2019 Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye first drive: 797hp bragging rights

As answers to unasked requests go, the 2019 Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye's 797 horsepower ranks fairly high on the "nobody needed this, but it's fun to have anyway" scale. For the past four years, the Hellcat has represented the cutting-edge of potent excess in Dodge's line-up, eschewing subtlety in favor of performance, bombast, and oddly-affordable brute force.

It's proved a winning formula. 2018 Challenger sales are up, year on year, despite the third-generation car itself being a decade out from its last major update. That's not to say Dodge has been idle. The company's engineers have been taking liberties with both supercharging and tires, most notably creating the 2018 Challenger Demon – a road-legal drag racer in which most of the seats are optional – which has just finished its 3,300 car production run.

All that effort making the Demon go very fast in a very straight line seemed too good to waste, and so we have this, the 2019 Challenger Hellcat Redeye. If the Hellcat is the strong brewed coffee part of the redeye equation, the Demon's powertrain is the double shot of espresso dropped into it. The result, Dodge claims, is a car that not only goes quickly in one direction, but can handle it when you reach a corner, too.

So, you get Launch Reserve, Line Lock, and Launch Control from the Demon, all in the name of straight line performance, but paired with the Hellcat's suspension, wheels, and tires. They're a lot more adept at going around turns, after all, while the Hellcat's brakes – with extra cooling – have also been retained. At 797 hp you don't quite get the Demon's maximum of 840 horses, something Dodge says is down to different air intake restriction calibrations, but you do get a 203 mph top speed and a tenth of a second cut on the quarter mile versus the "regular" Hellcat.

The visual differences range from subtle to... well, very unsubtle. Hellcat Redeye badging on the front fenders is now dark-finished, with a jewel eye. The rear spoiler has been reworked for better aero, pulled back and wrapping over the sides more, with a small gurney added. What you'll probably spot first, though, is the dual snorkel hood, shared by the Redeye and the 2019 Hellcat, both intakes of which are functional.

That's a good thing, since the Redeye's appetite for both air and fuel is prodigious. Up to 5,000 pounds of air, and around 500 pounds of fuel, are sucked in and combined an hour. You can have either the standard Hellcat's rear differential or the Demon's if you'd prefer, but either way this is a whole lot of power being pushed to the rear wheels alone. Little surprise, maybe, that Dodge is only offering an 8HP90 automatic transmission with paddle-shifters, not the manual you can spec on less potent Challengers.

You have enough to focus on, anyway, without needing to row the gears yourself too. Out on public roads the Hellcat Redeye is always one right foot nudge away from shredding your license. Even in Eco mode, it's ominously easy to find yourself doing twice the posted limit without realizing how the speed has crept up.

Sport mode, meanwhile, is a recipe for smoke and melodrama. The Redeye will merrily spin its back wheels if you misjudge the gas from a standstill, and that's without getting anywhere near the official Launch Mode. It's fun, but like the exaggerated proportions – and the bright paintwork so many Hellcats are finished in – it's also an easy way to get attention, good and bad.

Temper its exuberance, though, and regular driving isn't impossible. The Challenger won't win awards for suspension complexity, but neither does it ride harshly nor too firmly on ill-kempt asphalt. As you're cruising, you can admire or bemoan the cabin, little changed over the years bar the newest version of FCA's UConnect infotainment system.

The switchgear is uninspiring but laid out reasonably intuitively, though the huge swathes of textured black plastic across the dashboard, down the doors, and along the center console don't exactly lift the interior into any sort of premium segment. Neither do you get much in the way of Redeye badging to remind you that you're at the wheel of Dodge's most ridiculous variant today.

At the track, though, the cues for that are more than evident. Dodge had selected Club Motorsports in Tamworth, New Hampshire to demonstrate the Hellcat Redeye's talents, a fairly new course with dramatic elevation changes and a series of switchbacks and unrelenting sharp corners.

It's not, at first glance, the sort of track at which you'd expect a muscle car to necessarily do well at. The Dodge's supercharged engine clearly isn't short on power and thus straight-line speed, but Club Motorsports is heavily biased to fast cornering. At 4,443 pounds for the widebody, nobody is going to confuse the Redeye for a light car.

They'll definitely know it's coming, though. The soundtrack is a combination of primal V8 growl and air-siren supercharger whine, sometimes melodious and sometimes ear-piercing, but never anything less than striking. The Redeye surges forward with the grunting fury of an enraged bison, the first corner arriving with an alacrity that borders on astonishing.

Stomping on the brakes is a shortcut to tail-shimmy, probably entertaining to watch but a little unnerving given the Challenger's overall heft. More progressive application, though, sheds speed with welcome predictability. As muscle cars – and the laws of physics – demand, you have to slow dramatically if you want to stand any chance of holding a racing line, biding your time until you can get back on the gas and rely on brute power to reclaim your momentum.

With only one long straight to play with, you have to make it count. Again, the Redeye delivers pace at wowing levels. Does it feel faster than a regular Hellcat – offering, courtesy of the dual snorkel hood, 717 horsepower for the 2019 model year – or even the new Challenger R/T Scat Pack 1320 with 484 hp from its naturally-aspirated HEMI V8, when judged by the seat of your pants? Not really, though I've no doubt that Dodge's 0-60 mph claim of 3.4 seconds is accurate.

No, the big surprise is that this doesn't feel like the lumbering beast I expected. Certainly, a Miata or something similarly nimble will feel more adept in the twists, but there's a pleasing sense of involvement as you get confident making slow-then-surge progress. Like any "unusual car out of its typical environment" playtime, it's a recipe for fun.

The fun is capped, though, by the brakes. Extra cooled they may be, but Dodge still had us on a three lap limit: one to warm up, one hot, and then a cool-down to give the anchors time to gather themselves again. Over-cautious maybe, but it's worth noting that the Scat Pack 1320 I hopped between when not at the wheel of the Redeye showed no hint of brake pedal softness.

It also demonstrated the reality that excess isn't always the best strategy. Sure, the Scat Pack 1320 may be more than three-hundred horsepower down compared to the Redeye, but it also felt more nimble. A couple hundred pounds less weight at the front end helps there. Opinion was split on the day as to whether the 1320's greater eagerness into the turns could be outweighed by the Redeye's raw power with the right driver behind the wheel, but I couldn't help but find the lesser-engined car a little more rewarding to drive on this particular track.

Where, then, does the 2019 Challenger Hellcat Redeye shine? Certainly when it comes to bragging rights: you can't argue with a 6.2-liter V8 making 797 hp, and Dodge's boast that it's the "most powerful production muscle car" in the world is more than enough to coax some wallets to open. In widebody form – a $6k option – it looks the part, too, and I don't think I'd ever bore of that soundtrack either.

In the end, though, you buy the Hellcat Redeye because its very specific set of talents appeal to a very specific part of your limbic system. For that cortical tickling you accept that the $69,650 sticker – plus the $1.7k gas guzzler tax, and the $1,395 destination – could alternatively put no shortage of other automotive excellence on your driveway.

I'm not sure the average Hellcat Redeye buyer – if there is such a thing – is doing much cross-shopping in that respect. Indeed, if they're looking to other cars it's probably the "regular" Hellcat, which gets a 10 hp bump for the 2019 model year, or coveting the Demon, which was $15k more. None make much practical sense, but then again who would want a Hellcat that showed any sort of restraint.