2021 Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat First Test: This SUV Goes Like a Scalded Viper
Is it wrong that every time we fired up the 2021 Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat, we got a vivid mental image of our entire family screaming while we attacked a decreasing radius off-ramp, a gleeful cackle on our lips as the Dodge’s rear end hung out wide? It takes serious restraint—restraint that we’re not sure we have—not to antagonize passengers with this 710-hp, SUV-shaped mass driver. Or perhaps it would thrill them—your passengers might be more amenable to physics experiments than some of ours. Either way, do everybody a favor and ask first.
Whoever’s in the Durango Hellcat and whatever their interest level in testing the limits, there’s no denying it’s a formidable machine. Maybe absurd is more accurate. It’s not like there’s something novel about the Durango’s mechanicals—it’s standard Hellcat stuff, with an all-wheel-drive system closely related to that in the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk—but it feels awfully novel to roll around with the knowledge that this family hauler can run an 11.7-second quarter mile at 117.3 mph. The bizarre juxtaposition of drag-strip prowess and strip-mall practicality makes it all infinitely more entertaining.
The Durango Hellcat never lets you forget it’s not your average mall-crawler. The exterior clearly communicates the Durango’s adrenaline enhancement, its deep basso profundo exhaust note is a movie adventure soundtrack, and it cracks on like you’ve dropped a Mentos into a bottle of carbonated thunder. The 3.4-second run to 60 mph we put down in testing does the thunder metaphor justice, with crackling sound and a furious supercharger whine. This is a three-row SUV that weighs fifty-five hundred and twelve pounds on our scales, yet it will rip to 100 mph in 8.4 seconds.
Even the context you must use to understand the Durango Hellcat’s capabilities is baffling. The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500? It’s as much as 0.3 second slower to 60 mph. 2016 Dodge Viper ACR? Dead heat. And the Durango’s close to both at the end of the quarter-mile, too. All-wheel drive and excellent launch-control programming play a strong role in converting the Durango Hellcat’s 710 horsepower into forward thrust, admittedly, but that shouldn’t diminish the impressive company this SUV keeps.
Our test team, who’s seen (and measured) it all, isn’t likely to offer praise unless it’s warranted. But the logbook records admiration, praise, and a stark reality: “Wow, this thing is quick,” associate road test editor Erick Ayapana noted. That’s an assessment that even a few minutes of driving on the street confirms wholeheartedly. And yet the fury doesn’t explode forth unless you’ve summoned it with an intentional swat of the throttle. Drive it gently, and it’s a tame big cat, purring all the while.
If there’s one thing that stops the Durango Hellcat (and most Hellcats we’ve tested, actually) from achieving all-around excellence, it’s the brakes. On the street and in testing, on two different examples, all drivers noted uninspired brake performance. The numbers from brake testing aren’t bad—a best stop of 110 feet from 60 mph, right on par with performance SUVs like the 2020 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio or the 2020 Audi SQ7, but a long pedal and iffy feel influence driver confidence. On our figure-eight course, road test editor Chris Walton noted that “the brakes are only barely adequate to slow this thing down from the speeds it goes.” In a controlled environment, that’s inconvenient, but when you’re romping on the Durango Hellcat on a fun stretch of road, it can be downright discomforting.
On the skidpad, the Durango Hellcat managed a suitably impressive 0.90 g average, nearly as much lateral grip as, say, a 2020 Subaru WRX (0.92 g). But this is another instance where the skidpad doesn’t tell the whole tale. Running the Durango Hellcat through our figure-eight test, in which its 25.0-second time at an average of 0.77 g almost squeaked by the formidable Stelvio Quadrifoglio, revealed some more unsettling behavior under hard acceleration, in particular a diagonal pogoing motion that may have caused the front wheel to lift. Pair that behavior with the unnerving brake feel, and it’s clear that despite the Durango Hellcat’s abilities, there are clear trade-offs. Even so, the Durango Hellcat proved benign in other respects, offering up only mild understeer and even allowing Walton to coax oversteer on command on the skidpad.
Back on the street, pushed to a lesser degree, the Durango Hellcat’s trade-offs are less apparent. Body motion is extremely well controlled, without the head-toss issues that can affect other tall performance machines. Credit goes to new internal rebound springs in the dampers, which limit body roll without stiffer anti-roll bars. The Durango’s mass is always apparent, but the suspension refinement makes back-road hustling more enjoyable. Nor does it get too unsettled if the road gets choppy mid-turn.
Park to catch your breath and look around the cabin, and there’s good and bad news. Our test vehicle came equipped with the Premium Interior Group, and it does a great job of dressing up the aging bones underlying this recently refreshed cabin. The “forged carbon” interior accents—something most enthusiasts associate with Lamborghini—work hand in hand with the synthetic suede accents and meaty steering wheel to give it the appropriate sporty swagger.As in any six-seat Durango, stretch-out space in the first two rows is quite good, and third-row room is decent enough. Some ergonomic quibbles remain: The instruments are nigh illegible, and the phone charging pad doesn’t corral a device nearly well enough to prevent it from flying away during enthusiastic driving.
The thrust, though, never gets old. Imagine a lowly Durango SRT 392 with a quartet of JATO bottles hung off the flanks, and you’ll get the idea. With great power comes great responsibility, however—the responsibility to watch the fuel needle, which appears to plummet before your eyes as the supercharger crams air and gas into the engine at a frenetic pace. Its EPA rating of 12/17/13 mpg city/highway/combined must have been achieved by black magic, as the Durango’s cluster never indicated more than 9 mpg in mixed driving. Yes, there was a fair share of full-throttle romping … but who’s superhuman enough to resist the Hellcat’s thrust all the time?
No one. For better or worse, the Durango Hellcat is all about being big: big numbers, big thirst, big utility, and a big price tag: $82,490 to start and $88,470 as tested. Find another three-row SUV that can outperform the Durango Hellcat for less and you’ve found a hell of a deal. And, sadly, that’s what you’ll have to do. The Durango Hellcat is a one-model-year-only affair, and all 2,000 examples sold out back in January. Don’t expect to get a deal on the secondhand market, either. For the lucky few who secured one of their own, enjoy the tail-out shenanigans, but please secure the approval of your passengers—and your phone—beforehand.
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