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Payne: Dodge drops Hellcat V8, previews new age of electric Muscle


The Era of Electrification has claimed its first big scalp.

Dodge is ending production of its iconic, V8-powered Hellcat Challenger and Charger muscle cars models by 2023 as the brand transitions to a mix of electrified EV, hybrid, and plug-in drivetrains in the face of government regulations forcing battery-powered vehicles. The high horsepower, supercharged hemi engines have defined the brand for the last six years, driving an increase in sales as Dodge stuffed Hellcat V8s into everything from its muscle cars to the three-row Durango SUV.

The Charger and Challenger models, however, will remain in the lineup as the Hellcats pass into history. The news amps up the pressure on Dodge’s first so-called eMuscle electric car, due early next year in prototype form, to deliver on its promise of a new era of Tesla-like, electric performance.

“People are really nervous about (electrification),” Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis said in an interview at the Los Angeles Auto Show. “(But) power isn’t going away. Muscle isn’t going away. We're going to show a concept of our all-electric muscle car. We’re going to show it in about four months. We’re going to show you what it can do . . . and redefine American muscle.”

Reaction to Dodge’s announcement ending the sizzling, supercharged V-8s from the enthusiast community was met with a mix of rage, disbelief, and resignation.

“Hellcat production is sadly going to end in 2023,” moaned enthusiast publication Car and Driver of the Hellcat engines that delivered between 707 and 840 horsepower. “You have two years left to buy a Hellcat. We won't let the Hellcat's rambunctious whine of its supercharger be forgotten by the whispering whir of electric motors.”

Wrote Hellcat_Red on the SRT Hellcat Forum: “Seems like we are close to say good bye at the most legendary American muscle car. Really sad the future that is coming.”

“Not happy with this forced EV situation. Guess I need to order a Redeye before it’s too late,” added “S8ER01Z” in reference to the 797-horsepower V-8 Challenger model..

“2024 will be the new plug-in stuff, no thanks,” said Caddy59.

The Hellcat lineup — paired with ringleader Kuniskis’s over-the-top marketing instincts — has driven a brand sensation. Despite being built on two-decade-old platforms, the sinister looking Challenger and Charger vaulted over Camaro in Detroit’s muscle car race and is challenging Mustang for #1. They are best-sellers in the coveted California market. Dodge web traffic has been epic despite its relatively low sales volume — across three models — compared to megabrands like Chevrolet and Ford.

The move to electrification challenges the brand’s devil-may-care personality.

“In a world where everyone is obsessed with making everything better for the environment, the Challenger just doesn't care. It doesn't care what people think or say about it,” wrote HotCar.com earlier this year. “Fans of the Challenger do not want a hybrid powertrain or an electric SUV model. What they want is a fire-breathing muscle car.”

Dodge isn’t the only brand grappling with electrification’s challenge to a carefully-manicured image.

Porsche has been clear that it will not electrify  its iconic 911 supercar, the brand’s touchstone. Instead, it has moved into battery power with the Porsche Taycan sedan and Taycan Cross-Turismo. It has already felt the sting of trying to accommodate MPG concerns in its performance cars — when it replaced its Cayman/Boxster sports cars’ screaming 6-cylinder engine with a 4-cylinder, the models lost half their U.S. sales.

Ford, too, has been careful to not to fiddle with its V-8 secret sauce. When the Blue Oval used its Mustang performance brand to introduce its first EV, it chose an all-new Mach E SUV while leaving the fire-breathing Mustang coupe alone with its gas-engine lineup.

Patrick Rall, a writer with StellPower.com, is influential in the muscle car community and a Hellcat owner himself. Like Porsche and Mustang, he thinks Dodge recognizes the purity of its V-8 Challenger muscle car and will choose to electrify the Charger sedan.

“Like the Porsche Taycan and Tesla Model S Plaid, it makes sense for Dodge to explore the sedan space,” he said. “If you’re going to be the best, you have to take on the best.”

CEO Kuniskis is aware he is playing with fire.

“I'm juggling knives because I've gotta’ keep two different huge factions happy because at some point those two factions will converge,” he told Motor Trend at the LA Show, referencing customers who will embrace electrification and those who want his brand’s signature V-8 and V-6 power. “The problem is no one knows when they will converge. My job is to provide confidence, over the next 24 months, that we're gonna’ do this."

Industry insiders say that the EPA-forced change to electrification is fraught with danger, pointing to the 1970s when federal MPG standards tripped up Detroit automakers.

“The ’70s were the Dark Ages of the auto industry,” said Karl Baer, industry analyst with ISeeCars, recalling models like the 1974-78 Ford Mustang II that scaled back on performance to meet MPG concerns. Reviled by purists, the Mustang II is rarely seen in Woodward Dream Cruise parades.

“The older cars were better than the new ones in the 1970s,” said Brauer. “There were big changes, big government mandates. I hope that doesn’t happen again and we’re more technologically advanced this time.”

For its part, Dodge seems to be assembling a diverse lineup of drivetrains beyond the EV debuting early next year.

Built on an all-new platform beginning in 2024 to accommodate electrified powertrains — which The Detroit News first reported in 2019 — the Challenger and Charger, say experts, will likely get hybrid and plugin drivetrains utilizing a hybrid ZF transmission recently contracted by Stellantis.

Brauer said Dodge’s small size and unique image affords corporate parent Stellantis room to experiment.

“Dodge profits are a sliver of total revenue,” he said. “So the risk of remaking Dodge is less than, say, the volume Jeep brand. If Dodge can remake Hellcat power with the right kind of car, then it will help a certain percentage of traditional buyers to give electrification a try.”

Dodge has been here before when it developed the Dodge Dart to meet Obama Administration requirements that the new Fiat-Chrysler alliance make a 40 mpg car. The Dart was manufactured from 2013-2016 before it died due to poor sales.

Significantly, Stellantis is not toying with its V8-powered formula in its high-volume Jeep brand. The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer were both launched on all-new platforms this year and both boast optional normally-aspirated, 5.7-liter V-8s in addition to standard V-6s.

As Dodge accelerates towards its new era in 2024, Kuniskis said the brand will roll out a series of teasers to keep customers engaged.

“When we say we’re going to electrification in 24 months it would have been easy to go quiet. We don’t do anything quiet, we don’t so anything subtle,” he smiled. “We put out a calendar, . . . there’s 24 doors and those doors are going to open every couple of months or so. We’ll show our full electric plan as we get to the end, and we'll show (gas-engine) stuff along the way.”

Dodge has already teased a new Jailbreak package on its Charger and Challenger Redeye models that allow buyers to customize them for $995. And it’s shown an EV logo called the “fratzog” — a made-up word for the triangle arrangement of three arrowhead shapes used by the brand in the 1960s.

“People come up to me all the time and they say: ‘Hey, you’re the Dodge guy, you’re gonna be totally opposed to EVs. What are you doing? Are you selling out?’” said Kuniskis. “I say, no, performance isn’t going away. There are some really cool innovative things we can do with electrification.”

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