 Concourse. Visitors could see several Challenger Demons on-hand at the raceway. They could also try out the Demon Drag Challenge simulator.
The event drew an estimated 40,000 visitors, up over the 30,000 or so that turned up last year. During the event, Kuniskis said the Demon’s “trickle-down effect” was working.
“It’s selling SRTs and Scat Packs and regular Hellcats,” he said. “We built the Demon to cement the image of what the brand is in peoples’ minds. And this is what we want our attitude to be seen as.”