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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dodge Hellcat's 707 hp begs the question: How much power is too much?


There's never been much concern in America that automakers might be building vehicles too powerful to handle. As if we needed proof, look no further than the heralding of the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat with its 707-hp V-8 — a full 150 hp more powerful than the next most thunderous Detroit sedan, the previous generation Cadillac CTS-V.

But it's still a question worth asking, and one that's being raised in a few corners: Is there such a thing as too much power in the hands of everyday motorists?

Officially, there are no legal limits in the United States about how powerful a car can be; so long as a model met all safety standards, automakers could throw a jet engine under the hood. There are precedents;

 In France, motorcycles are limited to 100 hp — meaning high-end sport bikes have to be detuned to be legal. And from 1989 to 2005, Japanese automakers had a private limit of 276 hp for all their vehicles, although by the time it was lifted, many were building more powerful models but simply saying the rating was 276 hp.

In America, big horsepower is big business. Dodge says that when it announced the Challenger SRT Hellcat would boast 707 hp a few months back, it became the most-searched car brand on the web.

 And that chatter filters down to the lesser models in the company’s portfolio – meaning the crazy halo car supports the entire brand, even if typical business practices suggests one must be clinically insane to invest money into building such a car.

Americans have also voted for higher horsepower with their wallets; the average 2013 model-year vehicle in the United States will sport 230 hp, the highest since the EPA started tracking such data in 1975, and a 67% jump since then.

In general, there is overwhelming support for mad creations like the Challenger/Charger Hellcats – especially among car enthusiasts.
Personally, I don’t agree, but I understand the sentiment. Just as supercar fans know to expect the first wreck of a new Lamborghini or McLaren a few months after production begins, it's only a matter of time before someone does something dumb with a Hellcat.
I’ve driven the Challenger SRT Hellcat with the same engine, and while I’ll concede that it is easy to get yourself in trouble if you’re driving like an idiot, tire technology and modern engineering routinely produces a level of traction that requires a conscious effort to shake it loose — even with 707 hp on tap.

 And you’re gifted two key fobs, one (the black one) limiting power to “just” 500 hp, while the other (the red one) offers the full Monty.
Even with the red key engaged, if you drive sensibly it behaves just like any other performance car – only one with a more evocative soundtrack. It’s not terrifying or sketchy.

It just demands respect.
To me, cars are a symbol of freedom – an avenue for exploration, for adventure. If you love cars, chances are you love fast cars: cars that push the boundaries, cars that you once pinned up on your bedroom wall.
Fast cars, to me, are a rush not because they make it easy to break the speed limit, or because they can be inherently dangerous. I like the rush under my right foot, even when traveling slowly.

 And I don’t measure the greatness of a street car based on its speed, or horsepower numbers. That verdict arrives solely by the size of the grin plastered to my face. In that respect, the inevitable horsepower wars the Hellcat will spawn in Detroit will be superficial — mostly for other brands to save face.


Click image for Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat gallery

Despite that, I’m thrilled that we have Hellcats with 707 hp in our lives. A Mazda Miata is fun on many occasions, but on others you might desire a powerful, uncouth brute.

 Dodge needed a wake-up call, and it's made itself known to a new generation.

But these recent power wars do pose another question for me: Where’s the end?

We have hybrid hypercars that are pushing 1,000 hp. John Hennessey has his Venom GT with 1,244 horses and a new Venom F5 that’s rumored to boast 1,400 hp.

 Once upon a time we’d type “350 hp” front and center in a story’s title because it would entice folks to click on it. Now we don’t bother unless it crests 600.

Eventually there’s got to be a limit, right? A tipping point between extreme and just plain stupid?

By now, we’re all aware that some form of electrification will be powering the cars of the future – even in a performance environment.

 Hybridization is quickly becoming the formula for the elite super cars, and over the next few decades, it will trickle into most every car on the road. It improves fuel efficiency, which is key, but it ensures instant torque; something that's entirely new among today’s monsters, and a term that’s gained traction among car fans.

 So not only will cars be more powerful in the future, but that instantaneous, mind-numbing torque will soon be available at every stage of the rev range.
Without road modifications, how much more horsepower and torque can we realistically withstand – especially at the upper-end of the spectrum? In 15 years, will there be a 1,000 hp Dodge Charger?

Will our children learn to drive in base Corollas with 400 lb.-ft. of torque? Will your typical, economical family SUV be cresting 500 hp with a 0-60 mph time of sub six seconds?
It boggles the mind, frankly. But at some point, there has to be a cap – a limit to what society and tire makers can handle. In my opinion, that day is not far away. But unlike some, I’m thrilled to live in a world where we’re free to explore the edge of insanity.