What's the Best V-8 Muscle Car for 2016?

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Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

Americans always have loved muscle cars, and they love muscle cars with big V-8 engines. With gas below $2 a gallon in many places, there might not be a better time to buy one. We tested muscle cars with V-8 monsters. They provided plenty of thrills, plenty of noise and lots to talk about.

The V-8 Muscle Car Challenge
Results | Performance | Mileage Test

The contenders:

  • 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS
  • 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack
  • 2016 Ford Mustang GT

We flexed these muscle cars in a week's worth of testing:

  • We put them on a racetrack outside of Phoenix to see how well they performed in zero-to-60-mph tests, quarter-mile times and speeds, and 60-mph-to-zero braking distance tests.
  • We drove them on a 130-mile real-world mileage course in and around Phoenix.
  • We had our judges drive them back-to-back-to-back on the same pavement to evaluate ride, handling, comfort, acceleration and more.
  • We brought in an in-market shopper to test the cars for ride, handling, acceleration and more.

From all of the points we awarded in those tests, we found our winner. Our judges were:

  • Aaron Bragman, Cars.com Detroit bureau chief
  • Joe Bruzek, Cars.com senior road test editor
  • Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com executive editor
  • Brian Robinson, PBS' "MotorWeek" producer
  • Jason Kadah, our in-market shopper. In the interest of transparency, Kadah owned a Mustang years ago, but he promised prior to his involvement that he would judge the cars without bias.

The scoring broke down this way:

  • 48 percent from the judges' scoring
  • 30 percent from the track tests
  • 12 percent from our shopper
  • 10 percent from the mileage drive

Here's how they finished:

What You Get

What the Judges Said

32016 Ford Mustang GT, 797 points

The Verdict: "With more evolved performance than the Challenger, yet still a little rough and raucous around the edges when driven hard, the Mustang is the perfect evolution of the muscle car," Wiesenfelder said. "It's fun and ready for track day yet comfortable and livable for daily use."

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What They Liked

Ride and handling: "The GT feels right at home on the road course with superb balance and a playful, tail-happy attitude, even if it doesn't have the outright grip and speed of the Camaro SS," Bruzek said. "The handling isn't quite as unflappable as the Camaro, but I think it's more fun," Wiesenfelder said. "It still has a lightweight, nimble feel to it," Robinson said. The Mustang was Kadah's favorite, even though it tied with the Challenger in points for him. "It's a coin toss," he said, but he thought "the Mustang definitely feels lighter and more responsive than the Challenger, but not as responsive as the Camaro."

The engine: "The 5.0-liter V-8 makes big noise and big thrust," Bragman said. "This thing feels crazy fast, especially on the track." "It may not be the most capable on the track," Robinson said, "but it is quite possibly the most fun."

The shifter: "The best of all the manuals," Robinson said, and Bragman added, "It feels very precise, with short, direct throws."

Room and visibility: 'The Mustang is the perfect size, with enough front passenger comfort and cargo room to be usable as a daily driver," Bruzek said. "It provides the best visibility of the three contestants, in all directions, which lends confidence on the track as well as in daily traffic," Wiesenfelder said.

And...: "The clutch pedal is crazy light," Kadah said, "like I'm just pushing air." "Ford's Sync 3 is a huge improvement," Bruzek said. "It has the most linear braking, on application and release," Wiesenfelder said, "with superior pedal feel." Kadah found the Recaro seats "crazy comfortable," but he may have been alone there. ...

What They Didn't

Recaro seats: OK, several judges hated the Recaro seats. "They absolutely ruin this car," Bragman said. "They're not nearly adjustable enough and are mounted in a position that puts me into a horribly uncomfortable driving position." "Those damn Recaro seats don't have power adjustability, a heated or ventilated function, cost $1,595, are uncomfortable and don't grip any better than the sports seats in the Challenger or Camaro, which have power, heated and ventilated front seats," Bruzek complained. "As equipped, our car replaced the most adjustable standard seats in the test with overly restrictive, barely adjustable Recaros that must fit someone perfectly, just not any of our editors," Wiesenfelder added.

Underpowered: "The Mustang could use some more muscle under the hood, and some exhaust note to go with it," Robinson said. "It sounds the most tame here by a wide margin." "Its acceleration is a bit soft off the line, though the GT came into its own on the track where the revs are higher and 1st gear is but a memory," Wiesenfelder added.

