Finding Finesse in Muscle It's unlikely that the world will see cars like this again any time soon, if ever. By Jason Kavanagh Date posted: 08-09-2009 Action movie sequels always have bigger explosions and a faster-moving plot than the original film. They also have evil-er villains and bigger budgets. Which gave us an idea... In our recent pony car comparison test, the retro-heavy — and just plain heavy — 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS walked away with top honors in its debut. The big V8-powered coupe needed a new challenge. It was time to refocus the lens. Shoot from a different angle, so to speak. So we squared the brooding visage of our SS-badged protagonist up against the cruelest bunch of savages we could find, the range-topping 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 and 2010 Ford Shelby GT500. If one villain is good, two is better. Just ask Michael Bay. Bigger Budgets, Louder Booms Don't let the retro vibe fool you. These modern interpretations have civility in spades. That is, until you want to act like a jackass. It's a run-what-you-brung grudge match of the biggest guns Detroit has to offer. Sticker price alone did not rule out any contenders this time around, but value still counts — the baddest in the land still has to be able to pass a basic accounting test. Our one stipulation is that each car must have a manual gearbox. This is a test of drivers' cars, after all. At its core, the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS is a coupe version of GM's platform for its Thunder from Down Under, the Holden Commodore. The Commodore was the first example of this rear-wheel-drive platform with independent rear suspension that also begat the Pontiac G8 (pour a little out). Our Camaro SS tester is equipped with $2,600 in options, including the RS package, a power sunroof and an interior trim package, bringing its final tally to $36,825. The roots of the 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 are just as twisted. Its chassis started life eons ago as a Mercedes E-Class, then it was dusted off by Chrysler during its ill-fated corporate liaison with Mercedes and turned into the numerous Charger and 300C variants, and then finally the platform was chopped slightly smaller for duty as the Challenger. The SRT8 treatment throws more engine cubes and a sport-tuned suspension at the Challenger and brings the base price up to $42,245 with destination and gas-guzzler tax. Its six-speed manual gearbox, navigation system and other options bring our SRT8 tester's grand total to $44,975. Newly refreshed but looking quite familiar, the 2010 Ford Shelby GT500 draws heavily from the limited-production GT500KR from last year. The GT500's sticker starts at $48,175 including destination and gas-guzzler tax, and once you add the HID headlights and Electronics package of our tester, the total comes to a cool $50,895. 3rd Place: 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 The SRT8's lack of superfluous cladding or overly obvious design cues is refreshing, it may be the best looking car of the three. The SRT8 also managed the quickest slalom speed of our test. The Challenger's cabin may not be ambitiously styled, but it is functional and screwed together well. It has the best backseat and trunk of the bunch too. It's encouraging that an automaker thinks manual transmissions are cool enough to modernize a nostalgic artifact like the pistol-grip shifter. Math can't do a burnout or scratch 2nd gear, but it can provide clues regarding the performance to expect from the Challenger SRT8. Each of the SRT8's 425 horsepower is saddled with 9.8 pounds, while the tamer R/T from the last test burdens each pony with 10.8 pounds. The nerds would suggest that the SRT8 should be about 10 percent quicker. Or not. The SRT8 posts a 5.3-second run to 60 mph (5.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and trips a 13.6-second quarter-mile at 104 mph. These results best the R/T by a scant few tenths and less than 1 mph, suggesting that the SRT8 crew had aspects of performance beyond acceleration on their minds when crafting this über-est of all Challengers. Early indications are promising. Braking the Dodge from 60 mph consumes 114 feet, exactly the same as the Chevy and longer than the GT500 by just 3 feet. Fade resistance is good, too, considering we're talking about 4,152 pounds of German-cum-American iron. Then the SRT8 posts a best-in-test 67.6-mph slalom run, suggesting that this Challenger will have no peer once we get away from the drag strip. However, we found that its result between the cones doesn't translate into a superior experience on real-world roads. Its handling manners are very good, but the SRT8 communicates too little and isolates too much. Though more alert than the R/T, the deliberate, slightly