How to bungle a product launch – my Dodge Charger Hellcat story so far

Update: I cancelled my Hellcat order and bought an Evora S instead. The week after I cancelled Dodge announced that they were canceling all remaining 2015 Hellcat orders and that folks would have to find new dealers and get in line again for a 2016. Well Fuck You Dodge!!!

I’ve never been a fan of muscle cars!

Growing up in India I never got to see any in person and Top Gear was pretty much my only window to the automotive world. This meant that I skipped American cars and instead was always a fan of the european supercars and had posters of the Ferrari F40 and Lamborghini Diablo on my bedroom wall. After moving to the US I did begin to appreciate price to performance ratio of cars like the Mustang but was only ever interested in buying small lightweight sports cars (NB Miata and Elise) myself. All of that changed when I bought the Seven – while it weighs only 1400 lbs it does have 240 hp which gives it a power to weight ratio in excess of 375 hp per ton. Driving around on the street and passing people with the barest touch of the throttle finally made me understand the attraction of insanely overpowered family cars. An AMG or M sedan became something I really wanted but in the end I just could not justify spending $100k+ on a sedan that would be worth less than $40k in 10 years. I did come close to pulling the trigger on the 556hp CTS-V station wagon but in the end felt it didnt have enough space for the dogs in the back and we ended up buying a Ford Flex Ecoboost instead.

This order of things was shaken up when Dodge announced the 2015 Charger SRT Hellcat in August 2014. Here was the chance to buy a 707hp 4 door sedan with a full factory warranty for just $65k. Plus looking at the existing prices on used Charger SRTs they appeared to hold their prices pretty well and I’d hopefully see a depreciation curve like the Elise where the prices drop for a while before they stabilize and then start inching up. The final push over the edge was provided by this wonderful review of the Challenger Hellcat by my buddy Jonny Lieberman:

Cruising through the rapidly gentrifying streets of downtown Los Angeles in a 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat the other evening, I came upon a white Bentley. Some sort of Continental, and for the sake of rhetorical flourish, let’s assume she was a GT Speed. Fast car, no? What with 616 horsepower from a twin-turbo W-12, it ought to be. Yet all I could think while every single muscle and tendon in my right ankle suddenly went taught was, “Aw, poor Bentley! You’ve only got around 600 horsepower. Keep trying, little guy, you’ll get there.” A hair-trigger throttle and 707 hp do strange things to a man’s mind. Then I mashed the gas and, well friends, the smile’s still there. Strange things to a man’s face, too.

I started calling the various local Dodge dealers to see if they were taking deposits for the Charger Hellcat. I knew that the Hellcats (Challenger and Charger) were hotly anticipated cars but I was not expecting the level of slime I ran into at the dealers. Every singe dealer wanted me to “come in” and no one was willing to give me information over the phone. Request to be transferred to the sales manager were ignored while no one would disclose information about markups or the length of their waiting list. The dealers I physically visited wanted non-refundable deposits as well as a markup on a car whose price was yet to be announced.

After talking to all of these folks I felt like I had to take a shower and was ready to walk away from the Hellcat when someone on one of the Dodge forums mentioned Bob Fredericks as a fair dealer to talk to. He had a great reputation on the Challenger forums and even had Dodge make a custom run of 10 “Kowalski edition” Challengers to celebrate the movie Vanishing Point. I gave him a call and found that he was willing to answer my three main questions: is there a markup, how long is your waiting list and is the deposit refundable. He guaranteed me MSRP, I would be his first Charger HC order and the deposit was refundable till Dodge picked up the order. It was a pleasure to talk to someone who actually gave me straight answers and I ended up placing a deposit on Aug 28, 2014 and settled down to wait for Dodge to actually open the ordering process. Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis on multiple occasions said that the Hellcats would not be limited production cars and that they would build as many orders as they received. I figured that even if it took a while, as the first person on Bob Fredericks Charger list I would eventually get the car I wanted at MSRP.

Dodge finally opened the Challenger Hellcat ordering process in the US on 9-Sept-14 and said that the car would start on an “allocation” basis with the initial spots decided based on the total number of Dodge cars sold by the dealer in the previous 180 days. This meant that the larger city dealers would be getting many more cars than the rural dealers and meant that people on lists at a smaller dealer might be in for a long wait. They also said that future allocations would then be based on the number of days the hellcats spent on the lot – this was supposed to help combat markups as the higher markup cars would sit on the lot for longer periods. In the end Dodge received over 5000 orders for the Challenger hellcat in the first month which was wildly over all their internal projections.

Since the Charger Hellcat ordering was not yet open, I kept an eye on the Challenger HC allocation process and while information on the process was thin on the ground, it looked like Bob Frederick was getting 1 Challenger HC per month which made me feel pretty good about being the first Charger HC on his list. After a couple of false start order day roumours in December orders for the US officially opened on 12-Jan-15 and Bob sent me a purchase order confirmation which showed my order config along with my build priority of #1 (sold order).

