Modern muscle is hanging on
On paper, the muscle car is an endangered species. Every trend in the auto industry says so. As a group, muscle cars are brash, thirsty, and impractical. They are the opposite of the efficient amorphous crossovers that consumers are flocking to.
But they can still be found swaggering around roads all over the US, because the appeal of the muscle car is very simple and hard to suppress. You drop a giant V8 into a stylish car, and optimize for coolness, straight-line speed, and volume — in that order.
Their simplicity means muscle cars come at remarkably affordable prices for what they offer, backing up their blue-collar image. Nothing is more bang-for-your-buck than American muscle.
Many a muscle has been lost to the winds of time and demands of the market (RIP Pontiac, Mercury, Plymouth, AMC, Oldsmobile, Buick — Buick is still around, but come on). The surviving marques have narrowed their sporty and muscley models down to whatever can be justified by sales numbers. After oil crises, the 2008 recession, and the emergence of the EV, only four names remain to carry on the muscle car torch: Challenger, Charger, Mustang, and Camaro.
By strict definitions, the Dodge Challenger is the purest muscle car on sale today. It’s a mean and hulking coupe that makes up for shortcomings in refinement and cornering ability with sheer power and brute strength. Even though the current generation is over 10 years old now, the Challenger is still the reigning king of unapologetic attitude.
The base Challenger is plenty aggressive and comes with an impressive 305-hp Pentastar V6, but if you’re looking for proper American muscle, we recommend a Challenger with a V8. Dodge’s Hemi V8 comes in increasingly massive sizes and offers all the growly menace you expect from a muscle car.
Up the food chain a few rungs prowls the Challenger Hellcat. The Hellcat pumps out a ludicrous 707 horsepower from a supercharged 6.2L Hemi V8, and is not for the faint of heart. It comes with two keys: a black one that limits the engine to only 500 horsepower, and a red one that unleashes all 707 angry horses. Choose wisely.
But the Hellcat is not even the Challenger’s final form. Introducing the Dodge Demon: the quickest and most powerful American production car ever made. This insane freak is the muscle car taken to its ultimate extreme. When properly equipped, the 840-hp (840!!!) Demon munches quarter mile dragstrips in 9.6 seconds — from the factory. Only about 3,000 Demons were made, and each one is an object lesson in America’s unreasonable and singular obsession with power. The Dodge Demon is the king of muscle, and because of the direction of the industry, there is a good chance it will hold that title forever.
The Charger is Dodge’s other offering in the muscle department. Unlike the Chargers of old, the current Charger comes with four doors and two rows of seats. For all its flexing haunches and furrowed brows, the Charger can be a comfortable, affordable daily driver and requires very few compromises, even with the power turned up to 11.
The Charger comes in similar packages as its brother the Challenger, but the added space makes it a more usable option. Usable, however, doesn’t mean it’s not just as menacing. Hemi V8s galore and a Hellcat variant keep the Charger firmly within the muscle car family. With a 200-mph top speed, the 707-hp Charger Hellcat is the fastest production sedan in the world. Ever. Its relative practicality and potential for devastating performance are a sign of the times — modern muscle cars sacrifice surprisingly little in their pursuit of power.
Now in its sixth generation, the original pony car is as iconic as ever. Thanks to a bevy of upgrades, Ford’s prized pony is now an impressive and more efficient driver, but the Mustang retains and even builds on its status as the wild American West’s ambassador of muscle.
We think the current Mustang looks good. Real good. Plus, it has independent rear suspension, magnetic dampers, and a bunch of other stuff that makes it a bonafide driver’s car that even Europeans will find accurate and capable around some twisties. It can come with Ford’s punchy 4-cylinder EcoBoost for those who value efficiency, but the 5.0 is still the engine to get if you’re looking to drive a “real Mustang.”
The Mustang GT is more powerful and more capable than ever. The 5.0 V8 makes 460 horsepower and 420 lb-ft and pushes the Mustang to 60 mph in under four seconds — numbers that were reserved for supercars just 25 years ago. It’s fast, loud, stylish, comfortable, and comes at a reasonable price. What’s not to like?
The Mustang GT is the standard for affordable V8-powered fun, but if you’re looking for elevated and unrelenting performance, you want the best Mustang. Which Mustang is the best Mustang? The one called Shelby. This is America, everyone knows that. With the 536-hp Shelby GT350 (and GT350 R), you get a lightened, hardened, track-focused monster that is the highest form of Mustang you can get from the factory. The pony is alive and well and remains the flag-bearer for the unbridled V8-powered American spirit.
To some, the Camaro has always played second fiddle to the Mustang. The ultra-cool coupe is Chevy’s only sporty model outside the Corvette, and the Camaro ranges from stylish budget cruisers to track-day monsters.
While the styling seems to have been Chevy’s primary concern when designing the Camaro, its athletic stance and sharp, gaping jaws are backed up by the powerplant under the hood. The Camaro SS rides its V8 to the tune of 455 horsepower, which is just five off the Mustang GT’s number. Other performance benchmarks are similarly matched with the Mustang GT, keeping the Camaro-Mustang rivalry as alive today as it was in the ‘60s.
While the Mustang’s final evolution is the Shelby GT350, the Camaro’s is the ZL1. The 2018 ZL1 is the most powerful Camaro ever produced, spitting out 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque from its supercharged 6.2L V8 (borrowed from the Corvette Z06). Those massive numbers propel the ZL1 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, which is very fast. But the Camaro ZL1 is more than a dragstrip hero. Magnetic ride control, rear multilink suspension, and other motorsport-inspired features have led to blistering Nurburgring lap times that put the Camaro ZL1 up there with almost any other American car.