Finding the Ultimate Modern Muscle Car By Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor Date posted: 03-22-2009 In 2002, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second human being to set foot on the moon, punched a guy in the face for accusing him of faking the moon landing. Buzz was 72 years old at the time. Go right ahead and question the existence of the 2010 Ford Mustang GT, 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T and 2010 Chevy Camaro SS and they, too, might just give you a knuckle sandwich in the kisser. Like Mr. Aldrin, they bear names from long ago that have made a collective return to the limelight. Like Mr. Aldrin, they are American heroes with unparalleled legacies reaching across decades. And like Mr. Aldrin, they have Ph.Ds in kicking ass. Their makers may have proven that they have the financial acumen of a blind yak. However, we submit these pony car icons as proof that the home team can extract their craniums from their nether regions once in awhile and knock the cover off the ball. Same Time, Same Place...Almost Our usual comparison test protocol dictates that we test all cars in the same location with one driver. Unfortunately, nobody told GM. No production examples of the 2010 Chevy Camaro SS exist yet, and these circumstances dictated that our driving time was split between two preproduction cars: a red 2SS we tested at GM's Milford Proving Grounds to provide all the go-fast numbers, and an identically equipped but silver 2SS we evaluated on the streets of Southern California (pictures of both are included). In GM-speak, 2SS is the topmost trim level available on a V8-powered Camaro, and it starts at $34,180 with destination. Optioned only with the $1,200 RS package, the silver Camaro checks in at $35,380. Unlike the Camaro, the Challenger and the Mustang were put through our battery of tests at our usual facility in SoCal, but as you can see from the photos, we spent the better part of a foggy cool day north of San Diego driving all three cars back-to-back. The Mopar is our long-term 2009 Challenger R/T, which starts at $30,945 with destination. With its three option packages, however, including a six-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip differential along with comfort items, its MSRP is the highest of the three at $36,710. More performance would have required stepping another rung higher on the price ladder to the SRT8. You might remember the 2010 Mustang GT Premium from its recent tête-a-tête with a certain two-seat Nissan. This is the very same Mustang from that test and it starts at $31,845 base price plus destination. It is dressed up to $35,625 including the Track Pack and comfort-related options. All three cars are available with the same performance goodies for less money, but it wouldn't have changed the outcome. 3rd Place: 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T We reckon Dodge intentionally hamstrung the R/T with weak tires to prevent it from treading on the SRT8's performance. The stiff chassis is easily capable of exploiting stickier tires. Pony cars are about more than power and speed. They're about attitude. Plus burnouts and the occasional lawn job, but those kind of fall under the category of attitude. If 'tude didn't count for anything, these cars would be styled like suppositories. Pick any production car, save perhaps for the Mini, and the Challenger's styling is the most evocative of them all. The Challenger R/T we tested, draped in a period-appropriate metallic black cloak, carves visual links to the past like a switchblade. Those deep-set quad headlights, week-long overhangs and smooth, unadorned flanks speak of a simpler time. Yet the Challenger's keyless ignition and touchscreen navigation are contemporary touches not found on our Camaro and Mustang testers. The dark cabin borders on austere, with a broad dashboard and an enormous steering wheel. You sit in a wide seat with your legs splayed. There's even a foot-actuated parking brake. What is this, a Ram? Then you notice the pistol-grip shifter canted toward the driver and it all starts to gel. In the halcyon days of carburetors and bias-plies, muscle-car interiors were incidental. And so it is with this Challenger. Curling your mitt around the metallic gearchange lever, you're once again reminded that you're in something special. It feels like a tank at first but it's really a user-friendly steed. It makes all the right sounds when you want it to and mellows out when you don't. Be warned — the first time you use the featherweight clutch you'll swear the pedal just snapped off. Unlike the busier-riding Mustang, the Challenger smoothes over the road: a Karen Carpenter lyric to the Ford's power chord. With its ridiculously tall 6th gear, it's just the thing for, say, an impromptu road trip from Denver to San Francisco. Kowalski would approve of this Challenger. As a former road racer, he would take umbrage with its lame tires, though. The R/T's all-season tires snip the dangly bits from the Dodge's urge to frolic. Braking from 60 mph consumes 128 feet. Grip is tepid at 0.83g on the skid pad and you're constantly managing its punishing understeer through the flimsy sidewalls. As its 64.7-mph slalom speed suggests, the Camaro and Mustang flat-out leave the Dodge for dead on roads with turns. Heads-up drag racing those two in the Dodge is also a bad idea. The 5.7-liter iron-block pushrod V8 kicks out a stout 376 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque, but is saddled with a lardy 4,055 pounds. Sixty arrives in 5.5 seconds (5.