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Is The Dodge Challenger The Last True American Muscle Car?

Car Culture / 92 Comments

The competition for American Muscle supremacy is fierce, but is there a clear winner?

When it comes to muscle cars we are talking about a uniquely American thing. Big gasoline gulping V8s with enough torque to alter the planet's rotation could only work where the roads are wide and the gas is cheap. Whereas Europeans are all about lap times and high-revving high-tech drivetrains and Japanese performance cars offer a delicate handling balance and poise, we prefer to focus on slightly less objective traits such as how the thing makes you feel from behind the wheel.

When judged from this perspective, of the current crop of muscle cars it is not the eminently capable Mustang or sharp Camaro that provide the best old-school muscle car 'feel' but the rough-at-the-edges Challenger. Let us explain… In recent years the Ford Mustang has moved the game on with efficient flat-plane crank V8s and independent rear suspension setups that have made the once unruly Stang a far more biddable pseudo-thoroughbred. The most powerful offerings currently are the Shelby GT350 and GT350R, while the 5.2-liter V8 makes an impressive 523 horsepower without resorting to forced induction, it is not as torquey low-down as the old supercharged unit.

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It is only available paired to a 6-speed manual transmission too so it is clear that Ford has amended its muscle car definition to make the GT350 more BMW M4 competitor than boulevard burbler. Road testers have commented on the accuracy of the shifter action and the lightness of the clutch and other controls, hardly the stuff that muscle cars are known for. The power delivery too only starts to make its presence felt once the tacho passes 3500 rpm, a point at which most traditional muscle cars are just about ready for the next gear. The fact that the power peak occurs at a lofty 7,500 rpm must be a record for a Mustang, even the brakes are up to the task of hauling the GT350 to a stop, lap after lap.

This sort of all-round capability and competence does come at a price, the base GT350 starts at just over $57,000, the GT350R is $ 64,645. Add the Track pack (included in the R) or opt for the Technology pack and you will soon be challenging those European sports sedans on pricing too. Don't hold out much hope lower down the range, the base Mustang is now offered with an efficient and soulless turbocharged four-cylinder motor and the V8 models are limited to a pony car rivalling 460 hp. While they can be had with an automatic transmission, it is a new-fangled 10-speed unit.

So, what about the Camaro? Well here you also start off with one of those European style downsized turbo four-potters but the base V8 is a reassuring big lump of metal displacing 6.2-liters and producing 455 hp. It looks sharp too although the same term can be used for the handling and steering which immediately separates it from the traditionally vague driver/car interaction that is a muscle car prerequisite. Interior space is on the tight side, the rear seats are best used as additional storage space to complement the small trunk and you get more outward visibility peering out of a submarine's periscope. All forgivable foibles as long as the powerplant under the hood is an absolute beast and the 455-hp V8 falls a few ponies short of that.

The good news is that you can also pick a supercharged version of the 6.2-liter V8 which pushes the power up to a much more acceptable 650 hp and has the ability to make you instantly forget about trivial space and visibility issues. The 650-hp ZL1 is very at home on the track too, its brakes refuse to fade even after repeated hard use and only the GT350R will post quicker lap times. As a traditional muscle car it fares a bit worse. Yes the big supercharger and availability of an 8-speed automatic do make for an effortless quarter-mile car but the driving experience is more polished sports coupe than old-style tire smoker. At $62,495 it undercuts the GT350R, but by the time you add the $7,500 Track pack the pricing advantage is gone.

The traditional recipe for producing a muscle car was to take one large capacity V8, stick it in a big coupe bodyshell and send it on its way. A sophisticated suspension setup or sharp steering feel were just not part of the equation, all they were required to do was smoke everything else to the quarter mile and idle menacingly at the lights. The Challenger has stayed most true to this simple and grin-inducing formula and it is the only car here that will seat three abreast in the rear and the trunk is the largest by a fair margin. The interior fit and finish also brings to mind the indifferent build quality of the original '60s muscle cars as does the stiff steering and reluctance to go around corners.

We call it character, if you want a nimble sports car then there are plenty other options out there. The simplicity of design may not translate into record-breaking lap times but it does make for a very well-priced performance car. The cheapest V8 powered Challenger is currently the 375-hp 5.7-liter R/T. At $33,495, it undercuts the 460-hp 5.0-liter V8 Mustang GT by $2,500 and the 455-hp 6.2-liter V8 Camaro SS1 by a whopping $4,500. Yes, it may be the least powerful but it still makes all the right noises and if you plan to use yours as a daily driver then 375-hp is more than enough. You can also opt for the 6.4-liter 485-hp R/T Scat Pack which is still under $40,000 and will leave most things choking in its cloud of tire smoke at the prod of the gas pedal.

It doesn't end there either. Whereas the Mustang offerings top out at 523 hp and the most powerful Camaro has 650 hp, the Challenger is available in SRT Hellcat trim which comes packed with a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 producing 707-hp and a very serious 650 lb-ft of torque. The $65,495 starting price places it right in the ballpark with the other two but in terms of straight-line acceleration and horsepower-per-dollar it has them firmly beat. More powerful brakes and sports suspension do help keep you on the road for longer and for 2018 a widebody kit is available too, but the SRT Hellcat remains a dyed-in-the-wool muscle car.

Of course, the whole muscle car segment became famous for its massively powerful engines and cars like the '50s 300-hp Chrysler C-300 and '60s 348-hp Pontiac Tempest GTO became overnight legends. In a modern context, the 707-hp SRT Hellcat is firmly in that ballpark but the car that will surely reach legendary status in the range is the insane 840-hp SRT Demon. This supercharged beast has seemingly been designed to Vin Diesel's fast car design template, namely the ability to complete the quarter-mile in ten seconds (The Demon actually does it in 9.54 seconds) while lifting its front wheels into the air.

It lays claim to being the quickest acceleration production car on the planet and with a 0-60 mph time of 2.3-seconds you should have no trouble merging onto the highway in front of those pesky hypercars. The $84,995 asking price may seem a bit steep but not when taken in the context of its all-conquering acceleration capabilities. The available Demon crate contains front drag wheels, a hydraulic floor jack and high-octane engine calibration among other performance enhancing items, so it quickly becomes clearly that the SRT Demon is not meant for daily driving duties.

The stripped-out cabin and grippy but noisy drag tires add to the din inside the cabin but just idling up to your local watering hole will have onlookers straining to see what thundering machine has just arrived. A prod of the throttle will have children and small animals dispersing to a safe distance, knowing that at any moment you could lay waste to your rear tires in a flurry of V8 power. Now isn't that what a muscle car is supposed to be all about?