Fit-and-finish fail: "The exterior fit and finish are a problem," Robinson said. "The body gaps are not consistent, and panels are misaligned." "Inconsistent sheet-metal gaps and uneven trunk lids make a terrible impression," Wiesenfelder said. "Poor build quality is apparent from nose to tail," Bruzek said.

And...: "On the drag strip, the GT's excessive wheel hop makes it the hardest car to drive," drag-strip driver Bruzek said, "plus it's just not as fun to wind out the gears thanks to a whisper-quiet exhaust." "While the interior is nowhere near as cramped as the Camaro, it's also nowhere near as comfortable as the Challenger," Robinson said. "The clutch travel is really long, and the throttle is extremely springy, making for a lot of pogo-ing in everyday driving," Bragman said, while noting that "the Brembo brakes that work so well on the track are overly grabby on the street, making a smooth stop a delicate and difficult balancing act."

Research the 2016 Ford Mustang GT | Search Inventory

22016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack, 809 points

The Verdict: "This car is everything you want a muscle car to be: It's big, it's loud, it looks aggressive, it's a handful to drive, and it's a little bit scary at times," Robinson said. "But it puts a big smile on your face every time you get behind the wheel and fire it up."

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What They Liked

Puts the "muscle" in muscle cars: "The Challenger R/T Scat Pack is fun in the most immature way imaginable with obnoxiously loud exhaust, a huge Shaker hood scoop and bright purple paint that lets everyone at the party know you've arrived," Bruzek said. "It is unabashedly, unapologetically retro in everything it does," Bragman said, "from the styling, to the interior, to the Shaker hood on the massive Hemi V-8." It's "by far the most muscular looking of these muscle cars," Robinson said, "but it is as comfortable as a big family sedan." Wiesenfelder said, "the Challenger proves that style needn't sacrifice utility or comfort." "Definitely fun," Kadah said, "but definitely different than the others. The Challenger is still a muscle car while the Camaro and Mustang are sports cars."

Hemi engine: "It has the most immediate response of any of the engines here, with gobs of low-end torque available right now, but it still calmly motors around town without any quirks," Bragman said. "Really feels like a muscle car," Robinson said, "especially when you fire that big Hemi up." "This giant purple hulk doesn't belong on a racetrack," Wiesenfelder said, "yet somehow it does."

Exhaust note: "The V-8 rumble is terrific at all speeds," Wiesenfelder said.

And...: "You might think skinny tires are a downside, which they are in terms of outright performance, but being able to ignite the rear tires in a cloud of smoke, on command, never gets old," Bruzek said. And, he noted, "The Challenger is the only car in this comparison with enough interior room to fit four adults comfortably."

What They Didn't

That look: "I've never been one to own something that announces when I've arrived," Kadah said, "and that's exactly what the Challenger does."

That clutch: "It's the StairMaster of the group," Wiesenfelder said, "too firm for daily driving." "The clutch-pedal and gear-shifter effort are as old school as the styling, with serious punch and pull required when shifting gears," Robinson said.

That size: "While it feels great in a straight line, and the sport suspension improves its track performance, it's still just too massive to be fun on twisty mountain roads or tight racetracks," Bragman said. "It's so darn big," Robinson said.

That exhaust note: "Great sound, but I wouldn't want to drive this if I'm nursing a headache on the way home from work," Kadah said.

That ride and handling: "There's just an overall soft feel that keeps you from pushing things too hard through corners," Robinson said. "Whether on the street or in a high-speed corner, the Scat Pack's suspension is bouncy and never feels settled like the Camaro SS and Mustang GT," Bruzek said. "Even though the road-holding exceeds expectations," Wiesenfelder said, "this car's handling isn't in the same class as its competitors."

Research the 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack | Search Inventory

12016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS, 816 points

The Verdict: "The Camaro SS is the surprise in this test, demonstrating remarkable civility, comfort and user friendliness on the street, and eye-popping capability when raced on a racetrack," Bragman said, "with only its poor brake feel and lack of head and trunk space counting against it."

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What They Liked

Performance: "The 6.2-liter engine is the sweet spot between the more modest Ford 5.0-liter and the Dodge's brute-force 6.4-liter V-8, with great power off the line and all the way up," Wiesenfelder said. It should be noted that the SS swept all three performance tests and still won the top prize for fuel economy to boot. "The V-8 always responds with a burst of acceleration no matter what engine speed, vehicle speed or gear is chosen," Bruzek said. "It's solid, grips well and has instant response from the accelerator," Kadah said. Out of the three, "the SS is the easiest to drive fast with little effort required to achieve the fastest acceleration times," Bruzek noted. He was the track driver for all of the performance tests.

