If you're a fan of going fast, looking good, or both, then a muscle car might be the right car for you. But surely these flashy, powerful machines are bank busters, right? Not really—especially on the used market. Depending on what you're looking for, you can even get a great low-mileage, relatively new example for less than $10K.
First things first, though. What, exactly, is a muscle car? Debate rages, but there are a handful of vehicles that are accepted as the defining members of the class: the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro, and the Dodge Challenger. Others, like the Dodge Charger or Mercury Marauder, may count for some, but won't make the list for all. Still others, like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, are outlier picks, cars that meet a technical definition, but don't have the history typically associated with a muscle car. Then there's the matter of which era you're thinking of. In the 1960s, the Pontiac GTO was undeniably a muscle car—but can the sleek, Australian-designed GTO of the early 2000s say the same? What of a luxury muscle car, a label some might stick on the window of the first-generation Cadillac CTS-V? Ultimately, what makes a muscle car is up to you, but since we're the ones making the list, we'll err on the side of breadth to give you plenty of options to consider.
Next in line is the matter of power. Muscle cars, as the name implies, pack a certain amount of muscle. Or at least they ought to, right? But what defines that muscle? Is it raw power output? Is it V8 or bust? Can a turbocharged car gain muscle status, or is it forever some flavor of sports car alone? These, again, are questions best answered in your own driveway, but we've put together some options that include everything from turbo four-bangers to V6s to V8s.
One thing you won't find here, however, are the original vintage muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s. While those cars are still as desirable as ever, they're not particularly well-suited to daily driving for most people in 2016, and they're all over the map in terms of maintenance history, condition, modification, and more. If you're looking for a vintage muscle car, but don't know them inside-out, you'll want to enlist the help of a friend or an agent who specializes in them. Instead, we've focused our buyer's guide on the top recent muscle cars you'll find on the used market, with an eye both for value and for performance.
The standard Chevrolet Camaro traces its lineage back to the original set of muscle cars in the 1960s, but for most uses today, you'll want to focus on the fifth generation of the Camaro, built from the 2010-2015 model years. Even in base from in the first model year, the fifth-generation Camaro packed 312 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque in its 3.6-liter V6 engine. In 2012, the V6 of the base Camaro was upgraded to include direct injection, and power was bumped up to 323 hp. Through the 2014 and 2015 model years, V6 versions of the Camaro remained essentially the same in power and performance.
The Camaro SS, the V8-powered version of Chevy's fifth-generation muscle car, also entered the scene in the 2010 model year, powered by a 426-horspeower version of the venerable LS3 V8 engine when equipped with a six-speed manual transmission; automatic versions of the Camaro SS were rated at 400 hp. One perk of the automatic-optioned SS was the inclusion of Active Fuel Management, which allows the car to run on just four cylinders under light loads (think cruising on the highway), thereby saving gas. Through the 2015 model year, the SS maintained its core mechanical elements, though suspension upgrades were offered to improve handling in the form of the 2012 FE4 package, and the 2013 1LE model. For the muscle car buyer who wants sports car handling, the 2013-2015 Chevy Camaro SS 1LE is an excellent choice.
As powerful as the V8 Camaro SS was, it wasn't the top of the line of the fifth-generation Camaro. That role belonged to the Camaro ZL1, which used a supercharger in addition to its 6.2-liter V8 engine for a massive 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque, making it the most powerful factory Camaro in history to that point. In addition to the power upgrades, the ZL1 also received a number of appearance and handling upgrades that placed it among the world's most potent performers, hitting 60 mph in just 3.8 seconds and clearing the quarter mile under 12 seconds. The fifth-generation Camaro ZL1 was sold from the 2012-2015 model years.
Like the Camaro, the Dodge Charger name goes back the early days of muscle cars—but back then, it was a two-door model. Today's Charger is a four-door, but that doesn't stop it from being every bit as much a muscle car as its two-door Challenger brother, which can also trace its lineage to the original days of the muscle car. That's because under the skin, the Charger and Challenger share the same bones and the same essential performance, as well as engines and trim packages. So instead of talking about the Charger and Challenger separately, we'll handle them together (noting important differences when they do arise)—and leave the choice of two doors or four up to you.
