Cars.comparison: American Muscle Cars

Click above to watch our comparison video.

Click above to watch our comparison video.

Few things are more American than muscle cars. Their powerful V-8 engines and brash styling defined an era, and now modern versions of some of the most famous nameplates have returned to the street. The much-anticipated Chevy Camaro SS takes on the Dodge Challenger R/T and redesigned Ford Mustang GT in this Fourth of July faceoff. Happy birthday, America.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS2009 Dodge Challenger R/T2010 Ford Mustang GT Premium
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Base MSRP
$33,430$30,220$30,995
Price as tested
$37,250$39,155$34,420
Styling
The Camaro looks pretty sinister in black, and we dig its eggcrate grille and large rear fenders, but we differ as to whether it looks like a classic Camaro or more like a Mustang nose with Challenger haunches. Our SS didn't generate as much attention as we expected for a model just hitting the street. Now, if it had been yellow…Full-on retro, the Challenger looks like it stepped right out of the early '70s and into your garage — especially equipped, as our model was, with black stripes and script fender badges. The orange paint job — and the car's enormous size — have a way of collecting stares. The shorter grille and bulging hood make the Mustang look a little meaner for 2010, and the restyled rear end is no longer a two-dimensional slab. More than the others, the Mustang combines the past with the present as a tasteful update of a classic.
V-8 performance
The SS model's 6.2-liter V-8 has its moments, but they're usually at higher rpm, which is surprising and disappointing considering its displacement and 426 horsepower. Around town, the engine makes you work to extract its power, and it gets pretty loud in the process.The 376-hp Hemi V-8 is quite refined and urges the Challenger R/T forward without complaint, even at lower speeds. Still, this is the heaviest car of the three, and you can feel it. The Mustang GT's 315-hp V-8 is the least powerful of the three, and the coupe has a five- rather than a six-speed manual, but it's got the least weight to move. Thanks in part to an optional 3.73 final drive ratio, it blasts off the line and continues to pull strongly.
Engine bay
The Camaro concept may have inspired the plastic engine cover, but the production version of that cover went through the wash on the lame-o cycle. Anemic four-cylinders deserve to be covered up, but why do it when you have a honkin' 6.2-liter V-8? The SS signature scoop looks good, but it isn't functional."That thing got a Hemi?" Supposedly, but we can't tell because of the black plastic cover. Those vents on the hood are functional heat extractors. Bonus points for the beverage- or hardware-holder indentations above the radiator, which are perfect for late-night wrenching. Finally, an engine you can actually see. Only the tall intake manifold is capped, with an elegant cover bearing a chrome pony. On close inspection, it's made of plastic, but it doesn't shout it from 20 paces like the others do. Top it off with an attractive aluminum strut tower brace and a necessarily domed hood, and you have a package befitting the genre.
Exhaust sound
The Camaro SS makes a lot of noise, but its bark might be more evil than its acceleration's low-speed bite. It sounds the least distinct of the three, though during deceleration the exhaust burbles and pops like none of the others. Cool.
The Challenger R/T's exhaust isn't as loud or intrusive as the others under light acceleration, but there's no mistaking its beefy engine and exhaust sounds when you wind it out.
The Mustang's crystal-clear exhaust doesn't have the bass of the others, but it emits a slightly higher-pitched, distinctive tone that you can hear at all engine speeds.
Gas mileage (city/highway mpg)
16/24
When you consider the Camaro SS's power output and considerable heft — 3,860 pounds — its gas mileage estimates aren't that bad, but the Challenger's are better.
16/25
Despite its approximately two-ton weight, the Challenger R/T ekes out the best highway gas mileage. Its tall sixth gear plays a part. For best performance, Dodge recommends midgrade gas, too; if you're looking to squeeze out the most oomph, the other two recommend premium.
16/24
The Mustang GT is the lightest and has the smallest V-8 engine, yet it has the same EPA rating as the Camaro SS. Having a five-speed manual rather than a six doesn't help.
Shifter
The Camaro's six-speed manual drew mixed reviews, with one editor liking its shift quality and another finding it a little clunky at times when moving into the next gear. No one really liked the flattened ball shifter. The gates in the Challenger's six-speed manual are almost too closely spaced, but it's still easy to flick from gear to gear. The ergonomic pistol grip drew universal praise; its plastic trim did not. The Mustang's manual provides the best sense of connectedness to the car; the short-throw shifter's movements are rifle-bolt precise. The shift knob, an aluminum ball, is beautiful and satisfying to operate, but it might brand your palm on a hot day.
Ride and handling
The SS' stiff performance suspension got to be a little tiring during a long highway slog, but it was livable overall. The Camaro is easy to drive fast, but you feel its weight in aggressive cornering and braking. It's trying to be a sports car more than a muscle car, with mixed results. The Challenger R/T rides the most comfortably of this trio yet holds its own surprisingly well — if boringly — when driven hard. It's a Woodward Dream Cruiser at heart, with its highly assisted, numb-as-a-lug-nut steering. The Mustang offers the best steering response and nimbleness despite a solid rear axle that can occasionally unsettle the rear end. Think of it as a bodybuilder that's surprisingly quick on the basketball court.
