High-End Muscle Cars are Rare and Expensive: Get These More Affordable Machines Instead
Big power costs big money these days—at least if you're talking about the enormous mountains of torque available at the very top of the muscle car pyramid. The fire-breathing 700 to 800 horsepower editions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, and Dodge Challenger are technically impressive, terrifying to drive, and eager to put a hurt on your wallet as these marquee models have turned into massive profit centers for their respective brands. Those extra dollars are only amplified by the dealer mark-ups tied to product scarcity across the country, making it extra-painful to get behind the wheel of one of these high-powered options.
As impressive as these kinds of the mountain might be, there are a number of somewhat overlooked versions of these same muscle cars that are just as fun to drive, despite not producing eye-popping power. Here's a look at less expensive, yet still excellent high performance models available from Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge.
Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE
Much of the heat in the Chevrolet Camaro line-up is focused on the ZL1 model, and for good reason: this supercharged monster delivers 650 horsepower and astounding levels of acceleration at nearly any speed. It also retails for a hefty $70,000, putting it out of the reach of the majority of the traditional muscle car crowd.
Fortunately, there's an alternative to the Camaro ZL1 that's just as intriguing to drive. In fact, it's not a stretch to call the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE the best-kept secret in the entire muscle machine segment, a vehicle that marries the incredible handling of the Alpha platform it is based on with a series of suspension upgrades that make the coupe a legitimate sports car threat that can hang on a race track with exotic badges that cost many multiples of its $48,000 starting price.
Adding the 1LE Track Performance Package to the Camaro SS introduces GM's excellent Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension system, updated springs and sway bars, an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, enormous Brembo brakes front and rear, a dual-mode exhaust, competition-level 20-inch rubber, and interior goodies such as Recaro seats and a head-up display. The 1LE also introduces a number of aerodynamic enhancements to the Camaro that give it a more aggressive countenance while helping it stick better to the asphalt, with a six-speed manual or a 10-speed automatic pulling gear-shifting duties for the two-door.
If you're a canyon carver or a weekend track fanatic, you won't be disappointed with how the 455 horsepower and 455 lb-ft of torque from the 6.2L V8 under the hood of the SS bring the Camaro's enhanced chassis to life. How good is the 1LE package? It's also available as an upgrade to the already-formidable ZL1.
Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack
Much of Dodge's marketing weight is thrown behind the Hellcat-powered editions of the its popular Challenger coupe. It makes sense that the automaker would want to highlight a drivetrain that's capable of pushing out over 800 horsepower, especially considering the profits associated with price tags that range from $72,000 all the way up to $89,000 for the drag-focused Super Stock trim.
Draw your gaze back to the middle of the Challenger line-up, however, and you'll discover the charms of the R/T Scat Pack. Outfitted with a 6.4L that churns out 485 hp and 475 lb-ft of torque, the Scat Pack can be paired with either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Regardless of which transmission is chosen, its drivetrain represents the perfect balance between comfortable cruising and straight-line speed, launching the big-boned Dodge to 60-mph in 4.4 seconds. Ignore the stop watch and lay a quarter-mile patch of rubber, and you'll have just as much fun behind the wheel of the Challenger, too.
It might be slower than a Hellcat-equipped model, but throw in a $25,000 discount and the R/T Scat Pack starts to look a lot more appealing. Given that the hefty Challenger is far less of a sports car than the Camaro (and features a much larger and more comfortable cabin with a usable rear seat), it makes sense to prioritize the rumble and attitude available from its non-supercharged engine versus paying more for the all-out chaos of its Hellcat brethren. Put it this way: if handling is what you're after, you can use that $25k savings to buy a used Miata that sleeps in the garage during the week while you prowl to work and back behind the wheel of the most attractive modern muscle car available.
Ford Mustang Mach 1
Including the Mach-E, there are more than a dozen different versions of the Ford Mustang out there, and it's reasonable to expect that number to only increase when the 2024 refresh hits dealerships. For now, the top dog in the line-up is the Shelby GT500, a supercharged monster that counts 760 hp and a host of high-tech track features among its primary assets.
The catch? You'll pay more than $80,000 to sample this Shelby-badged tarmac snake, if you can even find one that hasn't already been snatched up by one of the pony car faithful.
A more appealing compromise? The Mach 1, a model that bridges the gap between the now-departed GT350 and the less expensive GT. The latter donates a 470 hp version of its 5.0L V8 to the campaign, and combines equipment and features from the deleted Performance Package 2 option that previously served as the hottest member of the non-Shelby clan. The GT350 provides a unique six-speed transmission (with a 10-speed auto also available), and the entire package is rounded out by a MagneRide adaptive suspension system, a big boost to handling thanks to adjustable suspension components, track-ready brakes, and downforce-enhancing aerodynamics.
Ford has priced the Mach 1 at just over $56,000, which makes it the most expensive of the affordable muscle cars on this list. It's also not quite as lithe as the Camaro SS 1LE, or as generous inside its cabin as the Challenger Scat Pack, but as a daily-driver with definite track potential the Mach 1 has a lot going for it.
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