I didn’t plan for it to happen. It just did.
I had requested a Shelby GT500 loan because I’d driven the car on the launch but wanted to see what it’s like to live with the king of current Mustangs in the real world. Because the car is likely in high demand among Chicago-area automotive journalists, the loan would be short. So I’d have a gap in my schedule.
I don’t need test cars to get around. I am not dependent on them – I don’t feel beholden to the fleets or the automakers. I have other ways to get around, whether it be walking, biking, using a cab/Uber, or whatever. But I try to schedule cars each week, either so I can review them for TTAC (even if it takes a while to actually get around to the write-up, sorry gang) or at least use them as background for knowledge and comparison.
So I politely asked the fleet if they could send me something to cover the five-day gap between the time a Cadillac went home and the Shelby arrived. I didn’t care what – coupe or minivan, big or small, we review ‘em all.
“Sure, how about a Dodge Charger Hellcat widebody?”
Um, yeah, OK. I think that will work.
A peek behind the curtains is necessary here. As I said above, I’d asked for the Shelby for the real-world experience. I make it a policy to try to arrange a home loan for every car I’ve been invited on a junket to drive. The reason? Because California pavement and sunshine and canyon roads aren’t representative of our pothole-plagued infrastructure here in the Midwest. Because you see things living with a car for a week – or even two days – that you don’t on a one-day event. Because I don’t get groceries or take three other adults to dinner (during non-pandemic times, of course) or haul furniture or help someone move while on a press launch.
I don’t always succeed. For example, I still haven’t tested a Honda Accord or Passport since launch. No beef with Honda, the vehicles just haven’t been available when I’ve asked. I also don’t think I’ve driven a Hellcat widebody since last year’s launch event. Which was held, where else, in California.
Anyway, that explains why I had two cars that make over 700 horsepower back to back over the course of a week.
This isn’t your standard comparison test. For one thing, despite the similarities in power and layout, the two cars are different in key ways. One has four doors, the other two. While both can be tracked or drag-raced quite easily, one is clearly more focused on those activities than the other.
Not to mention that I drove them on different roads in different parts of the Chicago area. Or that I don’t have any way to do actual instrumented testing.
So, no, there will be no scoring system here, no winner, no loser. Not even a spirited debate among staffers, since we all live in different parts of the U.S. and Canada and we weren’t gathering for this. It’s just my observations of life in the real world while behind the wheel of V8-powered muscle cars that are insanely fast.
Full reviews of each car will come later.
Let’s start with the Hellcat. The supercharged 6.2-liter V8 makes 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque and pairs to an eight-speed automatic. And it’s a goddamn delight of an engine.
Get into the gas even a little bit, and even at lower RPMs you’ll get a wonderful supercharger whine. And you don’t need a lot of RPM to get into the torque.
Yet, the Hellcat CAN be driven gently. Under 2,000 RPM, it almost loafs. When you need to pass or get up to speed, you can dial up just enough power to do what you need to do without digging so deep into the throttle that you launch yourself into outer space.
Of course, should the tap of the shoulder from the evil side of your personality arrive, there’s lots of tire-smoking, all-American power to get into. Especially with the red key activated.
Real-world conditions prevented me from exploring most of this car’s potential – you need a track, or the freakin’ Bonneville Salt Flats, to do that. Still, I managed a few back-road blasts and time-and-space warping merges. The Charger isn’t light (over 4,500 pounds), but with all that torque on hand, it doesn’t matter. You can get into serious speed seriously quickly.
And if you want to be truly bad, you can find a shady spot, select Sport (no need for Track mode, even), and floor the go pedal from idle. When I attempted this, the car got more sideways than Hemingway on a bender and left a cloud of smoke that completely obscured the rearview mirror. When the rears finally hooked up and the car found forward momentum, I moseyed away from the scene of the crime, giggling as if laughing gas had leaked into the car.
Yeah, like that scene in Black Sheep. “Roads…ro-ads”. That one, but sober. High only on octane, horsepower, and torque.
I admit, at first I found myself resistant to catching any feels, as the kids say, for this Charger. I didn’t want to let all that power paper over the fact that this platform would be old enough to drink legally, were it human, or that the rear-seat space is a bit tight for a large car. The interior is functional and attractive but doesn’t feel special, really, at least for over 80 large. And while the Charger handles well given its size and power, it’s better in a straight line. Also, that wide-load rear makes you nervous on tight roads or narrow one-way streets in the urban jungle.
Then again, the highway ride is generally compliant. On the stiff side, sure, but not so rough as to make a long drive a chore. And the muscle-car soundtrack that’s so intoxicating even at idle fades nicely into the background at highway speeds when the revs are below 2,000. The supercharger whine and V8 rumble/roar are great, but the noise fades when the car is being driven softly. You can always summon it with your right foot.
Contrast that with the Shelby. The Mustang is jumpy and jittery, at least on broken pavement, which Chicago has plenty of. It seems louder (no chance to actually measure) than the Charger, even in normal mode.