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and the Challenger clicks off a 13.9-second quarter-mile at 103.2 mph. The Challenger wins hearts, not races. You can consider its highest-in-test sticker price as an investment in the kind of escapism you can't find anywhere else. 2nd Place: 2010 Ford Mustang GT Turn-in is preternaturally quick. The Track Pack gives the Mustang sharper responses and grippier tires. When we reached the terminus of one of our test-loop drives, the editor who had just piloted the Mustang asked how hard I was driving the Dodge to keep up with him. Fairly hard, I told him, and it was true. There was more left in the Challenger but not a lot. He hadn't told me how aggressively he had been driving the Ford. But once we switched cars I knew immediately that he hadn't been trying very hard. Hell, he was wearing slippers and the Mustang's radio was still playing smooth jazz. Meanwhile, the Challenger's brakes were smoking and I had swamp crotch. The Mustang's 3,572-pound curb weight undercuts the fatty Dodge by nearly 500 pounds and the Camaro by almost 300, and you know it the first time you bend the Ford into a corner. It feels lithe and trim, and its front end bites into the tarmac with tenacity. At the skid pad, the Mustang's 0.91g result is the grippiest in this comparison. It stops the shortest at 107 feet from 60 mph. And while its 68.4-mph slalom result cedes the smallest sliver of speed to the Camaro, there is no sharper car in this test than the Mustang. It boils down to a driver's race versus the Camaro on our continuously winding drive loop. Ironically, the Mustang's whippy chassis is also the source of its biggest limitation — the live rear axle. The independent rear suspensions of the Dodge and Chevy offer superior ride quality without compromising traction. As good a job as Ford has done in refining the live axle's execution, the Mustang drives like a relic compared to the other two. In turn, those guys could learn from the Mustang's seats, which hold you in place the best and allow the easiest access to the backseat. However, the Ford's non-telescoping wheel places the driving position too close to the dashboard. Maybe Ford did that intentionally to give you a prayer of reading the too-busy gauges. As you have already guessed, the Mustang's lean mass helps its 4.6-liter V8 punch above its weight, too. On paper, its 315 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque is downright meek. A 13.5-second quarter-mile sprint at 102.7 mph proves otherwise, neatly splitting the difference between the Chevy and the Dodge. Zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds (4.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) is nothing to sneeze at either. There's something missing in the Mustang, though — wow factor. Ford tells us that every one of the 2010 Mustang's panels save the roof is new, but in the wild it's a dead ringer for the outgoing car. Drive it in a convoy with the Camaro and the Challenger and you might as well be driving a Camry. It's invisible. Chevy and Dodge owe Ford a debt of gratitude. Were it not for the Blue Oval's willingness to take a risk on the retro-heavy 2005 Mustang, they might never have known whether the market for throwback pony cars was big enough to justify entering the fray. 1st Place: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS The crease in the lower door gives some shape to the Camaro's midsection. Big Brembo brakes are standard on all V8 models. Let's make one thing clear. This baby's got motor. The Camaro SS sports what is easily the most powerful mill in this test — a 6.2-liter pushrod LS3 V8 from the Vette. In the Camaro it blurps out 426 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. At 13.0 seconds at 110.9 mph, the Camaro SS is far and away the fleetest, smacking down the quarter-mile a half-second quicker than the next-quickest Mustang and nearly a full second quicker than the Challenger. Get some air in its lungs and it belts out a V8 blat that is unmistakably Detroit. This thing hauls the mail. You expected that. What comes as a surprise is the Camaro's civility. Chevy's decision to abandon the live axle for a fully independent rear suspension will surely piss off the drag racers. Everyone else will appreciate the Camaro's newfound composure. Yes, this Camaro handles. You can throw it into a corner and not worry about the front end washing away like in the Challenger. There's surprising agility on tap for a 3,857-pound car. As your entry speeds increase, it leaves you wanting for a bit more steering feel, but the poise with which it takes to corners is eye-opening. At 68.6 mph, it pips the Mustang's slalom speed despite having a bit less grip and packing hundreds more pounds. That, friends, is talent. In 1967, you got four-wheel drum brakes. Today, all V8-powered Camaros come standard with biggie-size four-piston Brembo brakes and summer tires that halt the Camaro from 60 mph in just 109 feet. Bonus: The pedal feels nothing like stepping on a taxidermied raccoon. In fact, the Camaro's is the most solid pedal in this trio. You grab a Hostess Ding Dong shift knob and peer over across a faux cowl-induction-style hood bulge that would make Whitesnake jealous. Despite the claustrophobic interior, it doesn't feel nearly as ponderous around town as the Challenger thanks to the Chevy's quicker steering and well-matched weighting of the pedals to the helm. Like the big Dodge, though, you have an obnoxious 1st-to-4th skip-shift to deal with when you walk it from a stop. Say what you will about some of the fussy exterior detailing, this thing has massive presence. The glowering front three-quarter view is its best angle, especially with the halo rings of the RS package's HID headlights ablaze with evil intent. If the Challenger is a tank, the Camaro is a bunker. Visibility stinks. Its