September 2011

Muscle Cars

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

This article is about cars, but this is fair warning; if electric cars, hybrids, or those little deathtraps that they laughably call smart cars are your thing, you should turn the page now. This won’t interest you.

Are they gone? Good. Those folks tend to get overly sensitive about stuff like this, so I thought it would be better if we talked without them in the room. I wanted to have this little chat with you because I know exactly what you’re thinking. You see and hear all this stuff on TV and out of Washington about how we’re going to replace all the gas stations with electric outlets yadda, yadda, yadda. They make it sound like everybody’s lining up outside the dealerships clamoring for these so called “green” vehicles.

It makes you want to throw up your arms and scream, “Enough already! I’m an American damn it, and I want horsepower! I want torque! I want a V8 engine and rear-wheel-drive! I want big and I want fast! That’s how we do things here!”

Go ahead. Try it. Feels good, doesn’t it? Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to feel that way. While the cacophony about electrics, hybrids and all that stuff rages on, an old friend—previously presumed dead—has quietly re-emerged. It’s the muscle car, the hot rod—call it whatever you want—it’s thankfully back on the street.

Frankly, I thought it was all over when Chevy killed the Camaro a few years ago. Even when the concept drawings surfaced for its then rumored rebirth, I was skeptical that we’d ever see it. But then, there it was, pulling up to the stoplight next to its old rival the Mustang. How could this be happening in this day and age of political correctness, I thought to myself. Then a few months ago I had an Aha! moment over lunch with a certain young female acquaintance. At the time, she was shopping around for a new car and said that the Charger, Camaro and Mustang were at the top of her wish list. Charger? Camaro? Mustang? What year is this, 1969 or 2011?

SFX: Choir of angels.

A revelation. The muscle car never died; it just went into a cocoon until the day it could rise again, better, faster and more beautiful than ever. That day has come. The greenies must be in a tizzy, but what they don’t understand is that a big, brash, fast car is an American birthright. And you don’t mess with an American birthright!

Think I’m out of line? Then how do you explain this? If power, speed and performance are passé, outdated and frivolous, why would Cadillac drop a 556 hp supercharged V8 engine in the CTS-V coupe? Why does BMW offer a 500 hp version in its 7 Series, and why does Lexus boast of “racetrack-worthy acceleration” for its 416 hp IS-F model?

But, you’re saying, those are high-end, advanced technology luxury models. What’s that got to do with your precious muscle cars? Nothing, really, but it goes to show you that the need for speed is alive and well with car buyers.

Another argument you might make is price point. In their heyday, the 1960s, muscle cars were pretty straightforward and simple. The ride was rough, they didn’t handle well, and they were spartan in terms of creature comforts. But they were cheap (so was gas), and pretty much anybody could have one. Today, if you want the up-level, high-powered versions of these cars, the Camaro SS, Mustang GT Premium, or Challenger SRT8 for example, you’re looking at a $35,000-$40,000 sticker. That’s not cheap and nobody would settle for something as unsophisticated as their ancestors at that price.

Remember what I said earlier, though, about the muscle car emerging from its cocoon better, faster and more beautiful than ever. The contemporary incarnations recall the originals in terms of styling, but they are thoroughly modern vehicles. For example, I remember my last bitchin’ Camaro. It wasn’t one of the really old ones, but it was still a far cry from the new ones you see on the road today. Sure, it was fast, but it was noisy, the ride was rough, the shifting wasn’t very smooth, and wrestling with oversteer had me sweating bullets on more than a few occasions. But it didn’t cost anywhere near $35,000. Nobody, not even I, would pay that much for that car.

HOW-EV-AH, I recently had occasion to take my friend’s (who declined an interview so we’ll just call him Joe) 2010 Camaro SS for a little spin and, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a different world altogether. Mind you, Joe added an aftermarket supercharger to the out-of-the-factory 426 hp engine. So this car is a little hotter than what you’d drive off the dealer lot, but the difference in flat out speed isn’t what’s truly remarkable when comparing the ride to older models.

The first thing I noticed was how much more comfortable it is for the driver. The cockpit embraces you more like a sports car—it actually reminded me of sitting in a Corvette—and your right arm rests in perfect position to grip the short throw shifter without reaching for it. The back seats, well, that hasn’t changed much. They’re still useless, but hey, it’s a Camaro.

Hit the throttle and, what else can I say? It’s a rocket. I won’t say that the ride is as smooth as a luxury sedan, but I didn’t feel every pebble in the road like in my old one. And it’s quiet enough that Joe and I can carry on a conversation…with the radio on! The steering is nice and tight, and you really feel in control with the huge pedals and big, fat, leather wrapped wheel, which is pretty important when taking curves at speed. Yes, it does that quite well.

Take all that into account, plus the fact that you can get gizmos like heads-up display, a navigation system, and USB ports for your iPod, and the price tag starts to make more sense. Although I can’t speak to the other cars mentioned thus far because I haven’t driven them, my research indicates that comparisons to their older brothers are similar.

I know I was poking fun earlier, but don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fuel economy and cleaner emissions. If driving a “green” car is your thing, then have at it. But some of us still see the automobile as something more than merely transportation. It’s our history and our culture, and certain cars, like the classic muscle cars, are cultural icons. Don’t believe it? See if anybody ever writes a song about the Prius.

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