Tim Kuniskis, the head of Stellantis’s Dodge brand, has been running a non-stop marketing marathon that would test the endurance of the most seasoned auto executive.
First, the top evangelist for Challenger and Charger muscle cars briefed reporters at the company’s design dome in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Then he mingled with drag-racing YouTube stars ahead of a Dodge-sponsored weekend race. Then he was emcee for three nights in a row of product reveals, all building up to the moment of truth: Dodge’s unveiling of an all-electric muscle car, the Charger Daytona SRT.
Kuniskis says the growling, aerodynamic beast with an 800-volt battery closely resembles a production vehicle Dodge will bring to market in 2024. There’s a lot at stake in how the car plays with the brand’s core drag-racing fans, which is why Dodge has done its best to recreate the experience of revving a V-8 with the instant torque of a roughly 700-pound battery.
Electric vehicles provoke resentment for some drag racers, who view them as the spawn of regulators frowning on 800-plus-horsepower engines and the greenhouse gases they emit. There’s also the fear EVs threaten to take the human creativity out of the sport.
As one young drag racer at Dodge’s speed fest explained, someone will spend a bunch of money to build their car and tune it to peak performance, only for a Tesla Model S Plaid right off the showroom floor to beat them on the strip. What’s the point of customizing your hot rod when some jerk with $130,000 to drop can show you up?
Kuniskis is doing his best to fight against commoditization. While most EVs on the road today are single-speed, the Charger Daytona has a multi-speed transmission with electronic and mechanical shifting, so the driver can still feel like they’re physically connected to the car’s propulsion. He also wants to keep customization alive.
The BEV Charger will offer “slam” and “donut” modes that owners can unlock by buying components from the brand’s aftermarket parts unit. Dodge resurrected the unit, Direct Connection, earlier this year, partly to assure its fan base that it’ll continue to support their hobby long after the last gas-powered muscle car rolls off the line next year.
Of all the ingredients that make muscle cars stand out from the “nothingburger” sedans Kuniskis likes to mock, there are two things Dodge can’t mess up: power and sound. He won’t talk about the Daytona’s specs yet, but the company says it’ll be faster than its 700-plus horsepower Hellcat models.
“If they’re gonna jump into this electric game, they need to be the king of electricity. They need to come with the power,” said Herman Young, who runs a drag-racing YouTube channel called Demonology and attended the festivities this week in Pontiac, Michigan.
Young isn’t resisting the EV revolution — his wife drives a Model Y — but he’s wistful when he talks about how quiet EVs are, and what this will mean for the brotherhood of muscle.
“Humans, we equate speed with sound, and until we get used to making that adjustment, it’s going to take some of the excitement out of it,” he said. “Sound is power in the era we grew up.”
Kuniskis has an answer for that, too. Dodge engineers took the firing order of a V-8 engine and used it to create a sound that’s amplified with air pushed through a chambered exhaust system. The result is an electronic roar, sort of like a cybernetic jaguar, with a low-idling purr or high-pitched whine when the car shuts off.
“It’s opening as many questions as it’s answering, with all the sound and the multi-speed transmission,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for S&P Global Mobility who attended Dodge’s events this week. “What it says most importantly is, ‘We will still be a muscle car, we will still give you that visceral reaction, we will be sure it triggers the emotions that the current car does.’”
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