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Muscle Car Fans Searching for the Dream … Even if They’re Not Living It

America’s long love affair with muscle cars has not cooled, even if it’s often just a fantasy. Cars.com search data show that more people stop by to check out the four surviving muscle cars than any other single category of vehicles except pickup trucks. 

Related: America’s Muscle Car Romance: Reignited and It Feels So Good

The Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge’s Challenger coupe and Charger sedan, and the Ford Mustang  are four of the top 13 most searched-for new vehicles on Cars.com this year through August. Those models’ muscle as a search group is outpaced only by a gaggle of light-duty pickups, which took five slots. But unlike the pickups, which also are ginormous sellers, the muscle cars don’t even crack Cars.com’s top 75 in sales. The search popularity indicates that, with these cars — as in love and lottery tickets — we still dream, even if we know it’s never going to work out in our real lives.

Not that you can’t find happiness, says Cars.com Managing Editor Joe Bruzek.

“My personal basis for muscle-car livability is a 123,000-mile 1998 Pontiac Trans Am with Koni adjustable shocks, tubular suspension and lowering springs,” Bruzek said. “I’ve modeled an aftermarket approach to match the performance of new muscle cars, except my car doesn’t have Latch or top tether anchors (for child-seat installation) … sigh.”

But to give you more to think about as you research your dream machine, here’s what Cars.com reviewers would (or would not) love to take home, along with links below to our recent muscle car coverage and research pages. We’ve driven them all, tame and ridiculous versions, on the track as well as the street, and —  in the true spirit of sports bar disagreements — here’s what we think about the current crop.

Chevrolet Camaro

The Camaro features excellent performance, but styling and tank-slit visibility dilute appeal.

Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief: There’s no denying that GM’s Alpha platform has spawned an amazingly capable vehicle — the Camaro is a riot to throw around a track in just about any of its trim levels and powertrains. The 1LE package is magical, the Z/28 is a monster, and the ZL1 is an incredible cruiser and occasional track star if you have to have both elements in your life. But the last styling update ruined the look, taking it from retro-influenced awesomeness to dystopian-future weirdness. And the interior is still cramped and plasticky, with godawful visibility and a tiny trunk opening.

Kelsey Mays, senior consumer affairs editor: The Camaro boasts excellent dynamics and straight-line quickness, but it’s harder to live with as a daily driver.

Brian Wong, Los Angeles bureau chief: The Camaro just feels kind of… stale? Drive it and it holds up, with very sharp turn-in and solid dynamics. It will out-track an equally powered Challenger with relative ease. But the styling is no longer fresh and it’s not particularly retro, either, so it just feels like the Camaro is sitting in the space between, wanting to be loved.

Dodge Challenger

Old-school, fire-breathing muscle meets daily-driver comfort, though its safety crash-test ratings can’t be ignored. 

Bragman: As muscle cars go, you can’t get musclier than a Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye. It’s the classic muscle car formula: Go as fast as possible in a straight line, make cornering more of an afterthought, and make it supremely comfortable, make it affordable, make it look wild. The Challenger ticks all the boxes. That cabin is huge; I’ve called it the Ultimate Fat Guy’s Sports Car, and it truly is. There’s no bumping your helmeted head against the headliner, and the seats are wide and can be bolstered heavily, too. The trunk is enormous. And it just goes like stink, accompanied by a massive roar and all kinds of fun electronic aids to help you get to the end of the quarter-mile first. Here’s hoping Fiat Chrysler Automobiles can find a way to keep this magic for the next one instead of chasing the Mustang and Camaro.

Bruzek: I think the Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody is the best Challenger, and it’s also the biggest coupe of the bunch, with plenty of backseat and cargo room. It’s definitely tops for daily livability, though without as much edge as a Camaro SS or Mustang with a Performance Package. It’s still soft and not quite at home tearing up backroads or a track with corners. In 1320 form, however, its home is the drag strip, where it’s capable and quick using hand-me-down Demon parts to make a well-thought-out drag strip package.

Mays: Big and relatively comfortable, the Challenger is a throwback-era muscle car with a lot of charm, but its crash-test ratings are too concerning for me.

Wong: If this was a ranking of how enjoyable these are to drive, the Challenger would be last. But it isn’t just that; the styling is retro done right, and it’s what a muscle car should look and feel like. It’s a wild thing on the road — perhaps the name Mustang would be more appropriate here. It’s really only good for shredding tires; I really don’t care.

2020 Dodge Charger Hellcat Widebody

Dodge Charger

Dodge calls it the four-door muscle car — and some of us agree. Do you?

Bragman: Yeah, it’s an awesome family sedan, and I love how it looks distinct from the Challenger, but it’s still a four-door and that means it’s always going to be heavier and slower than the Chally, even in Hellcat Widebody form. The fact that you can actually buy a Hellcat Widebody full-size family sedan, however, is fantastic — I love how “throwback” this thing is. It’s like FCA woke up one day and said, “Well folks, we apparently can’t make a successful small car to save our lives, so let’s just put a Hellcat V-8 in everything we possibly can.” And it works.

Bruzek: While it’s pretty much a Challenger with four doors, I find the Charger more controllable and livable in Hellcat form thanks to a longer wheelbase that gives a little more control over the tire-frying 707-horsepower V-8. The Charger and Challenger are the most raucous of the bunch, and if I had to vote for the best muscle car based on traditional muscle car values, then I think the Charger or Challenger would win. The Mustang and Camaro have evolved into better sports cars, whereas the Challenger and Charger are still sticking batsh*t-crazy powerful engines in family cars — plus, the Challenger has multiple drag-strip-focused versions. How much more muscle car does it get than that?

Mays: Crashworthiness ratings are a little better than the Challenger but still problematic, and the lack of an available manual transmission seems antithetical to the whole muscle car thing.

Wong: The Charger is the best of the Hellcat models — it’s the one for me. It’s still insanely fast but very composed at speed (unlike the Challenger), and I admit this is a heart pick. I just love them.

2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

Ford Mustang

The original Pony Car in 21st-century form gets a lot of love.

Bragman: The Mustang has graduated from awesome muscle car to fantastic sports car. What’s the difference? Track-capable performance that works both in the quarter-mile and on a road course. And the latest Mustang excels with literally any of its variants by providing a rewarding driving experience. The four-cylinder is outstanding when paired with the 10-speed automatic. The V-8 is ridiculously strong, and the Shelby engines with flat-plane crankshafts sound just incredible. And it all comes with an interior that’s classically good looking, made of decent stuff and providing good visibility and comfort.

Bruzek: Back in 2016, we named the Camaro SS the best V-8 muscle car, and the Mustang EcoBoost the best non-V-8 muscle car. With the Mustang’s changes for 2018, including more power, the 10-speed transmission and a more aggressive Performance Package with optional adaptive shocks, I think it would be a nail-biter of a rematch. The 2018 and newer Mustang is pretty high up on my list because of its can-do approach to the drag strip and a road course, and I found it perfectly livable as a daily driver.

Mays: A well-executed manual transmission, serious performance and more livability than the Camaro put the Mustang atop the list for me.

Wong: The Mustang has successfully reinvented itself as a car that still has muscles, but also a lot of dexterity. There are multiple appealing performance models at various trim levels and a track monster Shelby at the top.

More From Cars.com

Camaro Coverage

Challenger Coverage

Charger Coverage

Mustang Coverage

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Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

 
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