Today’s New Muscle Cars

2004 Audi S4
With few exterior differences from the Audi A4, the high-output S4 (pictured) doesn’t flaunt its performance capabilities.

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Muscle cars are back in full fury. But unlike their forebears of the 1960s and ’70s, they’re not necessarily powered by V-8 engines or equipped with rear-wheel drive. The only limits are how much you want to spend and how fast you want to go.

All-Wheel-Drive Models
The traction afforded by all-wheel drive can be a boon when driving in inclement weather, but it’s also an effective way to transmit big horsepower to the pavement. The Audi S4, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru Impreza WRX STi and Volkswagen R32 employ this handling and traction aid.

Audi S4: The S4 is the high-performance version of Audi’s compact luxury car, the A4. Though it’s an all-new 2004 model, the S4 benefits from an old automotive practice: Take an engine from a large car and stuff it into a smaller, lighter one. The S4’s designers may be following a well-traveled road, but the trip is definitely worth it.

Let’s begin where it matters most — under the hood. Stuffed in that cubbyhole lies a 340-hp version of Audi’s 4.2-liter V-8 — an engine also used in the much larger, much heavier A8 L full-size sedan. The A8 L weighs 4,399 pounds, while the S4 sedan weighs 3,825 pounds. Now factor in the power. The S4’s version of the 4.2-liter V-8 develops 340 hp, which is 10 hp more than the engine in the A8 L sedan. The S4 also comes standard with a six-speed-manual gearbox as opposed to the A8 L’s six-speed automatic.

What’s the result? Zero to 60 mph in about 5.3 seconds. The engine pulls steadily throughout the entire rpm range, without any flat spots, peaks or valleys in the power delivery — the eternal charm of a big V-8.

2004 Audi S4
Front occupants in the Audi S4 are treated to Recaro sport seats.

There’s also a meaty 302 pounds-feet of torque available at 3,500 rpm, so the S4 launches hard without any disappointing lag between the time your foot goes down and the revs come up. It’s good that the S4 comes with quattro all-wheel drive to parse all this power out to four wheels instead of just two. Otherwise, the life expectancy of those P235/40ZR18 tires would be significantly diminished.

The all-wheel-drive system splits engine power in a 60/40 front-to-rear ratio under normal driving but automatically adjusts depending on which wheels have the best grip. That gives the S4 another talking point over its main rivals, the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG, both of which are equipped with rear-wheel drive only. Neither the M3 or C32 AMG can be fitted with a V-8 engine, but with 333 hp in the M3 and 349 hp in the C32 AMG, each offers about the same power; you just have to work their smaller six-cylinder engines harder to get it. The M3 is also currently available only as a snug-fitting coupe or convertible, which limits its potential as a daily driver. The C32 AMG sedan comes with an automatic transmission only, so that’s a deal breaker for some enthusiasts. The S4 is available either as a sedan or an Avant wagon.

Perhaps the best characteristic of all is that the S4 doesn’t make a spectacle of itself. It is good-looking but subdued compared to most of its visually aggressive brethren. Other than the color-keyed Recaro sport bucket seats, there’s nothing about it that immediately gives it away. Only those who notice — and know the significance — of the brushed-aluminum outside mirrors, 18-inch wheels, hunkered-down suspension, monster brake calipers and subtle badging would suspect it’s anything other than a well-equipped A4. It’s today’s newest “sleeper.”

2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
If you’re a fan of small, turbocharged engines, the 271-hp unit in Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution could be right up your alley.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution: If you like overkill, you’ll want to check out the Lancer Evolution — the street-legal version of Mitsubishi’s World Rally Championship racecars. The Lancer Evolution’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder manages to develop an incredible 271 hp — that’s 111 hp more than the Honda Civic Si’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder.

Like the Subaru Impreza WRX STi and Volkswagen R32, the Lancer Evolution features standard all-wheel drive, which gives it superior traction in inclement weather as well as ultimate grip in an autocross. The Lancer Evolution can run to 60 mph in about 4.8 seconds, and its top speed approaches 150 mph. That is about as fast as it gets in a modern muscle car, no matter what’s under the hood or how high the price.

In addition to its three-position all-wheel-drive system (pavement, gravel or snow), the Lancer Evolution also has a “Fast and the Furious”-type gadget that also serves a purpose: a driver-controlled mechanism sprays water on the air-to-air intercooler to keep its temperature down — and horsepower up — during hard driving. The water-sprayer is the latter-day equivalent of a hood tach on a 1967 Ram Air Pontiac Firebird 400 or a pistol grip shifter in a Plymouth Hemi GTX. Like those classic-era muscle cars, this thing was born to fly, and like them, it doesn’t try to hide it: a rear wing spoiler, an air dam, pontoon fender bulges, 17-inch alloy wheels, Recaro sport bucket seats and carbon-fiber trim announce the game plan.

For 2004, an even more extreme, competition-oriented RS model is available that’s as close to a factory-built compact racecar as it gets. The air conditioning and antilock braking system are deleted, and there are no power windows and locks or weight-adding insulation material. This model is perfect for the hard-core enthusiast who doesn’t mind sweating on a hot day if it means beating just about anything to the next stoplight.

