Thirty-five years ago, the word "Watergate" was being re-Webstered from meaning "a snazzy apartment building in Washington, D.C." to "a coverup investigation involving the White House, two reporters who don't look anything like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, and a guy named 'Deep Throat.'" The most popular show on TV was about a grump named Archie whose tattered easy chair would go on to occupy a place in the Smithsonian. Half of the current staff of Motor Trend hadn't even been born yet (yes, Angus, we're getting old). That year, 1974, would also mark the final moment for decades in which America's streets would be prowled by all three current-gen versions of the most iconic-ever ponycars: the Chevy Camaro, the Dodge Challenger, and the Ford Mustang.
By Arthur St. Antoine
Photography by Brian Vance
Defying the oddsmakers, though, America's three trick ponies are back. And they're back big. Those days of yore are indeed long-gone -- but only because the new incarnations of the Camaro, Challenger, and Mustang are so far evolved from their famed predecessors they're recognizable almost by name only. Sure, the old cars looked cool and made lots of noise and got the girls, and some could even lay down a righteous longitudinal blast when the road arrowed straight. But none could match these current machines for blistering speed, cornering ability, braking power, driveability, reliability, and comfort. I mean, when I was 16, we didn't have fancy computers to make our cars run like winged chariots, and we didn't have in-car iPod adaptors (unless you count the Tijuana Brass on eight-track), and we sure didn't have...never mind. You whippersnappers today don't know how good you've got it.
What remains utterly unchanged, however, is a degree of nameplate loyalty and fan mania the likes of which might be matched by the current March Madness B-ball tourney. Or maybe not. After all, Camaro versus Mustang versus Challenger is deeply ingrained into the American psyche, the four-wheeled equivalent of the Hatfields versus the McCoys versus...uh, the HatCoys. Doesn't really matter which car we deem the best or what the numbers say -- the feuding factions will stand behind their favorites like a third-grader defending his mom against the schoolyard rabble. Might even be a few bloody noses thrown in if the hostilities escalate to the level of, "Yeah? Well, your Challenger's so fat..."
Hey, but we love a good debate (or at least starting one). So...we proudly present our exclusive, first-ever, side-by-side-by-side comparison of the new Chevrolet Camaro SS, the Dodge Challenger R/T, and the Ford Mustang GT. All the numbers, all our driving impressions...just one winner.
All three ponies share similar basic blueprints. The foundation: aggressive two-door bodywork, at least a semblance of a back seat and a trunk, brawny V-8 mounted up front and driving the rear wheels through an available manual shifter, suspension biased toward responsiveness over cushiness, price tag hovering somewhere in the affordasphere. All three have also obviously been injected, Jurassic Park-like, with DNA from their long-deceased ancestors.
Of the three, the Ford Mustang, of course, has been with us all along. True, soon after its 1960s heyday Dearborn's ponycar morphed into the heinous "Mustang II" -- an anemic lump of Iacocca-fueled cynicism that looked good only when Farah Fawcett-Majors was driving it and your eyes were closed -- but eventually Ford came to its senses and the Mustang was born again proud. The current, 2010 version boasts newly freshened sheetmetal, a vastly upgraded cockpit, and a SOHC, 4.6L V-8 making 315 hp and throaty exhaust sounds worthy of "Bullitt."
Last year, Dodge bravely resurrected the long-gone Challenger (missing since '74) with an all-new car that masterfully recalls the bandit-eyed original made famous by Kowalski's high-speed, existentialist dash in the 1971 movie "Vanishing Point." Though first available only in mega-output SRT8 form, for 2009 the Challenger gains a new R/T edition, powered by a 376-hp, 5.7L Hemi V-8 and available with a six-speed manual -- including retro-licious pistol-grip shifter (A V-6-powered SE coupe also joins the 2009 stable).