Handling: "Its handling and steering precision have a feel more similar to a Chevy Corvette than any of the other muscle cars," Bruzek said. "The excellent steering, balance and road-holding raises the Camaro above the level of muscle car and into the realm of sports cars," Wiesenfelder said.

Exhaust note: "With its active exhaust, the SS sounds great when you want it to, without being overly rumbly when you don't," Wiesenfelder said. "I almost want to turn down the radio and just listen to the exhaust," Kadah said.

Worth the upgrade: "Of all the V-8s, the SS is the one that stands apart from its V-6 counterpart the most," Robinson said. "The aggressive front end clues everyone in that you're rolling with the big boy under the hood."

And...: "The transmission's active rev-matching feature is wonderful on the track," Robinson said. "Excellent driver comfort, just the right combination of sporting seat position and adjustability for multiple body types," Bragman said. "There would never be a boring day driving this car," Kadah said.

What They Didn't

Brakes: "The numbers may look good," Wiesenfelder said, "but the brake pedal is mushy and seriously nonlinear." "They feel much too soft for a car like this," Bragman said, "with no confidence-inspiring initial bite at all."

Lack of space: Kadah found the backseat, uh, snug. "Wow, this hurts. And I'm a short guy," he said. Then, thinking positively, he added, "it makes me feel tall! I'm psyched." He was kidding. "The backseat and cargo room make compromises you shouldn't have to in a four-seater that isn't a dedicated weekend-duty sports car," Bruzek added. And Robinson found "the driver's area is incredibly cramped."

Visibility: "The super-high beltline combines with the low roof to make visibility the worst of all the cars here," Bragman said. Several judges agreed. "The Camaro is consistently criticized for its rearward visibility, but it's the compromised forward sightlines that are a liability both on the street and on the racetrack, especially when there are elevation changes," Wiesenfelder said.

Poor interior quality: "It definitely looks cool," Kadah said, "but it has a more plasticky feel than the Challenger." "The SS interior comes up short on material quality against the Mustang and Challenger, even with a few nicer touches on the inside compared with the Camaro 1LT," Bruzek said.

And...: "The V-8 feels strong, but it doesn't have the immediacy of the Challenger's Hemi," Bragman said. "It'll pull, but you have to specifically ask it to pull." "It has the smallest trunk opening with a high lift-over that makes loading and unloading a chore," Robinson said. "The hyperactive skip-shift feature that forces the stick from 1st to 4th gear is an abomination that outweighs whatever enjoyment you get from the active rev-matching incorporated in this transmission," Wiesenfelder said.

Research the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS | Search Inventory

How the Competitors Fared in Each Category

Judges' Average Score for Interior Quality

  1. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    7.6
  2. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    7.0
  3. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    6.8

Judges' Average Score for Cargo

  1. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    8.4
  2. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    6.8
  3. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    4.6

Judges' Average Score for Occupant Comfort

  1. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    7.8
  2. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    5.0
  3. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    4.6

Judges' Average Score for Controls & Multimedia

  1. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    7.6
  2. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    7.4
  3. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    7.2

Judges' Average Score for Handling

  1. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    9.2
  2. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    7.8
  3. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    6.6

Judges' Average Score for Acceleration

  1. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    8.6
  2. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    8.2
  3. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    6.6

Judges' Average Score for Braking

  1. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    7.8
  2. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    6.6
  3. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    6.4

Judges' Average Score: Fun to Drive?

  1. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    8.2
  2. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    8.2
  3. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    7.4

Judges' Average Score for Street Manners

  1. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    8.0
  2. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    7.2
  3. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    5.4

Judges' Average Score: Worth the Money?

  1. 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

    7.8
  2. 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack

    6.0
  3. 2016 Ford Mustang GT

    5.8

 

Chevrolet Chevrolet Camaro Chevrolet Camaro 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2016 2SS Chrysler Dodge Dodge Challenger Dodge Challenger 2016 Dodge Challenger 2016 R/T Dodge Challenger 2016 R/T Scat Pack Ford Ford Mustang Ford Mustang 2016 Ford Mustang 2016 GT Coupe FCA General Motors Performance Sports Cars

Editor-in-Chief Patrick Olsen was born and raised in California. He loves pickup trucks and drivers who pay attention.  Email Patrick