2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi
The 300-hp engine under the Subaru Impreza WRX STi’s hood complements the car’s muscular exterior appearance.

Subaru Impreza WRX STi: The Impreza WRX all-wheel-drive sport sedan that arguably started the modern compact-car horsepower wars has been muscled up substantially for 2004 by the automaker’s motorsports subsidiary, Subaru Tecnica International (STi). The 2004 Impreza WRX STi is the first U.S.-model Subaru to wear the coveted STi badge, which had formerly been seen only on Subarus sold in Europe and in Japan’s home market. But when Mitsubishi brazenly challenged the hegemony of the 227-hp Impreza WRX last year by bringing out the 271-hp all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution, Subaru had to swing back.

The Impreza WRX STi now whips up an incredible 300 hp — that’s a 73-hp pole-vault over the standard Impreza WRX and nearly 30 hp more than the Lancer Evolution. The Impreza WRX STi’s 2.5-liter “boxer” (horizontally opposed) four-cylinder is turbocharged and intercooled and features variable valve timing.  

The Impreza WRX STi’s performance is in the realm of exotic cars, even if its price is not: zero to 60 mph happens in about 4.8 seconds. And it exhibits efficient, controllable fury — with almost none of the power wasted on spinning its wheels during a hard launch. If you want a smoky burnout, buy a ’78 Pontiac Trans Am. The STi’s standard viscous-coupled all-wheel-drive system immediately hooks up the tires and belts the car forward. All the driver needs to do is keep it floored, hang on and slice the six-speed gearbox through its cogs.

The Impreza WRX STi’s driver-adjustable all-wheel-drive system, racecar suspension calibration, and lightweight, 17-inch BBS alloy wheels also make this compact sedan a handler so formidable that you’ll likely never approach the car’s limits — without getting dangerously close to your own.

2004 Volkswagen R32
The Volkswagen R32’s highly bolstered sport seats hint at the car’s performance orientation.

Volkswagen R32: Dual exhaust. A close-ratio six-speed-manual gearbox. A 240-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 engine working with 4Motion all-wheel drive. Who could have imagined that the descendant of Volkswagen’s lowly Rabbit econo-box of the 1970s would ever end up sporting such strong performance bits?

The R32 is the most powerful Golf-based car ever built by Volkswagen, and it’s capable of reaching 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and topping out well into the land of mandatory court appearances and a couple of days in the clink. In addition to its potent V-6, the R32 comes equipped with a full complement of high-performance features, including huge 18-inch alloy wheels fitted with P225/40ZR18 tires as well as Brembo brakes with powder-coated blue calipers.

The R32 marks the first use of all-wheel drive in a Golf-based vehicle in the United States. Having engine horsepower distributed to the ground in four ways instead of just two means you won’t waste time spinning your wheels, or burning up those pricey sport tires. Rev the engine to about 3,500 rpm, dump the clutch and nail the gas, and you’re gone with hardly a burnout to mark your passing. You’ll also be able to take the R32 out in the rain, and even light snow — a risk that’s best not attempted in a fishtail-prone rear-drive sports car or slip-sliding front-driver.

In addition to its functional and performance enhancements, the R32 is loaded with luxury, convenience and safety features, including automatic climate control, seat heaters for the driver and passenger, leather and brushed-aluminum trim, remote keyless entry, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and power windows, locks and mirrors. A spoiler mounted on the tailgate and “R32” badges help to warn the unwary.

One Front-Wheel-Drive Model
Not the traditional way to set up a performance-car driveline, Dodge’s SRT-4 harnesses the front wheels for the job of propelling the car in addition to steering it. However, front-drive cars are typically better winter-weather performers than their rear-drive counterparts.

2004 Dodge SRT-4
Dodge’s SRT-4 gets a slight power boost for the 2004 model year; its four-cylinder engine is now rated at 230 hp.

Dodge SRT-4: Remember how unthreatening the little Neon was when it first appeared? Well, don’t dip your fingers in the water, because this SRT-4 piranha bites. The “SRT” acronym stands for Street Racing and Technology, and today’s 30-and-under crowd will learn to respect those three letters as much as their parents did “R/T” (road and track) on the fenders of Hemi-powered 1969 Chargers and 440-hp-powered Plymouth Barracudas.

The 2004 SRT-4 is actually quicker than all but the most brutal 1960s-era V-8 muscle cars; it’s capable of reaching 60 mph in a searing 5.5 to 5.6 seconds. It has a top speed in excess of 145 mph, according to DaimlerChrysler, and can run the standing quarter mile in about 14 seconds.

The SRT-4 delivers such amazing performance via the time-honored recipe of adding a high-horsepower engine to a lightweight chassis. Its 230-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder may have six fewer cylinders than the Dodge Viper SRT-10’s massive 8.3-liter V-10, but the high-pressure turbocharged engine develops more output per liter of displacement. The SRT-4’s engine also features a high-flow intake manifold and a 2.5-inch low restriction dual outlet exhaust. A heavy-duty five-speed-manual gearbox, a high-capacity clutch, 17-inch wheels and ultra-performance tires are among the other SRT-4 upgrades. For 2004, a limited-slip axle has been added as a standard feature, and race-style aluminum pedals are installed.