The newest entry, missing since 2002 and once feared RIP forever, is Chevy's Camaro. The structure, including an independent rear suspension, owes its roots to GM's Zeta global platform (i.e., the Australian Holden Commodore); the ravishing bodywork flows from the keen hand of South Korea-born chief designer Sang Yup Lee. Though available in base form with a superb, 3.6L direct-injection six making 304 hp, the Camaro in topline SS trim brandishes a 6.2L V-8 (GM's LS3 from the 2008 Vette) making a strapping 426 hp and mated to a six-speed manual shifter. (Opt for the six-speed auto, and the SS engine changes to the L99 6.2L V-8, rated at 400 hp and outfitted with Active Fuel Management capable of deactivating four cylinders when not needed.) Tires are 20-in. Pirelli PZero summer meats standard (if you're foolish enough to trade handling moves for curb presence, Chevy dealers also offer a 21-in. wheel/tire combo). Also standard: four huge four-piston Brembo brakes. Put simply, GM has left nothing on the table with the release of its reincarnated pony.
Tell war stories about the prowess of their long-departed ancestors to any one of these modern ponies, and they'll start rolling their eyes. "Grandpa? Huge biceps, skinny legs. More muscles than brains. Why, he couldn't even negotiate a tight corner without squealing at the top of his lungs. Smoked too much, too."
Simply, every member of this trio leaves its circa-1970s counterpart in the virtual dust. As in, these babies are fast. Though saddled with the most mass and only mid-pack power, the Challenger R/T nonetheless rips to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds and knocks-down the quarter in 13.6 seconds at 104.9 mph. The Hemi engine is a beauty, gushing with torque (410 lb-ft) and unfailingly smooth from idle to redline. The six-speed manual carves through its gates effortlessly, and, says MacKenzie, "The pistol-grip shifter works surprisingly well." Loh concurs: "Nice seats and pistol-grip shifter, but a decidedly sedanlike seating position. High window sill, wide and low windshield, and dark interior give the Challenger a real musclecar feel."
The Mustang GT carries the least-impressive on-paper physique -- just 4.6L making 315 hp -- but like a bantamweight it packs a helluva punch. Nearly 600 lb lighter than the Dodge, Ford's pony rockets to 60 mph in a mere 4.9 sec and holds that edge through the quarter, nipping the lights in 13.5 sec at trap speed of 104.2 mph. Though the GT wears only a five-speed manual, the lack of a sixth cog doesn't hinder its majestic stride. The engine is sizzling, too, happy to whirl away near its redline while making music worthy of a hit single. Can't drive a Mustang GT to hear for yourself? Go play the chase scene from "Bullitt." The 2010 GT performs with the same electrifying movie-star soundtrack.
Wielding 50 hp more than its next-closest rival and sporting a standard six-speed manual, the Camaro SS theoretically holds all the performance cards. And it isn't bluffing. Despite the 3859 lb borne of the Camaro's use of a preexisting structure (and the inherent compromises thereof), 0 to 60 mph takes a mere 4.7 sec; the quarter mile just 13 sec flat at 111.0 mph. When equipped with the manual, the SS also includes standard launch control; the driver simply mashes the throttle, waits for revs to stabilize around 4000 rpm, and then dumps the clutch. The on-board HAL 9000 does all the fancy footwork. The system works well enough, but it's no match for an experienced human right foot. (Note the human-versus-computer-generated numbers in the specifications chart.) All our testers agreed that the Mustang GT sounds more intoxicating inside the cockpit (thanks to a carefully engineered sound pipe delivering just the best notes to the cabin), but from the outside it's a different story. The Camaro SS won "Best Tenor" honors from all who heard it rumble past. And, of course, it's got the chops to back up that "Don't Tread on Me" audio. So be forewarned. Don't tread on it.
The lightweight, Track Pack-enhanced Mustang GT posts the defining stats on the handling tests. Maximum grip is a neck-wrenching 0.95 g, and the GT circled our figure eight in just 25.5 sec (at a 0.70g average). The Camaro SS was nearly there, churning out a max lat of 0.90 g and running the ocho cones in 25.8 sec (at 0.80 average g). Far behind lagged the broad-shouldered Challenger R/T, good for just 0.82 g max and needing 27.5 sec (at 0.63 average g) to negotiate the figure eight.