under-damped ride motions still suggest that you're driving the car from a family-room recliner. Among the biggest offenders are its sudsy brake pedal and overboosted, slow steering. With precious little information transmitted about the state of the front tires, your faith in their mechanical grip will be tested. You twirl in some steering lock expecting the nose to wither instantly into shuddering understeer, yet the SRT8 hangs on. It turns in responsively and corners flatly, clinging to the tarmac with more tenacity than you expect, even with prior knowledge that its ultimate grip on the skid pad is only 0.85g. The SRT8 gets it done, but this is a big, heavy car that drives even bigger and heavier than it is. From the evocative styling to its easy-rider damping and syrupy driveline lash, the Challenger is best at stirring memories. Anyone who ever rolled a cigarette pack into his T-shirt sleeve will find it sensational even when parked. None of the painstaking handiwork that crafted the nostalgic sheet metal found its way into the cabin, though. The pistol-grip shifter gleams like Excalibur plunged into a plinth of indifference, as the interior is a dark hole with little inspiration. Functionally, though, it is difficult to fault aside from the clunky multimedia interface. You also have to roll down the windows to relish the period-perfect pitch of the 6.1-liter pushrod V8 at full whack, since the cocoonlike cabin does a comprehensive job of filtering out noise. Add in niceties like the telescoping wheel, hill-start assist function and automatic climate control, and the SRT8 proves a great cruiser. So it turns out that even in SRT8 guise the Challenger still hasn't morphed into a racetrack refugee. Even so, the 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is the most faithful re-creation of a 1960s muscle car yet devised in modern times, adding modern polish to the best bits of the past. It's just careful not to stray too far from the original formula. 2nd Place: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS The 2010 Camaro SS is the best-sorted Camaro yet. It doesn't forgo its roots, though. The Camaro's cabin is mix of old and new cues. Huge shift knob doesn't fit human hands correctly. Twenty-inch wheels with Pirelli tires are standard on SS models. In the time since it topped our previous pony-car comparison test, we've courted the all-new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS on familiar roads and cozied it up with our usual testing venue. Call it a second date. Our first impressions remain unchanged. The Camaro's tremendously stiff chassis allowed GM engineers to dial in the friendliest ride-handling trade-off here. Bumps don't pound it senseless, as the suspension's compliance absorbs even ruinous roads without flintiness or float. And in the key muscle car measure of ass-hauling, it delivers. With a listless, flat roar from the 6.2-liter V8, 60 mph falls in 5 seconds flat (4.7 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and the quarter-mile drops in 13.1 seconds at 109.4 mph, beating out the pricier Challenger by a half-second. This trap speed is actually a hair lower than the last SS we tested and might improve with a few more miles on the clock. At 3,894 pounds the Camaro SS is no scalpel, but coming from the Challenger, you're relieved at how wieldy and precise it is. The quick steering starts out light and loads up nicely, and its shifter thumps positively from gate to gate. Clutch action is easy and smooth. The big coupe is deft and user-friendly, and you begin to think the Camaro has this comparison all locked up. As with any second date, though, we also found a few more things to bitch about. Step up the pace to full kill in an attempt to gun down the fleeter GT500 and the Camaro's reflexes begin to falter. It's relatively nimble for its size and quite well-balanced, but in quick transitions there is an odd yaw delay from the chassis — a half-beat of time between the action at the helm and actual chassis motion. We noticed it in the slalom, too, where the Camaro ceded ground to the others with its 65.8-mph result. The source of the slack is not obvious. Our guesses include squishy powertrain mounts or tire sidewalls. Throttle response from the LS3 V8 is heavily damped. When you apply the right pedal to make a hasty escape from a bend, your request for a heaping portion of the 426 hp is first carefully considered by a tribunal of lawyerly electrons. The ruling of this conference takes time to meter out, and the resulting pause dulls the Camaro's throttle-induced exuberance. Those traits emerge only when you're pressing on, though. You'll have to live every day with the horrid visibility imparted by its high beltline and low roof. Ditto the busy gauges and the — optional, thank goodness — goofy