The sounds coming out of the tailpipe sound a bit higher-pitched, too. The supercharged 5.2-liter V8 makes 760 horsepower and 625 lb-ft of torque and mates to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
It’s immediately obvious that while the Charger is a large car that just happens to have lots of power on hand, the Mustang is meant to play. And it’s not nearly as happy to commute as the Dodge is.
You can feel the car settle into a rhythm when you get on the gas during a break in traffic, or if you push it, even relatively mildly, in a corner. And smooth pavement does reduce the jitters, to be sure, though the car still feels more high-strung than the Hellcat.
I got used to the exhaust noise after a time, and a quiet mode is available at the flip of a switch if you tire of the racket.
The Charger Hellcat handles relatively well for its size – as noted, I tracked it last year, and it attacked on-ramps without drama during my loan. But the Mustang, well, it’s a whole different beast.
Turn-in too lazily, and the ‘Stang is easily corrected. The steering that’s a bit too vague and light on-center, even in Sport mode, tightens up when you’re hustling the car through corners. The car just feels happier. And when the fun is over, the binders are almost too good – you feel like you stomped on them 50 feet too soon.
The Shelby has enough grunt to break the rear end loose on dry pavement if you light-switch the throttle in track mode, but oddly enough, I couldn’t quite replicate the Charger’s epic burnout in an empty parking lot (safely socially-distanced from cars and light poles, of course). Instead, I got tire squeal, some waggle, and then the car hooked up and took off. Then I had to take off – the arrival of at least one jogger and my desire to not be that guy who pulls a Cars and Coffee in a Mustang meant I had to mosey on.
I found it easier to live with the Mustang as time wore on, but it’s not as user-friendly for the daily grind as the Hellcat. The console is tiny, for one, and the backseat remains useless for transporting humans other than small children. I swear my Fox body, a smaller car overall, had more rear-seat room. A friend of mine who possesses an SN95 Mustang said the same thing.
Also, the bolstered Recaros suck for comfort. I’d not select them unless I was tracking the car on a frequent basis.
Still, there’s enough trunk space for most people, and outside the super-stiff ride and the ever-present exhaust, the car is easy enough to drive in commuter mode, as long as you don’t mat the throttle when leaving every stoplight.
At least Ford’s Synch worked without bugs this go-round, though it initially refused to connect to CarPlay. A restart solved that snafu, and it was smooth sailing from there.
Both these cars cost a hair over $80K, with the Shelby being cheaper by about a grand. If you gave me a check and said “pick one”, I’d look at you funny and try to convince you to give me both.
If you held your ground, I’d begrudgingly pick the Charger, if only because it handles shitty pavement better and has real rear-seat room. But that doesn’t make the Shelby a loser – if I lived in California and never had more than one passenger, I’d probably select the Ford.
Which, again, is why this isn’t a real comparison test. Both cars have different missions. The Shelby is best set against a Camaro ZL1 or Challenger SRT Hellcat (with or without the widebody), while the Charger Hellcat has no real competition.
Instead, consider this a retrospective of what it’s like to live with two of the most powerful American cars you can buy – two cars with similar sticker prices and power numbers and track ability but also with obvious major differences.
I’m on record as being generally in favor of moving the market towards a more fuel-efficient future, because we need the environment to be in tip-top shape if we want to continue to survive and thrive as a species. But even if 99 percent of the fleet goes all-electric, I hope there is still some room for niche cars like this.
The sounds, the speed, the tire smoke – it’s a wonderful throwback to a muscle-car past that ended almost a decade before I was born, while my parents were far younger than I am now. It’s also a reminder that while this kind of speed and power isn’t necessary, and the world would be worse off if all cars sucked fuel this way – I saw 16 mpg at best in the Hellcat and around 12 in the ‘Stang – it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
I’m glad most cars now are fuel-efficient and quiet, and certainly there are fun-to-drive sports cars out there that get respectable fuel-economy numbers while being smooth and silent. And in some cases, affordable. You can get into a sporty compact car for less than half the price of one of these cars. You can get a family sedan that is perfectly sedate most of the time but still fun when you want to push it. If you’re an enthusiast, it’s a great time to be alive.
You have tons of choice, and as stated, you can get a fun car for relatively cheap, without sacrificing comfort, convenience, or fuel economy. That’s great, and I’d never look askance at the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Honda Civic Si driver. I’d probably own something in that class if I owned a car.
But there’s something to be said about cars like the Shelby and the Hellcat. I don’t know if regulations or market forces or a shift to electrification or an eventual increase in autonomous driving will kill off cars like these. Hell, EV versions might be fun in their own way, thanks to the instant torque of an electric motor.
So the days for cars like this may be numbered. Or not. All one can do for now is enjoy these cars.
Grab the keys (red, if it’s the Dodge), press the start button, crank the ZZ Top, lay some rubber, and be happy you’re alive.
[Images © 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]