2021 Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat First Drive Review: The Devil’s SUV11/30/2020
In September, we compared the hottest performing SUVs from BMW, Maserati, Mercedes, and Porsche, the winner of which earned a spot in our 2021 Best Driver’s Car competition. Sadly, the 2021 Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat is arriving just a few months too late to market to have joined that competition, so we’ll have to wait another year or so to learn whether it can improve on the fifth-of-five finishing order its Hellcat-powered Jeep cousin achieved in 2018’s Best Driver’s Car SUV play-in. The three-row Durango weighs some 200 pounds more than the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, but it makes a touch more power and benefits from three years of development and improvements. To help us place the new Durango SRT Hellcat within the pantheon of über-utes, I ventured to Charlotte, North Carolina, to wring several out on the 14-turn road course at Carolina Motorsports Park.
2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat: Heckin’ Crazy Power
By moving the power peak up from the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk’s 6,000 rpm to that of the newer Hellcat fitments’ 6,100 rpm, Dodge increases the engine’s from 707 to 710 hp. And although the Durango tuning lowers peak torque to 640 lb-ft from the Jeep’s 645 lb-ft (and the Ram 1500 TRX’s 650), the engine speed at which it occurs drops from 4,800 rpm on those applications to 4,300 rpm. Of course, these decimal percentage changes in output are utterly undetectable from behind the wheel of any of these explosively powerful vehicles. I most certainly did feel the 235-hp and 170-lb-ft torque bump relative to the naturally aspirated Durango SRT 392 (475 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque) that was on hand for back-to-back drives at CMP. It must be noted, however, that the 392 generates a more pleasing engine note than the Hellcat and its supercharger’s whine.
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All that torque is routed through virtually the same 8HP95 TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission used by all the Hellcat applications rated to tow. Speaking of which, the Durango is the champ at 8,700 pounds (the TRX tows 8,100; the Trackhawk, 7,200). The Durango employs a single-speed Magna MP3010 all-wheel transfer case that’s closely related to the Jeep’s MP3015C Quadra-Trac unit (the TRX gets a two-speed Borg-Warner four-wheel-drive case). As in the Jeep, the automatic drive mode splits torque 40:60 front-to-rear, changing to 50:50 in Snow mode, 35:65 in Sport, and 30:70 in Track. Towing mode differentiates the Dodge and Jeep, with the former splitting things 50:50 and the latter dialing up 60:40 (mode settings are very different on the off-road-oriented TRX, with the truck’s Baja mode offering a 25:75 split). Suffice to say that even in Track mode the Durango Hellcat’s corner-exit grip under full throttle is so heroic that drifts are difficult to provoke with the accelerator; rather, it takes an abrupt lift off the right pedal in just the right corner to get the tail out.
2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat: Claws Out
Sharing of parts across brands is what helps make the business cases pencil out for all these disparate SRT vehicles, so it’s not surprising that many of the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk’s underpinnings are shared with the Durango Hellcat. This includes the SRT-branded Brembo brakes with six-piston calipers and 15.7-inch slotted composite (aluminum “hat”) rotors in front and four-piston calipers clamping 13.8-inch rotors at the rear. For 2021, the top Durangos get new copper-free brake pads that recently made their FCA debut on the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. SRT engineers claim the Durango Hellcat will stop from 60 mph in 114 feet (our last Durango SRT 392 needed 110 feet, with the Trackhawk needing just 108).
We literally lit our last Grand Cherokee Trackhawk’s brakes on fire chasing its competition up and down Angeles Crest Highway in 2018, and heavy braking on steep grades undoubtedly taxed the most powerful (by 132 hp) and nearly heaviest vehicle in that test. We found it “severely under-braked for an object as fast and heavy as it is.” Maybe repeatedly slowing from triple-digit speeds on the closely spaced corners of a flat track is simply a whole lot less taxing than blasting down the Crest, or maybe that new copper-free brake pad material has cured these ills because I was never aware of any fade and never detected a whiff of brake smoke in the Durango Hellcat.