Now that my order was officially in I started spending much more time on the forums and found that a good number of the folks that ordered the Charger immediately got a VIN number as well as a scheduled build date while I was left dangling. That said I never expected to get the first car built so I settled down for what I figured would be a reasonably short wait as I was #1 on the list and a lot of people with Chargers appeared to be progressing quickly. Then on February 27th as the first Charger Hellcats were getting built, the official Chrysler blog had an interesting message that pissed of a huge number of people.

Gualberto Ranieri, Senior VP of Communications for the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles posted an insane message that actually blamed dealers for taking too many orders:

Overall, our independently owned and operated Dodge dealers have been doing a great job managing Hellcat orders. However, a small number of dealers are engaging in a practice that is causing a customer relations issue for FCA US LLC and all of its dealers. Specifically, this handful of dealers appears to have accepted large numbers of SRT Hellcat orders without regard to available supply and without advising their customers that orders may not be filled, if at all, for many months or longer. We believe such a practice may constitute a breach of the Dealer’s Sales and Service Agreement with FCA US LLC and a violation of other applicable laws.

So according to Mr Ranieri, dealers have been taking too many orders for a car that Dodge has repeatedly said will not be in limited production and that they will make as many as people ask for. Additionally rather than wondering why people are flocking to a small number of dealers and trying to replicate they successful model, he instead is threatening some of the most trustworthy and respected Mopar dealers with legal action for being too good at their job. FCA must be the only company on earth where they yell at salesmen for being too good at their job – “Sorry Bob, you are flunking this course for being too far ahead of your peers”. And if they really did have an upper limit on how many cars a dealer should order, why the hell did they let dealers keep inputing orders? I may not work in enterprise ordering systems but I do know enough about computers to know that its not very difficult to put in a maximum limit on the number of things someone can order.

So in order to “fix” this ordering situation Dodge released the following flow chart on how to find out if your dealer has available allocation for a Hellcat:

While making customers navigate a flow chart to buy a car is a bad idea to begin with, this entire process has a few additional problems. The key pieces of info you need to use the chart are:

  1. Does the Dealer have a Hellcat in X-Stock?
  2. Does the Dealer have a Hellcat in C-KZ status?
  3. Did the dealer have a Hellcat in stock for over 5 days last month?
  4. Dealer rank by total Dodge sales (90 days)

Now you may have noticed that none of this information is publicly available to the customer on the street. Instead you have to ask the dealer and take their word for anything they say. Now of course car salesmen are known paragons of virtue and will never lie. For example the 3 salesmen at Stewart Dodge who in December told me that Dodge had not yet built any Hellcats and that the number of cars to be produced would be decided in January based purely on CAFE numbers. These wonderful gentlemen also wanted a $10k non-refundable deposit and would not tell me how many orders they had already taken. Rather than rewarding dealers who have larger order books (primarily due to their transparency and lack of markup), Dodge is instead dinging them for it and is rewarding slimeball dealers with cars despite the fact that no one is ordering from them.

Additionally having a single combined allocation list for both the Charger and the Challenger does not make any sense when the Charger allocations opened several months after the Challenger. I have the #1 Charger spot at my dealer, sent in a refundable deposit in August and got a VON on Jan 12. However this dealer also has several people that placed Challenger orders in November and now you expect him to decide which person gets that single allocation? It would not be fair to the Challenger folks waiting since September to do my car but its also not fair to penalize me for Dodge only allowing Charger HC orders in January.

In the end the blog post created a huge uproar in the various blogs, was picked up by several automotive magazines and sites and generally made Dodge look even worse than before. The comments on the blog post were universally negative and while the post is still up, insiders say that Dodge quickly realized that they had added gasoline to the fire and are working on yet another way to allocate the cars. That said it has been a month since the post and there have been no official updates from Dodge.

At this point I have been on the dealers waiting list with cash down for 213 days of which 76 days have been spent as a sold order in the Dodge computer system. Dodge has delivered over 350 Charger HCs already but at this point I have no idea if and when I will get a car on my own. The fact that my dealer is widely assumed to be one of the ones that the blog post has been aimed at has not made me feel any better while the complete radio silence from Dodge corporate is only adding to the frustration. I am no stranger to waiting for a custom built car – I waited 155 days to get my Elise but in that case both Lotus and my dealer were up front about the process and the expected delay. I am going to hang on for the moment but at this rate I might be better of joining a waitlist for the new Ford Focus RS as there is a decent chance that it might actually get here before my Hellcat.

The only good thing about this whole idiotic situation is that I finally have a valid use case for the following meme.
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3 thoughts on “How to bungle a product launch – my Dodge Charger Hellcat story so far

  1. Well put Rahul! Dodge should have looked at what MINI did when they were selling cars much faster than they could produce them. Waited 11 months for my Cooper S and knew the proposed delivery date almost to the day when I ordered. Got to watch on line where my order was, got to actually watch my car being built and track it around the globe right to my dealer. Waiting was still hard, but it was all so up front and honest it actually put my faith back into new car buying. Same thing with my custom ordered BMW. honesty and integrity might be a foreign car thing because my experience buying my custom ordered Silverado HD 2500 was a disaster of epic proportions and I was charged way over the original negotiated price.

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