Camaro, Challenger & Mustang: Three Different Flavors of Modern Muscle
In an ever-shifting auto industry that's seeing both a decrease in sedan and coupe offerings and an increasing push towards electrification, we should be very grateful that all three of America's big automakers currently sell a rear-drive, two-door coupe with a variety of engine options including a number of powerful V8s.
The Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang and occasionally the Dodge Challenger have been going at it for more than 50 years, and the current iterations of all three models are as good as they've ever been. Over the years each of them has evolved and though they have a lot of overlap in terms of price and performance capability, the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang each offer a totally different experience.
More than just a showdown of specs and performance figures, there are some key traits that define each car—and here are some things to know if you are in the market for one of them.
Chevy Camaro: The Sports Car
While the Camaro's retro-modern look may be inspired by the first generation car of the late 1960s, from the minute you step inside a new Camaro it feels much more like a sports car than a traditional muscle car.
The driver sits low, the dashboard sits high and the back seat isn't much more than a shelf to place grocery bags on.
It's not that these are bad things though. And as you drive the sixth generation Camaro the "sports car" feel becomes even stronger. Whether its an entry-level model powered by the 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder or a top of the line ZL1, the current Camaro has poise and handling ability that would have once been unheard of in a pony car. And Camaros equipped with the track-focused 1LE package take that handling to the next level.
Much of this can be attributed to the renowned GM Alpha platform that the Camaro rides on, and it's that platform also helps the Camaro come in at a lighter weight than its rivals from Dodge and Ford. This not only allows the Camaro to go faster with the same horsepower, it greatly benefits handling and contributes to the aforementioned sports car persona.
For a lot of the modern era, the Camaro, and its more expensive sibling the Chevy Corvette, had more similarities than differences, with the same types of V8 engines and the same front-engine, rear-drive layout.
Now with the Corvette moving to its radically different mid-engine platform, it could be said that there's great potential for the Camaro to establish itself a more affordable GM performance offering with a traditional front-engine layout.
Unfortunately, there are pretty substantial rumors going around that there is no new Camaro planned after the end of sixth gen production a couple years from now. That would be very sad to see because the Camaro is one of the best all around American performance cars—ever. If you favor extremely sharp handling, fast lap times and a balanced feel to your modern muscle car, the sixth generation Camaro may be the choice for you.
Dodge Challenger: The Old School (Modern) Muscle Car
In contrast to the sharp-edged Camaro, the Dodge Challenger is a modern muscle car that fully embraces the traditional muscle car ethos.
It's by far the biggest and heaviest of the three, and it's also the oldest—having been on the market in its basic form for well over a decade now.
Yet despite all that, the Challenger has been extremely successful and the car has only gotten more popular as it has aged. There are a lot of reasons for that. First off, while it may be big, it also has a larger, roomier interior than the Camaro or Mustang.
The Challenger offers comfortable accommodations for both the driver and passenger, and it's the only one of the three cars with a back seat that can be used by actual adults. Ditto that for its full-size trunk.
A heavier car will need more horsepower, and fortunately, Dodge has more than delivered in that department, with a lineup of V8s that goes from the modest 5.7 liter Hemi in the Challenger R/T all the way to the nearly 800 horsepower SRT Hellcat Redeye.
Along with its weight and size, the biggest drawback to the Challenger may be that its base V6 engine is rather uninspiring and is only available with an automatic transmission, while the non-V8 offerings of the Camaro and Mustang still have a lot to offer enthusiasts with variants like the Camaro Turbo 1LE and the Mustang EcoBoost Performance Package. If you're buying Dodge, it should be V8 or bust.
And while the handling capability of the modern Challenger puts original muscle cars to shame, its weight and size mean it will never be the road course warrior that the Camaro and Mustang are. But America has a lot of straight, open roads and it's not surprising at all that so many people have fallen in love with the Challenger's relaxed, old school muscle car attitude.
Ford Mustang: Splitting the Difference
So if the sixth generation Camaro is a sports car in a pony car suit and the Dodge Challenger is big, swagger-injected muscle car, then where does that leave the Ford Mustang? Right in the middle, basically.
In just about all areas, the modern Mustang splits the difference between the Camaro and Challenger.
That becomes evident from the moment you step inside any 2015+ Mustang. It's cabin and sight lines feel much more natural than the Camaro, but at the same time a lot more intimate and "sporty" than the big Challenger.
Out on the road it's the same story. While heavier and not as razor-sharp when compared to the Camaro, the S550 Mustang feels noticeably lighter and more nimble than the Challenger. The same can even be said for its styling—not as sharp and chiseled as the Camaro but also not as boxy and retro as the Challenger.
Aside from its goldilocks positioning between the Camaro and Challenger, the most appealing about the Mustang might be the wide variety of models you can choose from. Despite being the cheapest of the bunch, the entry-level 2.3 liter EcoBoost Mustang is a great rear-drive coupe with a ton of aftermarket potential.
Then you get to the iconic Mustang GT and its 5.0 liter Coyote V8— a combination that's hard to beat, and that's before you get to the exotic Shelby GT350 and the flagship performance machine known as the Shelby GT500. It should also be said that DOHC V8s that Ford uses have an altogether different sound and character than the OHV V8s in the Chevy and Dodge.
The truly great thing about all three of these cars is that there's really no bad choice. Despite targeting the same type of buyer the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang all have very distinct personalities and each offers its own unique take on the modern muscle car formula.
It's great fun to see the big three battle it out just like its 1970, but more than anything we should be glad that fifty years later the muscle car movement is still going strong. Let's hope it stays that way for a long time.
With rumors of the Camaro being discontinued in the next couple of years, we also have some interesting ideas for how GM can reinvent its iconic pony car.