Braking performance follows a similar pattern. Though wearing only conventional binders, the lower-mass Mustang GT hammers to a stop from 60 in just 108 ft. Blessed with those four big Brembos, the Camaro SS, though heavier, notches the win, stopping in just 105 ft. Then far behind arrives the Challenger R/T, needing a full 135 ft to reign in its forward motion. Uncle Isaac more or less predicted the outcome of this one.
"Pure sex," is Loh's description of the Camaro's bod. "Deep draw of the flanks makes for some lovely, lurid, almost cartoony proportions. This is the Jessica Rabbit of musclecars." Avers MacKenzie: "Exterior styling is dramatic, not retro. Front end a little too plasticky. Side profile is awesome -- aggressive hips, slammed roofline, perfect ride height. Rear lights a little sad-eyed; reverse lights look like afterthoughts." Inside, the Camaro blends 1969 cues with modern forms. "Steering-wheel rim profile odd," says MacKenzie. "Interior is dark, A-pillars thick. But you sit in the car, not on it as in the Challenger. Interior styling is cool -- order the four-pack of gauges on the console; it looks a bit Spartan without them." All of us noted the laughable, submarine-hatch trunk opening, an obvious example of exterior style holding sway over all else. But to MacKenzie's thinking, "If a trunk is important to you, buy a sedan." Or, one might add, a Challenger.
On exterior design the Mustang drew mixed views. "Surfacing is very modern," says Mackenzie. "Unlike Challenger, which has a pure retro stance, with wheels inside the body, the Mustang sheetmetal is teased out over the tires. But it looks like just another Mustang. No one will notice it. Ford has a real challenge figuring out what to do with the next one." Loh was considerably more upbeat about the cockpit. "From the aluminum Mustang emblem on the steering wheel to the soft-touch dash to the bright and cleanly styled instruments -- it's the biggest leap from the old car and one of the major reasons I'd actually considering owning one. Only downside: not enough cubbies for the articles in my manpurse." The Mustang also easily trumps the Camaro for rear-seat room and trunk space, though as Loh adds, "Who buys one of these for the back seat?"
Very troubling, though, is the Mustang's shoddy build quality. The driver-side window gapped open above 60 mph or in any high-g corner, allowing a tornado of wind and noise to intrude. If this turns out to be a common Mustang flaw -- we haven't noticed it on previous drives -- it'd be a complete deal-breaker (obviously, we plan to sample more GT test cars for evidence-gathering). We might also be more willing to overlook what might be a single-car defect if not for the Mustang's ill-fitting trunklid. When closed, you could easily slide a half-dollar coin through the undulating gap on the deck, and probably a Royale with Cheese through the cavernous maw near the license plate. This is shameful execution, as if the Mustang GT had been engineered and built not by Ford but by Trabant.
The Challenger may not top the performance charts, and its interior -- though nicely finished -- is the most familiar of the three (if you've seen a Chrysler 300, you've seen this cabin). But the Dodge is almost unbeatable for sheer Star Power. "Outside, the details are perfect," says Loh. "Chrome Challenger script (that now matches the gas cap), TR racing stripes, polished aluminum drag wheels. It really does look the business." MacKenzie wholeheartedly agrees: "Retro-style stance, proportions, surfacing, detailing are superb. A loving homage to the past. Optional retro-style wheels and R/T stripes are perfect, and worth every last cent over the base R/T package. Roomiest car of the lot, with a useable back seat and big trunk." Sure, the opening-night Camaro drew plenty of thumbs-up and frantic grabs for cell-phone cameras, but almost everybody loves the Challenger, too. At one of our photo stops, a group of young guys carefully perused each of our players. "Definitely this one," said one grinning critic, pointing to the big orange Dodge. Of the trio, it's the Challenger that most channels yesteryear; Dodge has perfectly balanced past and present.