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The SRT 392 and Hellcat essentially share the three-position Bilstein adaptive damping suspension used by its racy Grand Cherokee kin. But since the unkind declaration that “the Trackhawk’s handling performance is perhaps most kindly described as ‘sharp as a hammer,'” the SRT gang has added internal rebound springs to the dampers for 2021. This change allows the main-spring rates to come down slightly to improve the ride frequency. And because these rebound springs help the shocks limit body roll without increasing the anti-roll bar stiffness, tire contact with the pavement and single-bump head-toss are enhanced in the bargain. Another small change for Hellcat duty: The Durango’s upper rear damper mounts are stiffened by 18 percent.
2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat: Garfield Goes to the Gym
Having missed all our recent BDC SUV play-in contests, I lack direct contextual experience of driving the hot-shoe European performance SUVs in anger, but this Durango Hellcat impressed me by how thoroughly it conceals its 5,700-pound mass. It manages to jink through road course kinks with the cartoonish agility of Mr. Incredible while connecting corners as quickly as his son Dash. In 2018, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk’s lack of braking power and insufficient body-motion control prompted Collin Woodard to say: “I ran out of desire to go faster long before I ran out of grip.” By contrast, in this setting, the Durango Hellcat’s chassis composure and braking power continued to bolster my confidence with every lapping session, such that my desire to go faster never plateaued.
I finally discovered just how fast the Durango Hellcat can circulate this track at the end of the day when I climbed in for a session with SRT vehicle dynamics guru Erich Heuschele at the wheel. Understanding the Durango Hellcat’s capabilities as well as he does, Heuschele left his braking until way later in each corner, entering at even higher speeds. We both agreed that feeling the g forces this truck is capable of generating just never gets old.
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2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat: A Tale of Two Kitties
On the face of it, the Hellcat’s a screaming deal, delivering 49 percent more power and 36 percent more torque (good for a quarter-mile performance improvement of about 13 percent) for only 28 percent more money (the SRT 392 starts at $64,490). Then again, the SRT 392 sounds nicer, it’s around 10 to 15 percent more fuel-efficient, and it pretty much shares the Hellcat’s suspension, tires, and optionally (for $1,295) its brakes. The SRT 392 I hot-lapped lacked the optional two-piece front rotors, and as such, I lacked the confidence to dive deeply into turns. Its lighter-duty 8HP70 transmission also shifted less firmly, inducing a slight shudder to the vehicle on each upshift. We’re told the Hellcat is about 1.5 seconds quicker around a 2.5-mile road circuit.
Left in its default Auto drive mode, the Hellcat doesn’t seem much more extreme than the SRT 392 we recently compared with an Explorer ST. The ride is definitely crisper than that of the long-term Durango R/T I chaperoned for a year, making occupants more aware of road surface irregularities. Of course, this is amplified in Sport mode. The Hellcat’s exhaust note gets a little obnoxious when cruising in any gear at engine speeds around 1,500 rpm, and drivers must recalibrate their accelerator ankle, as moderate acceleration from a stop in a turn can provoke sufficient tire scratch to draw attention. Ever the willing accomplice, the Durango Hellcat’s transmission will instantly switch to its Sport algorithm even in Auto mode if the driver suddenly makes sporty control inputs.
Interior upgrades for 2021, headlined by FCA’s Uconnect 5 system and a bigger 10.1-inch touchscreen, make this a much nicer daily driver. A new, more horizontal dash design shares more of a family resemblance with those of the Dodge Charger and Challenger while still preserving the soft and sewn materials we praised in past Durangos. The 200-mph speedometer with its 180-degree sweep is laughably illegible (you’ll be monitoring the digital speed readout up to its 180-mph claimed top speed), and the wireless charging tray needs much taller fencing to keep a phone corralled even during moderate acceleration, braking, or cornering.
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2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat: Nine Lives
How would the 5,700-pound, 710-hp, $82,490 Durango SRT Hellcat fared against our recent comparison test’s field of hot utes, which averaged 5,180 pounds, 571 hp, and $132,000? I know better than to imagine anything this big could deliver an overall better driving experience than the lithe Competition versions of the BMW X3 M and X6 M we tested, let alone the Cayenne Turbo Coupe. But I’ll bet it’d have muscled ahead of the aging Maserati Levante and the anodyne Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S. Let’s just hope that by the time we stage our next BDC play-in for SUVs, the Durango Hellcat will still be in production. This particular engine and vehicle-class fitment faces evaporative emissions regulation troubles that will limit it to a single model year. Get one while it lasts.
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