And they're all more fun than an equivalently priced crossover SUV.
Just because you don’t have a wardrobe full of bowling shirts, a fetish for wearing baseball caps indoors, and a bank account that can survive an afternoon at a Barrett-Jackson auction doesn’t mean you can’t get into an old-school muscle car. Sure, you’re going to have to do a lot of saving to reach a 1960s Shelby GT350, a first-generation Challenger, or a second-generation Pontiac GTO, but those are cars that tend to end up in atmospherically controlled garages with black and white checkered floors and a collection of vintage gas station signs on the wall.
However, set your sights at around the price of an acceptably optioned Honda Civic or Toyota Camry and there’s a lot of fun and style to be had. Set your sites on this century, and although there’s not quite the wide range of muscle car models the classic market offers, you can get a hell of a lot of lot of modern muscle for your money. For someone on the fence between vintage and modern muscle, we’ve put together a list of the first vintage and modern muscle cars we would be looking at rather than heading to a dealer for a shiny new compact crossover.
Named after the International Race of Champions one-make series, the IROC-Z was an upgrade option for the third generation Z28 Camaro. Its lack of real power after being choked by emissions equipment, despite being powered by large displacement V8 engines, is probably what’s kept the IROC-Z affordable despite its iconic status. Removing the emissions equipment can get the largest engine model near 300 horsepower, but the legality of that is questionable at absolute best. What makes up for that is its all-around performance built around a retuned suspension using Delco-Bilstein shocks and thicker sway bars.
When the Camaro returned for its fifth generation, the SS showed up to the party with a 426 horsepower version of the 6.2-liter LS3 V8 engine. Early SS models are all over the place for under $25,000 and if you come in under budget then, thanks to Chevrolet Performance, bringing it up to 1LE spec isn’t a big leap. Either way, there's a lot of power and the Camaro's chassis and suspension was excellent straight out of the gate.
In 1970, Pontiac reshuffled the Le Mans in its lineup. It was mostly a downgrade, but bigger engines previously only available on GTO models were made available for lower trims. There’s a lot of choice and options for the Le Mans, but at the top end of our budget the 1972 Sport trim came as a 2-door hardtop or convertible with the interior from the Luxury Le Mans but the front seats swapped for Strato buckets.
The Le Mans is often overlooked outside of GTO spec (1972 was the year the GTO reverted back from being a separate model), but with the choice of a 5.7-liter, 6.6-liter, or 7.5-liter V8 and no V6 option for this generation, it was no joke even in plain trim.
While it wasn’t as heavily stylized and mean looking as the original GTO, the Australian bred GTO of the new millennium has aged well. It arrived with an LS1 V8 engine and a surprisingly good interior. In 2005, the GTO got itself an LS2 upgrade although you’re going to have to do some shopping to find one that hasn’t had its price inflated by the "I KNOW WHAT I'VE GOT" type of seller.
Golden era muscle cars don’t tend to be cheap, and early 1970s Cougars are more inexpensive, but the late 60s models are much, much, cooler looking. Hunt around and you can pick a good one up for $25,000 and a little under with a solid Windsor V8. We even found a couple in XR7 trim which added competition-style gauges and toggle switches.
The New Edge Mustangs weren’t the most powerful of the breed, even in GT trim. However, the SVT Cobra got an upgraded 4.6-liter V8 engine making at 320 horsepower and 317 ft-lb of torque as well as independent rear suspension. They can be found in the sub $15,000 range but if you have a little more to spend, you can find 2002-2003 models with the supercharged 4.6-liter V8 making 390 horsepower and a matching 390 ft-lb of torque under $25,000.
The second generation Torino had a more aggressive look than the first-gen model, and the pre-1972 emissions regulations 4.9-liter V-8 Windsor made a respectable 220 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. We've specified the GT here as it's in the sweet spot for the budget. A non-GT version will require less hunting around but finding one with the 429 Cobra Jet engine under $25,000 isn’t likely unless you want a serious restoration project.
The fifth generation of the Mustang launched in 2005, but the 2010 model year saw a welcomed aesthetic upgrade, and in 2011 the 4.8-liter V8 became the 5.0-liter Coyote. That gave the GT spec Mustang a bump from 315 to 412 horsepower and made it a true beast of a car for the road. It also sold like hotcakes, so there are plenty on the market.
In 1977, the Firebird gained its heavily slanted nose. Then, in 1980, it lost its larger displacement engines due to increasing emissions regulations, so 1977-79 is our sweet spot here. Firebird prices do steadily rise though, and right now you’re going to have to shop around but it could turn into a decent investment. Just avoid a black one if possible, even if it's just to avoid Smokey and the Bandit comments.
There’s a lot of choices here for under $25,000 if you’re happy with the pre-facelift models of the modern Challenger. SRT models with the 6.1-liter Hemi V8 are now affordable, and mid-level R/T models with the 5.7-liter Hemi are plentiful. There’s a strong argument for the Challenger being the only true full-blooded modern muscle car and, as far as bang for your buck goes, it’s the modern muscle car that ticks most of the important boxes on the budget we’ve set here.