Go West, young man, goes the old saw ascribed to Horace Greely. It was meant to encourage 19th-century Americans to pursue their dreams in the vast, untapped land beyond the Mississippi River. But it’s a saying that applies just as well to today’s road trippers. The West (capital W) has been emblematic of the rugged independence at the heart of our national identity practically as long as we’ve had a nation. It’s a land of breathtaking beauty, soul-stirring silence and abundant peace.
It’s also a perfect venue to uncork seriously powerful cars. Here, you’ll find constant elevation changes, sweeping curves, four-mile straightaways and, most importantly, barely any other vehicles or people to pass. Speed limits are higher, and drivers seem more likely to push beyond them than in other, denser states. (Montana actually abandoned highway speed limits for a few years in the late ’90s.)
This landscape calls for speed, and not just any variety. European exotics and Japanese sports cars, though they have the chops, would seem incongruous here. No, these roads were made for American muscle. And 2020 turns out to be a serendipitous year for a three-way shoot-out between the best — and perhaps last — of their breed.
2,207 Horses, No Waiting
Less than a decade ago, people spoke of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as having been the golden age of American muscle. How times change. Today, each of Detroit’s Big Three offers up a two-door four-seater with the sort of power even the wildest hot-rodders of the wonder years couldn’t have dreamt of.
Video: A Modern Muscle Car Road Trip
Chevrolet’s Camaro ZL1 is the least powerful of the bunch, but that’s like being the worst player at the Pro Bowl; it makes a mere 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. The new-for-2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 is down 25 lb-ft to the Camaro, but it kicks Chevy’s ass in the horsepower race with a stunning 760 ponies. Yet even it’s not the most powerful horse in this race. That would be the Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye Widebody, a true brute that screams out 797 horses and 707 lb-ft.
Each car gets its power from a supercharged V8 and each channels it to the rear wheels alone — but that’s where they part ways. The Camaro is the only one to offer a manual transmission; there’s a 10-speed automatic available, but we opted for the six-speed stick because, well, of course we would. The Redeye comes only with an eight-speed automatic, presumably so you never have to put down your coffee to shift. And the Ford packs a newly developed seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox, just like the speediest European cars do. That comparison isn’t a stretch; Ford’s new gearbox is every bit as fast and smart as the ones in those super sports cars.
The Long Road Here
Neither this land nor these cars are strangers to change, yet you wouldn’t think it looking at them. Somewhere outside Tuba City, we flash past a sign advertising dinosaur footprints, stamped into mud that turned to stone then disappeared beneath the ground for 200 million years before the wind carved them loose. Less than 15,000 years ago, mammoths, saber-toothed cats and two-ton sloths roamed this earth, before climate change and humans brought in by the end of the Ice Age wiped them all out. A few hundred years back, tribes like the Navajo, Hopi, Paiute and Ute roamed freely; then the U.S. government marched in and decimated and isolated them to make room for American settlers, who used the land for cattle grazing. Nowadays, cell coverage stretches across the deserts and prairies. But even if solar panels pop up here and there, the West looks much as it did when cowboys roamed freely.
Ford, Chevy and Dodge have come a long way, too. The Mustang was the first to arrive back in 1964, a stylish compact car that made just 105 horsepower in basic form; the first Shelby GT500 arrived in 1967, making 355 horses. The Camaro debuted that same year, out to steal the Mustang’s thunder; the sportiest version, the Z/28 that serves as the ZL1’s spiritual forefather, cranked out around 360 horses, though Chevrolet quoted it at a mere 290 for insurance reasons. Like its modern-day descendant, the first Challenger that arrived in late 1969 was a bigger car than the Mustang and Camaro — and like today’s Redeye, it came with the most power, packing a 7.0-liter Hemi V8 delivering 425 horsepower.
But even today’s incredible engine outputs undersell just how improved today’s muscle cars are. The 2020 models deliver quality, reliability and comfort that no car made in the ‘60s could dream of matching, let alone the mass-produced rides turned out by the Big Three. Each one packs more processing power than the mightiest computer on Earth in 1970. Yet at a glance, they still bear a resemblance to those cars that roamed the roads half a century ago.
Into The Great Wide Open
Maps can’t capture the scale of the West. Towns that seem neighborly on the map turn out to be half an hour apart, even at the what-we’re-dealing-with-here-is-a-complete-lack-of-respect-for-the-law speeds these cars are all too happy to lope along at. Add up the West’s 11 states and you wind up with 1,174,143 square miles; if it were its own nation, it’d be bigger than all of Argentina. Yet apart from the dense cities that cling to the Pacific Ocean, it’s largely empty, long stretches of road connecting tiny dots on the atlas. And the road to our destination of Monument Valley, perched on the border of Arizona and Utah, is emptier still, carving a path through the Navajo Nation — a land half again as large as New Jersey but with four percent of the population.
