Designers call it retro-futurism: taking a fond look back at the treasures we cherished as adolescents and updating them with modern features and touches. Nowhere is the trend more apparent than with muscle cars, where classic examples from the 1960s routinely top six-figure prices at auction. For those with more ordinary budgets, Dodge, Ford, and Chevrolet have recently updated their go-fast coupes with modern powertrains, electronics, and safety features to accompany designs that pay homage to their sainted roots.
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What do you give the iconic Ford Mustang for its 50th birthday redesign? Lots and lots of presents.
Ford provided its latest pony car with the equivalent of a heart transplant and a hip replacement. It added a turbocharged four-cylinder engine to the lineup and replaced its creaky solid-axle rear suspension with an independent multilink design. What does that mean? Strong power with decent fuel efficiency, and a chassis that’s more planted than skittish.
But Ford’s largesse didn’t stop there. A rakish new silhouette provides a sleeker, sportier appearance that’s modern yet true to the Mustang’s Americana roots. Interior quality and ambience are improved immensely.
Coupe and convertible versions are again available. We tested two coupes—a GT V8 with a six-speed manual, and a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a six-speed automatic. The turbo is a stylish, mildly sporty boulevardier; the GT is a tire-smoking brute that will summon your inner teenager.
With a snappy 0-60 mph acceleration time of 6.4 seconds, the turbo version lives up to the image of its sheet metal. Power comes on quickly, but the engine sound is raspy and gritty. Fuel economy of 25 mpg overall is more akin to a midsized sedan than a performance car. As for handling, the turbo Mustang has an appropriately sporty demeanor while leaving your molars intact on bumpier roads.
With its throaty 5.0-liter V8, the GT is more of a high-strung thoroughbred than an easygoing mare. Pumping out 435 hp, our GT roared from 0-60 mph in just 4.9 seconds, about a half-second slower than a Chevrolet Corvette or Porsche 911. The six-speed manual had smooth, low-effort action, and the clutch was light enough to avoid left-leg fatigue in traffic. That’s a rare feat in a car with this much torque.
With the optional Performance package, we got stiffer springs, Brembo brakes, and a Torsen limited-slip axle. So equipped, the GT felt ready to race. But the Pirelli P Zero tires take forever to heat up for optimum grip, so we recommend getting performance all-season tires for real-world driving.
All Mustangs have improved interiors, with soft-touch materials offsetting some hard plastic surfaces here and there. A row of toggle switches in the center stack lends a cool, retro-racer flair. But the irritating and poorly designed MyFord Touch infotainment system won’t be replaced by Sync3 until 2016.
Unlike many sporty cars and coupes, the Mustang can serve as a daily driver without severely compromising visibility, ease of access, or drivability. The front seats are superbly supportive, but they lack a power recline feature. As for the rear seats, there’s room for groceries but little else. It is, after all, a coupe.
A standard rear camera is helpful. We’d also select the optional blind-spot monitoring.
So how does the Mustang look as it turns 50? Better than most of us.
Read our complete Ford Mustang road test.
||Handling, V8 acceleration and exhaust note, braking, interior details
||Rear seat, ride (V8), noise, EcoBoost engine sound, glitchy MyFord Touch infotainment system
||435-hp, 5.0-liter V8, 6-speed manual; 310-hp, turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic; rear-wheel drive
||19 mpg (V8); 25 mpg (turbo 4)
It rumbles, it snarls, it roars—and it’s the car the neighborhood loves to hate
Ever since the Challenger’s 2009 reincarnation as a retro-modern muscle car, Dodge has made a series of civilizing upgrades to the interior. It has also improved the handling and given it the latest version of Chrysler’s accomplished touch-screen infotainment system.
Rest assured, its brazen attitude remains.
The 2015 vintage brought various cosmetic changes, performance-oriented features, and a choice of V6 and V8 engines spread over a bewildering 10 trim lines, culminating in the outrageous 707-hp “Hellcat” version.
Our tested car was a loaded midtrim R/T Plus with a 375-hp, 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8 and six-speed manual. Adding navigation; heated seats and steering wheel; a sport-oriented tire, brake, and suspension package; and active safety gear nudged the sticker to $40,860 with shipping.
The Challenger’s bruising design makes a definite statement at a red light, with the Hemi’s baritone exhaust note gurgling at idle.
But such an intimidating form takes a toll on function. The cockpit is a low, dark man cave, with plenty of macho furnishings. It feels as if you’re sitting in a pit—surrounded by long, high doors and windows that better resemble embrasures.
Despite its heft, the Challenger is surprisingly capable. It snarls and grips in corners like a rottweiler with a rib-eye steak. Braking is exceptional. Steering requires more wheel-winding than expected but provides decent feedback. The manual shifter has longer throws than the Mustang’s, but it’s easy to find the right gear. Though not quick through our avoidance maneuver, it stayed balanced and predictable.
Various track-driving apps let you scale down or shut off driving aids like stability control. That allows an experienced driver to test the limits—of car and wheelman—on a closed course. Compared with Ford’s pony car, the Dodge remained docile even at the limits of tire grip in corners. For a high-performance coupe, the Challenger has an almost refined demeanor.
In everyday driving, our Challenger was a mixed bag. Around town, you feel the car’s heft and width. The ride is very firm but not too punishing. Acceleration is effortless, but the loud, exhilarating exhaust note can become tiresome. The heavy clutch-pedal effort wearies your left foot.
The cockpit offers an old-school analog speedometer and tach dials. A versatile, full-color information screen shows a host of useful info, including a digital speedometer, a trip computer, and audio settings. Our car also displayed track stats including 0-60 mph times, braking distances, and lateral g’s.
Although the Challenger offers generous steering-wheel adjustments, the recline adjustment for the front seats is manual only. The rear seats will fit kids, but an adult needs a slender body and powers of levitation.
The Challenger’s biggest challenge is that it’s not the only muscle car with a modicum of civility. Drivers must carry an individualistic streak that overlooks its flaws.
Read our complete Dodge Challenger road test.
||Brawn, exhaust note, braking, infotainment system, habitable rear seat
||Ride, noise, visibility, wide-hipped around town
||375-hp, 5.7-liter V8; 6-speed manual
The third entrant in the long-running American muscle-car race is the Chevrolet Camaro. The current model dates back to 2009—and we recommend the V8 version on the market now—but shoppers should know that a redesigned version arrives in dealerships later this year.
Styled with a clear nod to the 1967 original, the sixth-generation Camaro promises to ratchet up performance and sophistication. The car’s dimensions contract for 2016. It’s slightly shorter, narrower, and lower, and it rides on a more compact wheelbase. Chevy has reduced its weight by at least 200 pounds to bolster fuel economy and handling agility.
The base engine is a 275-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder. A new 3.6-liter V6 brings an incremental power gain, up a dozen horses to 335 total. For the V8 offering, Chevrolet adapted the ferocious 6.2-liter LT1 engine from the Corvette Stingray. With 455 hp on tap, it will be the most powerful SS yet.
All versions have a choice of a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The interior retains a dual-binnacle instrument panel. The buttons and assorted brightwork appear more polished than the chintzy controls in the outgoing model. There are two 8-inch color screens, one providing key driving information in the instrument cluster and the other serving as the interface for the latest MyLink infotainment system.
At first blush, the new Camaro appears to be more hospitable and a formidable competitor to the Challenger and Mustang. We will test it soon.
This article also appeared in the August 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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