Review: 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Widebody

Dodge\'s big coupe gets bigger, but does it get better?

You'd be forgiven for growing tired of the interminable iterations of Dodge's big coupe. Every year seems to bring with it two or three new variants--sticker packages and full-on engine upgrades alike--with the prospects of a total redesign being repeatedly kicked down the road, to the point where it just doesn't appear to be in the cards at all.

Fortunately, Dodge at least seems intent on giving us interesting new takes on the Challenger formula from time to time, and 2018 brought with it a couple of whoppers. The drag-strip-prowling Demon, with its 840-horsepower engine and crate full of tricks, was the stand-out. But limited-edition and limited-purpose cars like that aren't everybody's cup of tea.

For those whose tastes lean more toward Bondurant than Barrett-Jackson, Dodge had another ace up its sleeve: The 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Widebody.

Try saying that faster than it takes one to hit 60.

What is it?

In the most fundamental sense, the Widebody is an option package for the existing Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat that offers more capability for those who prefer to do more than collect timeslips (or, perhaps, pink slips). Fender flares at each corner allow for more wheel and tire to be placed under the hefty Hellcat, meaning the 707 horsepower and 650lb-ft of torque produced by the supercharged 6.2L Hemi V8 can be put to more productive use.

Going from the base Hellcat to the Widebody gets you more than just some fender flares and wider tires. It's a detail that is often overlooked, but the Widebody marks the introduction of EPS--electric power steering--to the Hellcat model.

We asked SRT engineers why that is, and while several factors went into the decision, the short version is that EPS allowed for steering to be adjusted within the Widebody's selectable drive modes, allowing for more manageable on-street manners and more direct on-track behavior.

The Challenger has been relegated to also-ran status when it comes to road course prowess pretty much from the day it debuted way back in 2008. New engines, new transmissions and new looks have done little to fix that (even ten years on, at this point) as the simple fact of the matter is that it's bigger (and consequently much heavier) than the cars usually tagged as its competition.

What's it up against?

There is only one traditional American muscle car for sale today, and this is it. The Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro are pony cars--V8 or no V8--and even at their portliest, simply can't touch the Challenger for heft or, consequently, road presence. The latter may well be why the Challenger has seen so much commercial success in the years since its reintroduction.

While the Mustang and Camaro look like exercises in grafting iconic American styling on to globally aligned platforms, the Challenger comes across like something that a kid put together using only the coolest pieces of a huge LEGO collection. It is not the objectively best V8-powered American coupe, but its brash charisma and unapologetically boisterous approach to both styling and performance have made it an endearing (and enduring, as it turns out) stand-out for a full decade.

The Hellcat formula takes the Challenger to a whole new level of ridiculous, but it's not as if stuffing a big, supercharged V8 into a sexy two-door is a notion exclusive to SRT, and while the Hellcat's stock horsepower figure elevates it into the company of supercars, it comes with a far more humble and attainable price tag.

We'll give the nod to the 650-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE as the most direct competitor to the big Dodge. The Chevy has less power and comes in at a slightly lower price point, but its superior chassis and lighter curb weight give it more than enough credibility. The forthcoming Ford Mustang GT500 will compete in this space as well.

How does it look?

We've touched on the Challenger's brash Charisma already, but it's worth noting that even without the Widebody package, the Hellcat ratchets up the aggression with its intake-in-the-fog-light antics and angry cat badges everywhere you look.

But this? This, at least aesthetically, is what the Hellcat should have been from the very beginning. The big fenders and wide tires finally match the visual heft of the rest of the car. Let's be honest: Base model Challengers can look a lot like hippos on rollerblades.

The Widebody cures that ailment with a healthy dose of metal and rubber. The upgraded wheels are 20 inches in diameter and 11 inches wide (stock Hellcat wheels check in at 20x9.5), and are available with either all-season or summer tires in 305/35ZR-20. Our loaner, being a Texas resident, was equipped with the latter--Pirelli P-Zeros, to be precise.

Nothing about this car is subtle, but the Widebody's exterior tweaks are a testament to how even small changes can make a huge difference. Thanks to those upgrades, a "regular" Hellcat looks tall, long, and frankly, a little wimpy by comparison.

And the inside?

This is one spot where the Widebody really doesn't offer much over the standard Hellcat. The only difference worth noting is the addition of steering as an adjustable feature in the SRT customization screen. Elsewhere, it's bog-standard Hellcat, down to the embroidered seats, kitty badges on the vents (which were added a year or two ago), and the leather seating surfaces.

The interior is good enough, but now that the novelty of Dodge offering more than a stool to sit on and a tarp over the firewall has worn off, we have to admit that the bloom is off the rose. Make no mistake: This is a far cry from where we were in 2014, but that's hardly a standard by which to grade a modern interior. It's better than fine, but nothing to write home about.

If we're going to nitpick, we'll note first and foremost that the seats lack any substantial lateral support (a shortcoming which didn't matter nearly as much when going straight was the Challenger's only real strength). Your author was also keenly aware of the fact that, upholstery job aside, they're really no different from what has been found in SRT models since this model went on sale.

