Affordable Muscle: Why Dodge is the People’s Automaker

Chrysler, Mopar, Dodge. Call it what you want. But over the past decade, they did something incredible. The Mopar gang stuck two flaming middle fingers in the air and said:

Hey America, do you want 500 horsepower? Have it for the price of a minivan!

There’s never been a better—or cheaper—time to have a really fast car.

But they didn’t stop there. The saints in the Dodge design department stuck their monster motors into just about everything. Then they gave it to the drooling masses for the same price as a mid-size SUV. Here’s how it happened and why Dodge loves giving us what we want.

Early Muscle Car Resurgence

The mid-2000s saw the resurgence of the American muscle car in the form of the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro. These cars came with nostalgic styling, which was a massive improvement over the earlier bubble cars.

Then came the Dodge Challenger in 2007, with its retro exterior and throwback front clip. To many gearheads, it was immediately apparent that the Challenger stood out. It had great potential, but it wasn’t perfect just yet.

At the time, the Challenger was fundamentally still a crash-era Chrysler product. Reliability was ‘meh,’ and the interior styling was dated. On the outside, it was a cool car. But the pre-FCA Challenger was essentially just a kitted-up 300 with nicer lines.

Americans choked on record-high fuel prices when the economy took a nosedive. The ‘experts’ said that the public was more interested in efficiency than flashy power. Chrysler was dead, and GM was drowning in a sea of debt and brittle plastic. Even Ford was feeling the heat, and it seemed like the era of big V8s and fun domestic cars was over.

Testing the Water

Fiat bought the majority stake of Chrysler in 2011. Many of us thought the event marked the end of interesting Dodge products. After all, how could a company that makes Little Tikes cars for grown-ups save Mopar?

Oh, how wrong we were.

Around the same time, engineers at Chrysler were scheming. In 2011, with the intent of bringing the limited production SRT8 to a wider market, they took a modified 6.4-liter HEMI and stuck it in a Challenger. The new engine unapologetically displaced 392 cubic inches, harkening back to the legendary days of the 1960s and 1970s horsepower wars.

In previous years, ‘big daddy’ challengers were only available in limited quantities domestically. SRT8s came with a 6.1-liter V8, which was respectable but nothing that a few grand and a carbureted 454 couldn’t squash.

But the 6.4 was different. This modified HEMI block barked out 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque, and it now occupied a familiar body style at a price comparable to entry-level sports imports. The new SRT8 was a fast and popular model, and it hailed the beginning of a spectacular brand comeback.

Dodge Hellcat Changes the Game

Thanks to the SRT8, Dodge’s reputation and sales rose steadily. Driving a Mopar was respectable again. The Challenger and the Charger were no longer copies of earlier and greater cars—they were true performance machines.

Fast forward to 2014. Automakers were experimenting with anemic eco-engines and turbocharged sixes. Ford and Chevy were hanging out in stuffy boardrooms collecting carbon credits and further eroding their selection of cool motors.

Oh boy. A 1.1-liter quad-turbo v3 engine with all-cylinder deactivation and auto start/stop. How exciting.

But while GM and F were busy cutting coupons, those salivating Dodge engineers were at it again with their pencils. In a burst of patriotic zeal, Dodge ripped the filter off its cigarette and nuked the market with something amazing:

A blown 6.2L HEMI in a production sedan.

Overnight, America’s most powerful production car was available to the public. You could have a Hellcat with two or four doors, an automatic or manual transmission, and whatever luxuries you wanted.

700 horsepower was in a showroom near you. And if the $78,000 bill was too high, you could have a 485-horsepower Scat Pack for half the price. Dealerships ate it up.

“Have cloth seats. Have leather seats. Add a shaker hood or pinstripes. Hell, we’ll put your goddam name on the side. Can we interest you in a complimentary muffler delete?”

The 2015 model came with a bold facelift which retained the best styling elements of previous years. The interior was perfected with an exciting redesign and a tasteful retro touch.

The Challenger and the Charger were now perfect.

The public was eager to throw money at the fastest cars they’d probably ever own. And as their popularity increased, an entirely new car culture formed around America’s most affordable speed.

Horsepower for the People

Today, there’s a Dodge product for everyone. The R/T is the new Plymouth Duster for teenagers, and serious car guys love the affordable 392 Scat Pack. And you’re sure to see Hellcat roll by from time to time.

The Challenger is perfect for single guys, and it’s permanently cemented into the cultural zeitgeist as a ‘cool’ car. The Charger is a practical sedan with unrivaled power potential. Even Jeep rode the wave, and now you can get a Grand Cherokee with a Hellcat engine.

In 2021, you’ll find cheap new muscle cars in widespread use by the general public and a far greater number at street races and car shows.

Dodge also cracked the social media code by showing people what they actually wanted to see: Badass cars drifting through clouds of tire smoke, calling out to the average person as if to say, “this could be you.” And for the first time in decades, it really could be.