On the flip side, the blank spots between those thin lines on the map hide the grandeur of the place. Every bend in the road reveals some new wonder to be discovered, the scenery rendered in HDR crispness in the clean, dry air. Words like awesome and epic have long been overused past the point of cliché; the sights and scale of the West, though, remind you what they really mean.
The West has always been larger than life. That’s been central to its appeal, for as long as it’s been sold to us. And it has, indeed, been sold to us — ever since America bought it from France in the Louisiana Purchase and started selling it off again in the form of Manifest Destiny and the Homestead Act. By the time John Ford first filmed John Wayne riding past Monument Valley’s mesas, Americans had already considered the West some sort of promised land for more than a century. The West was, is, and likely always will be a commodity, promoted as the embodiment of freedom. The same goes for muscle cars. All cars represent independence, but muscle cars epitomize it; they’re four-wheeled freedom distilled to its sharpest form.
Every mile of open road reveals more about these machines. The Mustang is the newest of the trio, and it’s the one with the boldest goals: it seeks to deliver all-around supercar performance. An impossible task, it might seem — yet it delivers, serving up not just Ferrari-rivaling acceleration but Porsche-like handling. It picks up speed with a ferocity that boggles the mind, then clings to it through every turn, tracking flat and smooth even as its fat tires howl while sticking the beefy car to the ground. Yet it’s no penalty box; shock absorbers filled with magnetic fluid that adjusts its viscosity in milliseconds serve up a comfortable ride no matter how bad the pavement turns.
The Camaro feels even lighter and more nimble on the road, an épee to the Shelby’s saber. Its six-speed manual means you’re forced to take command of the big V8 in a way you aren’t with the others, appreciating the nuances of the power as it flows past your right hand on its way astern. Still, it’s not as quick as the Mustang; the Ford’s gearbox shifts with a speed and intuition no manual can match, and the extra 110 horsepower feels like 200 when the Shelby’s ire is up. (Part of that is due to the red-blooded howl that spews from the GT500’s exhaust pipes, which could make a Formula 1 car tuck its tail between its legs.) And even the ZL1’s biggest fan among our cohort complained about the lack of visibility from the pillbox-like cabin.
The Challenger feels like the third wheel here. It wallows and bobs where the other two tuck and weave; as a result, it falls behind in the turns, depending on its absurd power to close the gap on the straightaways. Between its body motions, its squared-off hood that stretches halfway to the horizon and its atomic power plant, driving the Redeye feels like helming a nuclear aircraft carrier.
It has plenty of appeal, though — especially from the curb. The group’s opinion is unanimous: not only is the widebody Challenger the most chiseled of the trio, it’s the best-looking. Period. It’s also the roomiest, with a back seat actually suitable for adults (albeit not for multistate trips). And while all three of these cars can vaporize their rear tires without issue, the other two don’t do it quite as happily as the Hellcat.
The Last Cowboys
If the beauty of the West is to survive, cars like this may well need to die. Power comes at a cost, and in this case, it’s at the expense of the environment. Over the course of our 1,500-mile road trip, our trio of muscle machines burned more than 300 gallons of gasoline — each working out to 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. That means our four-day jaunt was responsible for adding three tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. (For context: the average American creates 16.1 tons of CO2 per year.) Climate change is already impacting the West, much as it is everywhere else. Temperatures are higher, rain is less frequent. Cars that average 15 miles per gallon rank high on the list of the last things the planet needs.
They may not be long for this world anyway. The Camaro’s sales have fallen each of the last five years, and rumors suggest it may not be replaced when the current model ages out of the lineup in a couple years. The Challenger’s sales have held steady, but at 12 years old, it’s long been eligible for automotive AARP, and a successor remains a question mark. The Mustang seems the most likely to stick around, but it may well evolve in the process; the next vehicle to wear the badge, after all, will be an Tesla-fighting electric crossover.
One day, perhaps sooner than we imagine, electric cars will be the ones racing along under these Western skies. They may be faster, even more fun than these; they’ll certainly be better for the winds and waters. But the canyons and buttes will no longer echo with the roar of their engines. Just like the cowboys, they’ll be left to legend.
A version of this story originally appeared in a print issue of Gear Patrol Magazine under the title “Blaze of Glory.” Subscribe today.
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