America’s New Generation of Muscle Cars

Combining aspects of Muscle Cars and Pony Cars from bygone eras, the modern muscle car provides power and handling well beyond the abilities of their predecessors.


Muscle cars from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s aren’t much different from bodybuilders. They take big, high-horsepower V8 engines and cram them into light-bodied two-door cars — the automotive equivalent of massive bulk smushed into a Speedo. Muscle cars were about big engines and straight-line speed — they could bench press bank vaults, but were slow on the obstacle course. But while agility and refinement were never quite in the muscle car’s wheelhouse back in the mid-20th century, today, the way muscle cars are made is changing. American automakers have turned muscle cars from hulking beasts into hulking track razors. Rather than the one-dimensional cars of yore, they can now go mano a mano with some of the best exotic sports cars in the world when it comes to handling and, of course, acceleration.

Muscle cars started out as reasonably affordable cars that possessed the ability to take on upgrades to make them fast and more planted. The first muscle car was the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 — essentially a passenger car crammed with a fat V8 engine. This differed from the pony cars of the era, like the 1964 Ford Mustang, the first pony car and a car that worked more like a young man’s sports coupe than a potent V8 beast. Muscle cars focused on power and straight-line speed; pony cars were American-made two-door cars with four-passenger capacity, a long hood, shortened rear deck lid, and an open-style, largely vertical grille. There was a separation between the two, although they shared some common characteristics. Both were quick, but the muscle car had a more brutish reputation. The muscle car tended have a longer rear deck and front and rear overhangs — think a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda (pony) versus a 1966 Pontiac GTO (muscle).

New vs. Old Muscle


2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
5.2L V8
HP: 500+
Torque: 400+ lb-ft.
0-60: 4.0 sec


1965 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
4.7L V8
HP: 306
Torque: 329 lb-ft.
0-60: 6.6 sec


2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
6.2L S/C Hemi V8
HP: 707
Torque: 650 lb-ft
0-60: 3.6 sec


1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 426 Hemi
7.2L Hemi V8
HP: 425
Torque: 490 lb-ft
0-60: 5.2 sec


2015 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
7.0L V8
HP: 505
Torque: 481 lb-ft
0-60: 4.4 sec


1968 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
302 small block V8
HP: 290
Torque: 290 lb-ft
0-60: 7.5 sec

Muscle cars, as they appeared originally, are almost gone from the current automotive landscape. The last Pontiac GTO finished production in 2005, and the Pontiac G8 stopped selling in 2009. Since then, the only semblance of muscle car on the scene has been the Chrysler 300C HEMI and the Chevrolet SS. But what once was defined as pony cars have taken up the mantle for modern muscle. The new Mustang GT350, with its 500+ horsepower and 400 lb-ft from an adrenaline-pumping 5.2L V8 engine, rings true to the muscle car credos of “more is always more”.

But while there are some that still only care about quarter-mile times and sending smoke up into the troposphere, the modern way of thinking in muscle cars is about overall performance. Drivers expect something that won’t careen into the weeds on a sweeper, and that’s why the GT350 also gets aerodynamics, suspension, brakes and magnetorheological ride control befitting a refined sports car. The Camaro Z/28 is much the same in that it churns out serious power while providing the driver with track capabilities most will likely never be able to fully exploit. Even the war-hammer Dodge SRT Challenger Hellcat, with its 707 horsepower and the accompanying old-school handling, has sway bars and fat Pirelli rubber. It’s in the spirit of the traditional muscle car, but also answers to the modern demands of better handling.

Any criticism that this new generation of muscle cars is derivative in style can be rendered invalid by the power and on-road (and track) capabilities of the new cars. American muscle cars have redefined the muscle car nomenclature by blending aspects of the pony cars with the traditional bulk. They now provide their owners with speed, power and driving pleasure, all wrapped in an ethos of brash, distinctly American power.

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