Payne: The epic Dodge Demon

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Imagine it’s dawn on Dream Cruise Saturday. We are sitting in lawn chairs at 16 Mile. A Dodge Demon, Tesla Model S P100D and McLaren 570GT roll up to the stoplight with nothing but clear pavement ahead of them. The light turns green and they explode down the quarter-mile.

The curvaceous, $198,950 McLaren screams past in 10.7 seconds like something out of video game, its 7-speed, dual-clutch transmission clicking off instant shifts. The electric $140,000 Tesla sails by at the same time but without a sound, initially surging ahead of its gas rivals with instant torque, its launch so concussive the driver experiences momentary, inner-ear dizziness.

But at a fraction of the cost of its competitors, the $86,090 Demon puts on the best show.

Its 4,280-pound body recoils off its rear haunches as the pilot releases the launch control, briefly chucking the front wheels into the air. A wheelie! It surges past the quarter over a second ahead of the others, its supercharger sucking in air through small, inner headlight holes that make the most unholy shriek this side of the River Styx.

You’ll have goosebumps the size of cantaloupes. Just as I did the first time I launched the Demon down Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.

The Demon’s full name, of course, is Dodge Challenger SRT Demon — the latest monster from Dr. Tim Kuniskis Frankenstein’s SRT lab. The Demon emerged from Manhattan’s Pier 94 in April like some sort of sci-fi monster left over from Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” The deafening beast obliterated every other entry at the New York Auto Show with its alien capabilities: An unheard of zero-60 time of 2.3 seconds and a production car record 9.65-second quarter-mile time.

The quarter was so stunning that the National Hot Rod Association banned the Demon from racing because it’s illegal to drag-race without a roll cage if you break the 10-second barrier.

On paper, the Demon is a member of Dodge’s swaggering Challenger gang that includes the R/T and wicked-looking, 485-horse Scat Pack that I have reviewed on these pages. It’s tempting to say that the Demon is the 707-horsepower Hellcat’s big brother, but it’s much, much more.

With Dodge putting the Viper sports car out to pasture this year, the Demon takes over its mantle as family scion. The Dodge halo car comes with a sticker about $10,000 north of a Hellcat — and $30,000 south of the Viper. It’s the most powerful muscle car ever made.

“We wanted to design a big middle finger to our competition,” says Demon designer Mark Trostle. But the defiant digit is also a message to pointy-headed pundits who predict a dystopian future of homogenous, self-driving pods governed by interstates bristling with sensors to monitor speeds and keep vehicles in line.

The Demon is a challenge to the system. A big honking hunk of individuality.

Rampaging through suburban Indianapolis, my Demon turned heads at every corner. With its huuuuge, 12.4-inch, grooved-slick race tires, the Demon is an inch wider than the Hellcat on paper but feels six feet wider on road. Its bigger shoes turn into corners more sharply, inducing more confidence that the Demon’s outrageous 840 ponies can be unleashed on public roads without taking out every neighborhood mailbox.

With every stomp on the accelerator comes the dual-headlight shriek, as if I was Lt. Col. Kilgore blaring “Flight of the Valkyries” in “Apocalypse Now” to warn of imminent attack. It’s addictive.

Since the 1960s, the Mustang and Camaro have defined themselves on road-racing courses. So it is today with the Mustang GT350 and Camaro ZL1, which are the most capable track pony-cars I have ever driven. The Demon’s territory is on a different track — the drag strip. Woodward with staging lights.

With its muscle-bound physique and sense of humor — Dodge will sell you a front seat, rear seat, and a crate of drag racer trick parts for $1 each — it has the personality of a celebrity wrestler. If it were a movie character it would be played by Dwayne Johnson. But look more closely and Demon is an engineering marvel underneath. “We’ve created a machine that can perform with the world’s most exotic cars out of the Challenger toolkit,” says Demon engineer Erich Heuschele.

This is refined dragster that brings all the tricks of the quarter-mile trade to a production, street-legal package.

Let me take you inside that launch down the quarter-mile.

Easing into the “water box” at Lucas Oil Raceway for a pre-stage burnout warming up the tires, I set “Line Lock” in the console. This electronic feature — controlled by my left thumb on the steering wheel — locks the front brakes while I spin the rear tires. I lift by thumb and the beast eases forward into the staging area.

For decades, drag racers have constructed trans-brakes in order to keep their earth-pawing creations poised before explosive launches down the strip. My comfortable, leather-stitched Demon pairs this tricky concept with Dodge’s excellent, eight-speed production transmission and double, electronically adaptive shocks at every corner.

I bury the brake with my left foot.

Pull back on twin paddles behind the steering wheel, arming the launch procedure.

With my right foot, I modulate throttle at 1,700 rpms.

Remove (really) my left foot from the brake.

The engine continues to gurgle ominously at 1,700 rpms under my right.

Release the left paddle, leaving only the right paddle transbrake holding this land missile stationary.

I let go the right paddle and unleash the hounds of hell.

The Demon erupts off the line like mighty St. Helens herself. In an instant my right foot goes from feathering 1,700 rpms to full WOT (wide-open throttle in drag parlance), creating a neck-snapping, 1.8 g-loads of acceleration. The red-hot combustion chamber loads the piston and connecting rod with 11 tons of force, 50 times a second. As if on rails, Demon surges down the strip with so much velocity that I don’t even register the 140-millisecond, automatic gear shifts. I cross the quarter-mile at 138 miles per hour, big Brembo brakes putting an end to the violent speed spasm.

I exhale. My eyes slowly reform in their sockets. The Demon gurgles happily as if it’s finished a good meal.

And then I do it again. And again. And again ...

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

2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon

Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe


6.2-liter, supercharged, hemi V-8


8-speed automatic


4,280 pounds


$86,090 base


840 horsepower, 770 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 2.3 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 168 mph

Fuel economy


Report card


Supercar acceleration for $86,000; I mean, just look at it


Nitto slicks not made for rain;

every cop can hear you coming 5 miles away


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★