All this startling performance is stickered just above $20,000, making it one of the least expensive ways to go incredibly fast.

Rear-Wheel-Drive Models
As with performance-car enthusiasts of yore, rear-wheel drive holds special appeal among many of today’s muscle-car fans. The Dodge Viper SRT-10, 2005 Ford Mustang GT and Pontiac GTO all have rear-wheel drive.

Dodge Viper SRT-10: The Dodge Viper SRT-10 expands upon the fine American tradition of too much can never be enough. As part of the car’s 2003 model year redesign, the troglodyte V-10 engine became even more massive, punched out to an unbelievable 8.3 liters.

2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10
Dodge’s Viper SRT-10 is one of the quickest production sports cars on the road today, with a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 3.9 seconds.

Hit the racecar-style red starter button and the huge engine rumbles to life with the happy sound of 500 hp. The quarter mile can be obliterated in 11.77 seconds at 123.63 mph. Zero to 60 takes but 3.9 seconds. Nothing short of a very quick sport bike can touch the Viper SRT-10. It is truly king of the hill.

The Viper SRT-10 delivers its dominating performance with a relatively low, 9.6:1 compression ratio, a mild street cam and just two valves per cylinder, which proves once again the maxim that there is, indeed, no replacement for displacement and that easy power is the best power of all.

On the road, the double-overdrive six-speed Tremec T56 manual transmission allows the engine to lope along at 80 mph and return as much as 20 mpg. In keeping with its performance potential, the Viper SRT-10 comes with well-bolstered bucket seats and Brembo brakes.

Torque output is a steroidal 525 pounds-feet, and 90 percent of it is at your service from 1,500 rpm, which in a 3,410-pound car provides overwhelming acceleration capability that will strain the limits of all but the most skilled drivers. Even with a torque-sensing limited-slip differential and 19-inch rear wheels fitted with P345/30ZR19 Michelin tires to spread the load, this car can get away from you even faster than its 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 3.9 seconds.

As ultra-performance cars go, there’s nothing out there that’s hairier than the Viper SRT-10 — a machine that’s as intimidating to people who don’t have the skill, training and nerves of steel to keep it under control as it is to those who behold it.

2005 Ford Mustang GT
Ford’s redesigned 2005 Mustang, shown here in GT trim, has a distinct retro flavor both inside and out.

2005 Ford Mustang GT: The 2005 model due out in summer 2004 is the first completely new Mustang since 1979. Ford has finally retired the ancient “Fox” platform that formed the basis of every new Mustang from 1979 to 2004. The 2005 chassis shares nothing with previous Mustangs and features a number of improvements, including lightweight cast-aluminum front control arms and coil-over MacPherson struts. In keeping with the American pony-car tradition, the 2005 Mustang retains the familiar “live axle” non-independent rear suspension with coil springs and shocks, which helps keep the ’Stang’s cost in check.

In addition to the gorgeous, retro-themed bodywork and interior that were designed to evoke the classic lines of the 1968 fastback model, power for both the base and GT models is up. The standard 4.0-liter V-6 makes 202 hp, and the optional 4.6-liter single-overhead-cam V-8 comes in at an even 300 hp — the most horsepower ever for a regular production Mustang V-8. It can team with either a Tremec heavy-duty five-speed manual or a new five-speed automatic.

Pontiac GTO: The name that started it all back in 1964 returns after a 30-year hiatus. While it doesn’t have a Tri-Power 389 or 455 HO V-8 engine under the hood, fans of traditional V-8-powered rear-drive performance cars will probably not mind, what with a 350-hp 5.7-liter version of the Chevrolet Corvette’s mighty LS1 V-8 powering the reborn “Goat.”

2004 Pontiac GTO
Like its namesake, the new GTO is about performance. Pontiac claims it can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds.

The new GTO is based on the Holden Monaro sold by General Motors’ Australian subsidiary, Holden Motors. Turning the Monaro into the GTO was mostly a matter of a new nosepiece, adding Pontiac styling cues here and there, and changing the car to left-hand drive.

Like the old Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, the GTO is a 2+2 coupe with a small but viable backseat rather than a two-seater like the Corvette. The GTO’s drivetrain is essentially the 2004 Corvette’s drivetrain underneath a different body.

Oddly, the GTO comes with an automatic transmission as standard equipment; if you want the six-speed manual — which most enthusiast drivers probably will — you’ll have to pay an extra $695. But beyond that, everything else is standard, including leather sport bucket seats, a high-end Blaupunkt audio system, 17-inch alloy wheels and high-performance tires. Both automatic and manual versions have the same tire-frying 3.42:1 axle ratio and a limited slip differential.

The new GTO represents a major departure from the original, which was designed to be a low-cost way to go big-time fast.

By Eric Peters for

Posted on 4/7/04