Which is to say, on the subjective subject of styling, each of these ponies scores well. Pick your favorite flavor and enjoy.
Going into this test, and knowing the basic stats, we had an inkling how it might turn out. (All three cars, by the way, eke out impressive and nearly identical fuel-economy results -- though the Mustang's lack of a six-speed means it finishes last on EPA.) Never did we guess, though, how close the overall finish would turn out to be.
In third place, the Dodge Challenger R/T.
Third of three, but hardly last. As MacKenzie well sums up: "Hugely endearing personality. Even though the Challenger starts to fall apart dynamically above 7/10ths you can't help but like the big guy. It's sorta like a Heritage Soft-Tail Harley; a carefully crafted and easy to own reminder of a simpler, sunnier America." Astutely executed, fast, and sit-back comfortable, the Challenger is the pony you'd ride for a 50-state tour. On the downside, the orange bruiser simply can't carve with the precision of its rivals, and though it starts with a mid-pack base sticker ($30,945), adding the good stuff (six-speed manual, 3.92 rear axle, limited-slip diff, 20-in. wheels and tires, etc.) pushed the price of our tester to a trio-topping $38,270.
Finishing in second place . . . the Ford Mustang GT.
Mind you, this was a photo-finish. The Mustang with Track Pack blew us all away with its sublime steering, incredible front-end grip, stylish cockpit, and beauteous V-8. As Loh notes, "That's what most impressed me: Ford's two competitors had the advantage of sampling 45 years of Mustang DNA, yet they still couldn't pull out a runaway win." The Mustang scores well on value, too: base price for the GT is $28,845, and with Premium package, Track Pack, security package, and the comfort group, our test car totaled $34,330. The Ford might even have scored an upset, except it cannot match the Camaro's unfailing poise, its breathtaking power, or its styling drama. Those quality issues sure didn't help, either.
And so . . . our winner, the Prime Pony of the 21st Century is . . . the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS.
Considering all the ways GM could easily have got this car wrong, it's nothing short of a triumph how unquestionably the company got it right. The Camaro might trail the Mustang in handling sharpness, and there's no doubt it finishes last for cabin and trunk volume, but, well, you don't pick your pony for the size of its saddlebags. Graced with massive power, excellent efficiency, unfailing refinement, and show-stopping looks, the Camaro SS nails every essential for its segment. What's more, it's priced to steal. Base sticker for the 1SS manual: just $30,995. With the Boston Acoustics audio package, our cloth-seat tester climbed only to $31,490. Go nuts with the options pencil -- adding leather, power sunroof, ground effects, six-speed auto, and more stuff you really don't need -- and you can nudge the SS just over $40K.
So there you have it: Chevrolet claims the ponycar title, circa 2009. Now, go to it, Hatfields, McCoys, and HatCoys. We've been waiting 35 years to witness once again perhaps the all-time greatest feud in Autoland. Where's my cigar? Ah, there's the opening bell!
CHEVROLET CAMARO SS DODGE CHALLENGER R/T FORD MUSTANG GT
Acceleration to mph
0-30 2.2 sec 1.9 sec 1.9 sec
0-40 3.0 2.9 2.8
0-50 3.9 3.8 3.8
0-60 5.1 5.1 4.9
0-70 6.2 6.5 6.4
0-80 7.9 8.1 8.1
0-90 9.4 10.2 9.9
0-100 11.1 12.4 12.3
Passing, 45-65 mph 2.1 2.5 2.3
Quarter mile 13.0 sec @ 111.0 mph, 13.4 sec @ 110.6 mph 13.6 sec @ 104.9 mph 13.5 sec @ 104.2 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 105 ft 135 ft 108 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.90 g (avg) 0.82 g (avg) 0.95 g (avg)
MT figure eight 25.8 sec @ 0.80 g (avg) 27.5 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 25.5 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)
Big Thanks to MotorTrend Magazine for the great Article.