Commentary: Classic Muscle or New Modern?

Camaro Indy 500 Pace Cars
The heart of the debate: 1969 (L) and 2011 (R) Chevrolet Camaro Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars.
All photos by Randy Stern

There are those who look at the current gas prices and its causes with fear. Others just could care less – "What price petrol?" This post is for the latter group of readers.

One of the press events I attended during the Chicago Auto Show was the unveiling of the most powerful Chevrolet Camaro since 1970. The ZL1 packs the heart of a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 – the supercharged 6.2litre V8 – and wedges it into the engine bay for a huge dose of "OMG."

If it wasn't enough, Dodge introduced a new retro color to the Challenger lineup – an extraordinary shade called "Green with Envy." Talk about a serious "wow" factor!

After computing everything I covered from Chicago, I began to ask myself why I have been drawn to modern pony cars. Then, I recall that in my childhood, it was the pony car and the muscle car that ruled this country. I also recall that the federal government, in the name of environmental protection, was pulling the teeth from these inexpensive performance machines.

Over the decades, high performance began to find its way back into American cars. What 300HP was considered excessive is now the norm for top end V6s. 400HP is the usual target to be considered a serious contender in the V8 power race. 450HP is where people start going "wow." Once you get beyond 500HP – it better be pretty awesome to drive.

Today's modern interpretations of the pony cars of my youth have taken familiar shapes with modern safety and design elements. They also pack today's levels of high performance. Still, I will always argue that the cars of my youth are indeed better than today's recontextualized machinery.

So, I surveyed the three modern offerings of yesteryear's performance machines and asked: "Which one's better – the old or new ones?" With several automobiles having multiple generations of models, I also ask myself which generation was best overall of the Camaro, Challenger and Ford Mustang. Want to know what I came up with? Read on…

CHEVROLET CAMARO – 1970-76: No, not the first generation. Not even the new one. It's that second generation model that I associate the Camaro with. As a mid-year replacement in 1970, the Camaro's shape was supposed to challenge the Mopar models in terms of styling and performance. Though, they lasted longer – and very long in the tooth, if I might argue – the stylish coupe set the standard for the class in the midst of the Arab Oil Crisis. The purest form was before the government mandated 5MPH bumpers – especially the Rallye Sport appearance package. The gaping mouth of the grille looked like an eagle about to devour its prey.

However, I will admit that the only Camaros I've driven were of the third generation – thanks to a friend/rooomate's 1984 Z28 in San Rafael and a later model V8-optioned strippy version. The Z28 was quite an adventure.

DODGE CHALLENGER – TIE 1970-71 and 2008-2011: The original and the resurrection of the breed. It just seems so apropos to put them side-by-side in determining which version is considered more palatable for consumption. The truth is the original will always be close to my heart thanks to its sibling – the Plymouth Barracuda. They changed Chrysler's direction in terms of the Pony Car was concerned. The shape was right for the times and you can choose your weapon (i.e. engine and gearbox) at an affordable rate. No wonder why the rarest models still fetch prices similar to new Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys.

The new one gets a special place in my heart, too. By modifying the LX platform for a shorter coupe body was one thing. To make it sing is another. Boy, does it sing – like a tenor. Granted my actual driving experience was limited to a 2010 SE model with the no longer available 3.5litre 24-valve V6, it is the other models that still provide context to the modern classic. The newer 392 SRT8s just seem meaner than before. Also, by adding more heritage colors to both the SRT8 and R/T help bring the past closer to the present. The Challenger is a ride I wouldn't mind taking again – especially with the new SE and the 3.6litre Pentastar V6 powering it.

FORD MUSTANG – 1967-70: Having never driven a Mustang in a long time, I know I'm missing out on a good sports coupe (as most of my friends agree is the better of the three modern versions of these cars). What I love about the modern versions of the Mustang is the design – harkening back to when Mustangs truly mattered. It certain ended up being a mash-up between the original fastback design and the updated version ending with the iconic 1970 model. I had a chance to drive on occasion many years ago a 1968 hardtop coupe with a 289 V8, a 3-speed automatic and a very light front end. Oh, but the fun I had doing so!

That's the thing about a Mustang: When I step into one of the new ones, it brings me back to that '68 hardtop. The dashboard almost looks the same, but with very modern components and the seats of today's Mustangs are better. Still – driving one is all the proof I need to possibly answer all the questions floating in my head about this iconic coupe.

2011 Dodge Challenger R/T

Still, my benchmark for this class among the new moderns is the Dodge Challenger. Why? Because I can drive it every day! I can see out of one easily – compared to the Camaro and Mustang. It's just that simple.

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