On the plus side, while the interior may not be completely awe-inspiring, it is fairly feature-rich. Standard Hellcat goodies include heated and ventilated seats (a blessing in east Texas humidity), a heated steering wheel, 8.4-inch UConnect 4 with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and dual USB data and charge plugs. FCA has been rolling out upgrades to those connectivity points throughout its brand lineups and we expect USB Type-C will be added soon (likely with the 2019 updates).

But does it go?

Hell yeah, it does. Make all the cargo ship references you want (at 4,498 pounds, the Widebody is 50 pounds heavier than the standard Hellcat), but 707 horsepower is 707 horsepower, and for once the Hellcat has enough factory rubber to competently string together the twisty parts where you can't use it.

Dodge says the Widebody will run 0-60 in 3.4 seconds. We couldn't get near that even in the Texas heat, but for once, that's not the whole point. It has upgraded cooling (for longer road course sessions) and improved lateral grip.

The extra width, extra rubber and electric power steering also combine to transform the way the Widebody feels on the road. Coming from any other Challenger, it's easy to misjudge just how wide the car is. Even your author found himself touching the driver's side rumble strips and lane-marker reflectors occasionally on the highway.

It has an impact in more intimate environments too. The Widebody's turning circle is a foot wider, which may seem trivial, but with the added lateral grip of those wide, gummy tires makes parking lot maneuvers much more arduous than they'd otherwise be in your garden-variety Challenger.

And as neat as it is to fine-tune steering behavior from the Widebody's customization page, we found ourselves missing the honesty of the old hydraulic steering setup. The Hellcat was one of the few hold-outs still remaining in the Challenger family. In 2019, the conversion will be complete: Every Challenger will come standard with EPS.

Like the regular Hellcat, the Widebody is offered with a six-speed manual or eight-speed auto. It's really hard to be upset with the selection of the eight-speed for our loaner. It's an excellent transmission, and the SRT customization options allow the driver to select anything from jarringly fast and crisp shifts to smooth, supple gear changes so nearly imperceptible you'd swear you were driving a Mercedes. Yes, we realize what we just said. Enjoy yourselves.

That illusion goes away with even the smallest hint of throttle input. When you use the red key (and for the love of God, don't buy it if you're not going to), the SRT customization options default to what essentially translates to "sporty" and "straight-up bonkers." If you want to be kind to your neighbors, this is not the car for you.

Like its looks, the Widebody's approach to performance is far from subtle. It is, after all, fundamentally a Hellcat. With the demise of the Viper, it now represents the pinnacle of Dodge and SRT performance, but make no mistake. Extra rubber won't transform a sledgehammer into a scalpel.

As you work your way through the Widebody's suspension settings (the adaptive system was re-tuned specifically for its added rubber), you experience a spectrum that runs from genuinely comfortable (as much as it can be with 20" wheels and rubber-band tires, anyway) to what your body might experience in the mosh pit at a Slipknot concert.

Not all adaptive suspensions work the same way. Some, like Mercedes-Benz's Air Body Control can alter both spring rates (the common perception of "ride stiffness") and compression/rebound damping. That's because the air suspension is inherently variable and it's paired with adaptive dampers.

Far more common are systems like the Widebody's, which have to rely solely on their adaptive dampers as a means of controlling body movements. To put this as simplistically as possible (and with apologies to the engineers in the audience), spring rates determine how much a car reacts to driver inputs and changes in the road surface; compression and rebound damping determine how quickly that reaction is resolved.

In its softer mode, the Widebody's adaptive dampers increase the duration of the car's reaction to inputs, impacts, road camber and other factors to smooth them out. Take a bump for example. In street mode (the most comfortable), the suspension will absorb the initial impact (compression damping) and the resulting return to a level ride (rebound damping) slowly. In a sense, your suspension is financing the impact for you--spreading it out over a longer period to lesson your perception of its size.

In track mode, you're paying cash, in full, and right freakin' now. The suspension wants to get everything over with as quickly as possible, and that means sharp, harsh body motions as the car quickly settles back to equilibrium. The analogy of being inside a paint mixer may be old and stale, but it's the perfect illustration of what happens when you hit several consecutive bumps with a suspension tasked solely with keeping as much tire on asphalt as possible at any given moment.

Body motions (and bodily injury) be damned. If any part of you jiggles, leave the red options in the SRT menu for the track (or a particularly smooth road, if you're so geographically blessed). When you find a road like that, though, the Hellcat Widebody shines.

Leftlane's bottom line

It'll never move like a Miata (or even a well-tired pony car, for that matter), but part of loving the Challenger is the acceptance of the fact that there's more than one way to approach the concept of a fun car. We're thankful this one exists, and the 2019 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Widebody is a near-perfect (not to be mistaken for near-flawless) execution of this particular formula. We can't wait for the Widebody Scat Pack.

2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat base price, $64,295; as tested, $78,520

Widebody Performance package, $6,000; 8-Speed automatic transmission, $2,995; "Dark Gunmetal" stripes, $995; Pirelli P-Zero summer tires, $695; "Gunmetal Gray" brake calipers, $495; Gas Guzzler Tax, $1,700; Destination, $1,345

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of FCA.

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