orange-plastic cabin treatment. Equipment levels are leaner than either the SRT8 or the GT500, and the puny trunk opening is another unfortunate by-product of the Camaro's ambitious styling. Points for furthering the cause of intergalactic cultural awareness go to GM for designing a steering wheel and shift knob that the Sleestaks from Land of the Lost will find comfortable to grasp. Humans? Not so much. There's a lot to love about the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS. With the lowest as-tested price here, the Chevy's formidable performance and civilized chassis make it a tremendous value, and it put up a heck of a fight against the much more expensive GT500. Its platform has obvious potential for keener variants in the future. When that happens, the balance could once again tip in the Chevy's favor. 1st Place: 2010 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 Five hundred forty horsepower has a way of being fun. It's not lean, but it is certainly the best driver's car here. Comfortable yet garish. Shoddy interior fit and finish is a subtle reminder of where the extra money went. Very short, notchy throws start here. The power delivery is robust no matter where the tach needle points. To those unfamiliar with the Shelby GT500 of the late '60s, the 2010 Ford Shelby GT500 is a bit much to take in at once. A full complement of stripes, outsized reptile badges, a full-width front splitter — that's not a chip on the GT500's shoulder, it's Chuck Norris. Slink across the door sill's glowing crimson SVT logo into a stripe-splattered driver seat. You're in a Mustang, no doubt. The dual-cowl dashboard and seats are familiar, yet there's something oddly intriguing here. It's that among all this over-the-top nonsense lurks signs of serious intent. Maybe it's the gauges that are now actually legible, or the synthetic suede bits on the steering wheel and shifter boot. Twist the key and the initial skepticism wanes as the supercharged 5.4-liter V8 gurgles away confidently. Throttle response is sharp, the clutch positive and the rich off-idle torque makes the Camaro and Challenger feel meek by comparison. There's no finger-tipping the GT500's striped cueball-style shift knob. Gearchanges are positive and precise, with a high-effort notchiness that requires a manly yank. Although it's a pain in the palm around town, the shifter works brilliantly at speed. And it is at speed that the GT500 finally begins to reveal that it's not all bluster. Forget that the GT500 sprints to 60 in 4.6 seconds (4.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and takes down the quarter-mile in 12.6 seconds at 113.5 mph, making it easily the most rapid car here. The accelerative might afforded by its 540 hp is only a peripheral component of the GT500's appeal. Instead, it's the way Ford has made the slabular 3,901-pound GT500 willing to dance. The midpack 66.6-mph slalom result doesn't tell the whole story, nor does its test-topping 0.91g of grip on our skid pad. For that you need a real road or a track, and not the kind with sticky goo and a rack of lights. Hustling the Shelby into a slightly off-camber 2nd-gear corner, hard on the brakes, the Shelby's nose dips but doesn't squirm laterally. At turn-in, the front end obeys with an assured confidence, if not quite the blazing reflexes of the Mustang GT with its lighter engine. Still, it has poise. The GT500's body motions are tied down with firmer suspension underpinnings than either the Camaro or the SRT8. The Shelby's well-weighted, responsive steering loads up predictably as you approach the apex and squeeze the throttle for the exit. With a muted blower whine, the tail steps out progressively. It's easy to catch, and you can stand on the gas out of the corner in absolute confidence that the blue tinge of wheelspin will stay behind you. There are exaggerated ride motions at the rear induced by the live axle, yet the Shelby setup dispenses with much of the bump-sensitive loss of traction. This tail-out technique isn't the fastest way through a corner, but it's the most fun and the GT500 makes it so bloody easy. Besides, the SRT8 and SS are struggling to keep up. The GT500's trump card is in its linearity. While the Camaro goes wayward beyond seven-tenths and the Challenger's talents are drizzled with apathy, the Shelby remains precise all the way up to — and past — the limit of the tires' adhesion. That it's sized right and you can actually see out of the thing only makes it easier to exploit its abilities. For a car of its mass, the GT500's control feel is astonishing and cements the conclusion that the GT500 is the most engaging car in our test. Downers? The fuel filler neck dribbles fuel in hard driving and the firmly sprung live axle, while more capable than Messrs. Watts or Panhard ever could have predicted, pogos