Interior quality and styling
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Form seems to lead function in the Camaro SS, as the gauges are more retrospective than legible — and we don't mean only the four on the center console where you shouldn't be looking while you're driving. Most surfaces are nice, but there are also mediocre controls; the passenger-side seat release feels and sounds like it will fall off.
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The similarities to a classic Challenger end at the proverbial front door. Apart from the black headliner, pistol-grip shifter and a few other minor touches, this is a Dodge Charger inside. The design is nondescript, and not all the surfaces are as nice as the soft, low-gloss dashboard. The seats are comfortable, though.
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With real-aluminum trim and sparing use of convincing faux metal, the GT has the most consistently high-quality interior, though we wish the door trim were a little nicer. Features like the Sync interface and selectable gauge- and ambient-lighting colors further modernize the Mustang — but only if you want to.
Backseat room
Contortionists should feel right at home in the backseat of the Camaro, but no one else will. Minimal headroom means some will have to cock their heads sideways or slump to fit back there, and legroom comes only from the generosity of those in front. The backseat of the Challenger feels like a limo compared with the others. Headroom and legroom are generous, even for taller folks, without robbing from the front. It's also easy to make a graceful exit. There are air vents, a center armrest with cupholders and even three pairs of child-seat anchors in the back. Backseat room falls in between the Camaro and Challenger. Though the specs suggest otherwise, legroom feels better than the Camaro. That's partly because front occupants don't have to sacrifice as much to give you space and partly because more headroom doesn't force you to hunch as much.
Visibility
There's not a lot to like here. The end of the hood disappears from view, making it hard to judge where the front of the car ends, and minimal headroom makes you sit even lower than you might like. The OnStar-equipped rearview mirror blocks the top half of the windshield, and tall doors give occupants a bathtub feel. The right-side A-pillar blocks your view when turning, too. Large C-pillars obliterate over-shoulder views, making backing out of parking spaces a blind affair and requiring you to rely more on your side mirrors when changing lanes. Forward views, however, are good, and the hood doesn't fall away from sight like the others. You lose sight of the very front of the Mustang's hood more than you'd like, but otherwise visibility is good for a coupe thanks to thin, well-placed A-pillars and sizable rear quarter windows. Though it's relatively small, the Mustang doesn't have the squinty-short windows that people object to in the Camaro.
Five-year insurance costs*
$6,185
The Camaro has the highest base price in this test, but it comes in with the lowest expected insurance costs.
$7,709
Though the Challenger's starting price is the lowest, it's expected to be the most expensive to insure.
$7,522
The Mustang's insurance costs come in slightly lower than the Challenger's, but they can't touch the Camaro's.
Most American**
Sixty percent of the Camaro's parts are from the U.S. or Canada, which ties the Mustang, but its final-assembly location is north of our border. With a parts-content rating of 56 percent, the Challenger has the fewest bits from the U.S. or Canada. Like the Camaro, it's built in Canada. Like the Camaro, the Mustang has a 60 percent U.S./Canadian parts-content rating, but it wins this category because it's the only one of these that's built in the U.S. of A.
Overall value
A number of the options on our Camaro were appearance-oriented ones that the price-conscious would likely forgo, but without any options it's still the most expensive. It's hard to justify the extra cost.The Challenger was the only one with a navigation system, which contributed to its highest-in-test price. It'd be more appealing if it were closer to its base price, but at nearly $40 grand it looks expensive. The Mustang has the lowest as-tested price, but it has the nicest interior. One option we'd recommend is that 3.73 axle ratio, which is affordable at $495.
 
Editors' choice
Going into this comparison, the Camaro SS's specs and platform pedigree suggested it might run away from the field. The SS shows promise, but it feels like a car whose various components haven't learned to work together as well as they should. For an R/T, especially, our Challenger was a surprisingly easy car to live with on a daily basis; it's the most comfortable and usable choice. Dodge nailed the retro look, but muscle cars have to be fun to drive, and the Challenger is just a little too large and sedate. With its lowest-in-test horsepower and rudimentary rear axle, the Mustang was a dark horse. In short, it wowed us. Its years of evolution show in a refined crudeness that makes it the most fun to drive at everyday speeds. It's consistently, intentionally and appropriately rough.
*Data provided by Vincentric.
**Based on North American parts content and final-assembly location.
© Cars.com 7/1/09
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