imposing cowl meets a beltline that would deliver a wedgie requiring surgery if you tried to emulate it using your trousers. And reversing from a parking stall? Forget about seeing around the C-pillar. Your best bet is to be proactive and clear the area with a reverse burnout. For good measure, Chevy included a few more reminders of the past like the four-gauge cluster below the center stack and a large, awkwardly shaped deep-spoke steering wheel. The cabin design and cheap-looking hard plastics won't give Audi designers sleepless nights. But when was the last time you saw anything from Ingolstadt do a burnout? You want to kick ass, or fondle the door panels, sissy? Wrap Perhaps it is a strange time for the arrival of retro-infused pony cars. We're not complaining. Gift horses aren't something we look in the mouth. What we didn't expect with these ponies was their variety. If you want something that plucks your heartstrings like no other car, the Challenger is it. Racers will probably gravitate toward the spry and established Mustang. But there can only be one winner, and the Camaro SS is clearly that. No longer does it have to apologize for its performance with a bang-for-the-buck cop-out — though it handily snatches that crown, too. It packs a talented chassis, performance and, yes, attitude at a price within the reach of working-class stiffs. There's little more to be said than the Camaro is back. In a big way. And SS once again truly means Super Sport. Performance Dodge Challenger R/T Price as Tested: $36,710 0 - 30 (sec): 2.5 0 - 45 (sec): 4.0 0 - 60 (sec): 5.5 0 - 75 (sec): 8.0 1/4 Mile (sec @ mph): 13.9 @ 103.2 0-60 with 1-ft Rollout (sec): 5.3 30 - 0 (ft): 31 60 - 0 (ft): 128 Braking Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Average Slalom (mph): 64.7 Skid Pad Lateral acceleration (g): 0.83 Handling Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Good Acceleration Comments: A bit tricky to get off the line without lighting the skinny rear tires. Best technique was to practically bog it out of the hole, and then go to WOT as soon as possible. Shifter requires a deliberate hand but works with precision. Good gear spacing until 4th gear, which is very tall. Love the '60s soundtrack! As we suspected, the 18-inch wheels (even with the less-grippy tires and taller rear end) proved quicker than the 20s. Handling Comments: Skid pad: Grip is high for a car of this size. Slalom: Big steering wheel and slow steering ratio combine for a busy slalom pass. Tire grip is so-so but falls off predictably and in a linear fashion. Allowing the car to slide a little is the quick way through, but you need to manipulate the throttle to thwart the understeer. Braking Comments: Pedal effort remained moderate-to-soft throughout the test. Distances also remained about the same showing adequate fade resistance. Some nose-dive and rear-end wiggle reveals the car's 2-ton mass. Chevrolet Camaro SS Price as Tested: $35,380 0 - 30 (sec): 2.3 0 - 45 (sec): 3.4 0 - 60 (sec): 5.0 0 - 75 (sec): 6.7 1/4 Mile (sec @ mph): 13.0 @ 110.9 0-60 with 1-ft Rollout (sec): 4.7 30 - 0 (ft): 27 60 - 0 (ft): 109 Braking Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Very good Slalom (mph): 68.6 Skid Pad Lateral acceleration (g): 0.88 Handling Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Very good Acceleration Comments: Launch control is fun but easy to beat with a little care. Best launch from about 3,000 rpm: Get the clutch out fast then pedal it. This is an easy car to launch and it bangs gears like a serious pony car should -- good rubber in second and sometimes third. Fun and fast. Burnouts are easy. Handling Comments: Camaro is a large car and the driver feels it in the slalom. Its limits are respectable for this segment. Problem is, it's difficult to place because of its small glass area. Like driving a tank, it's hard to tell where its edges are. Still, after time behind the wheel, most drivers will find those edges comfortably. Steering response is slower off center than Mustang, but it goes through the cones at about the same rate. Braking Comments: Pedal has good feel and based on the caliber of the brake system I'd say these brakes are less likely to fade than those of other pony cars. No fade in this test. Ford Mustang GT Price as Tested: $35,625 0 - 30 (sec): 2.1 0 - 45 (sec): 3.4 0 - 60 (sec): 5.2 0 - 75 (sec): 7.6 1/4 Mile (sec @ mph): 13.5 @ 102.9 0-60 with 1-ft Rollout (sec): 4.9 30 - 0 (ft): 27 60 - 0 (ft): 107 Braking Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Very Good Slalom (mph): 68.4 Skid Pad Lateral acceleration (g): 0.91 Handling Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Good Acceleration Comments: Easy to launch.... Best technique is to get the clutch out quickly at relatively low rpm and then use the torque to pull through the rest of 1st gear without wheelspin. I drop the clutch from below 3K rpm and transition immediately to WOT. Good shifter -- direct without being too high effort. And thanks to the intake honkus, I like the engine noise. This feels and sounds like a pony car. If nothing else, Ford has that nailed. Handling Comments: Overall, the Mustang is predictable and easy to throw around. Fun, even. Its limits are higher than before but it's difficult to take it seriously as a handling machine when compared to something like the Z. Still, around the pad, it's totally mild mannered and controllable -- even a knuckle dragger could powerslide this thing until it had no rear tires. Through the slalom its instant turn-in takes some adjustment but it transitions well for a live-axle car and remains impressively composed. Overall, an improvement from the last car. Braking Comments: Short stopping distance is a surprise.