in a way that its independently suspended competition does not. That, and its near-$51K as-tested price is the highest in our comparison by more than $6 grand. Modern Muscle in Its Highest Form What was old is new again. Taking a markedly different tack than the Ford or Chevy, the Challenger SRT8 finds itself outgunned and overpriced. It is a throwback that is long on style and attitude but missing an important dimension of the driving experience that both the Mustang and the Camaro have in varying degrees. Although capable, it offers little dynamic thrill beyond the ability to turn heads. Modern muscle has moved on without the 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8. The amount of performance and ability Chevrolet has stuffed into the Camaro's fire-sale price tag is tremendous. Driven in anger, its handling is so benign that it is almost totally foolproof, yet it feels slightly inert. It is miles more alive than the Challenger, but the Camaro ultimately lacks the honesty — and killer instinct — of the GT500. If you can deal with the functional compromises forced by its styling and can't manage the scratch for the Shelby, you won't be disappointed by the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS. One of the surprises of this test has been the evolution of the GT500 so comprehensively beyond its previous generation. GT500 owners receive exactly what they're paying extra for. More speed, more sound, more precision and best of all more personality. The 2010 Ford Shelby GT500 is a far more purposeful driver's car than either the Chevy or the Dodge, and doesn't ask for much in return. Yes, it's a $50,000 Mustang that is worth the price of admission. The only question remaining is whether Detroit will facilitate a Part III. Second Opinion Giant Brembo brakes are found on all three cars. Good thing, too, since they're all around 2 tons each. Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath says: For 2010 the Ford Shelby GT500 turned into a real car. I'm not entirely sure what happened between last year and this year, but something clicked and they made the Mustang work. The interior looks dated, although it works well and touchable things are nice to touch. Of course none of that really matters because this is the baddest motor available south of the ZR1's LS9, and the shifter-clutch combo has no equal. Well, maybe a Porsche 911. Maybe. The Shelby GT500 is also some $15K more than the 2010 Camaro SS. That's a big number. That'll pay for a free-breathing intake, a supercharger, different wheels and especially an exhaust. (The Camaro sounds like crap — all intake and no exhaust roar; whoever is tuning the acoustic profiles for GM cars needs to get punched in the ear for like a whole day). It's either spend the money on that performance stuff or a Ducati Streetfighter. But no amount of money (that's not true; there's a number somewhere that will fix this) can cure the lack of visibility in the Camaro. WTF? Why can't I see out the front? Out the back, well, nobody uses rear windows anymore so it's not worth mentioning, but it's hard to see out the front. Know where the corners are? Nope! Know where the front bowtie is? Nope, not until you hit the wall. And there's no headroom; I'm not tall and yet I felt cramped. Then there's the steering wheel. Once that sound guy has been punched in the ear good and hard for a few hours, he should take out his anger on whomever they have doing GM's steering wheels and shift knobs. Nobody's hands fit on these things. The retro steering wheel spokes are cool in the way they dive in toward the recessed hub, but they didn't have steering-wheel-mounted buttons in 1960 or whenever Camaros were cool. They need to get with the program on the whole car where this stuff is concerned, just like they did with the stunning exterior and the firm-but-compliant ride. Also too bad it's geared for schmucks who want 30 mpg instead of SS drivers who want power all the time. Right, there was also a Challenger in this comparison. What's the point! It's a toupee. You're old, you're bald, you weren't cool in high school and you're not cool now that you can afford a car you thought was cool when you were. A car needs to be good regardless of its persona (see the Miata, the GT-R, and the A4 Wagon for examples). This car is good in spite of its persona. The best ride in the group and a high-quality interior. Love that shifter. But again, why no visibility? Why 200 feet of hood? There's enough room under there for the Mini E. It's an unreasonable car for anyone who isn't desperate for attention. Give it an aggressive, modern look, some visibility and decent interfaces and there's something workable here. Without that, it's just a duded-up Charger with less functionality and more sadness. The Mustang, that's what you want.