If you're after four doors on your muscle car, the good news is Dodge began building the Charger in 2006, potentially making those earliest models very affordable. The sixth-generation Charger's run from 2006-2010 featured a base V6-powered model, a mid-level Charger R/T powered by a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 engine, and a top-end Charger SRT8 with a 6.1-liter HEMI V8. While the V6 engine was plenty to move the large sedan around with pep, those seeking real muscle will want to stick to the R/T and SRT8 models.
In 2011, Dodge released an updated version of the Charger with new styling inside and out, as well as a range of performance upgrades, including an updated V6 engine for the base models, although the SRT8 model was left out of the 2011 model year, returning in 2012. From 2012 onward, the top-end HEMI V8 engine was a 6.4-liter unit rated at 470 hp, but in 2015, Dodge introduced the Hellcat, a 707-hp beast powered by a supercharged, 6.2-liter version of the HEMI V8. The massively powerful Hellcat instantly won fans the world over for its ability to produce massive clouds of tire smoke and blazing quarter mile times on demand.
The Challenger tracked most of the Charger's changes over the years, though it wasn't initially sold in its most recent form until 2008, and didn't get the Charger's mid-cycle updates. Despite the slight differences, however, the Challenger still gets all of the muscle car goodness of the Charger, from the base V6 models up to the mid-level HEMIs and the earth-shaking 707-hp Challenger Hellcat.
Ford's Mustang is perhaps the progenitor of the muscle car segment, though some would give that title to the Pontiac GTO. However you slice it, the Mustang has been around for a long time—and won its share of fans over the decades. Those looking for a used Mustang will probably want to focus their efforts on finding a great specimen of the fifth generation, built from the 2005-2014 model years.
Like the Camaro and Charger/Challenger duo, the Mustang was offered in a base V6 version that lacked some of the excitement of its V8 brethren, but still packed the look and feel of a muscle car. Unlike the Camaro and Challenger, however, the Mustang's 210-hp output from its 4.0-liter V6 was a bit underwhelming in the performance department, even compared to other V6s. Those with an eye on the true muscle car experience will want to stick to the V8 models of the Mustang, or look for V6 models built after the 2011 model year, when the 305-hp 3.7-liter TiVCT V6 was introduced.
Mustang V8 models include the standard Mustang GT, which used a 4.6-liter V8 rated at 300 hp for the 2005-2010 model years. In 2011, the Mustang V8 was also upgraded, with the new 5.0-liter "Coyote" V8 engine replacing the aged 4.6-liter unit. The new 5.0 boosted power to 412 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque.
In 2012, the Mustang Boss 302 was added to the lineup, building on the Coyote-powered Mustang's newfound power (the Boss 302 rates 444 hp and 380 lb-ft) while also mixing in track-worthy handling and braking upgrades. As an upgrade to the upgrade, the Boss 302 was available in a limited edition Laguna Seca variant that honed the track-ready edge even further.
Along the way, Ford also made Shelby versions of the Mustang, with earlier models based around a 5.4-liter supercharged V8 engine good for up to 550 hp, and then, for the 2013 model year, the GT500 was upgraded to a 5.8-liter supercharged V8 rated at a monstrous 662 hp and capable of 200 mph top speed.
So far, we've been driving right up the middle of the muscle car world, because, after all, that's exactly what most muscle car buyers want—a known brand, a known quantity, a known favorite. But what if you're after something that's just a bit out there, but still delivers the driving experience of a muscle car? That's where the Hyundai Genesis Coupe comes in.
Built from the 2009-2016 model years, the Genesis Coupe had intended to be a sports car competing with like-minded imports, but its styling and handling ultimately put it more in the muscle car court. Sold in 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and 3.8-liter normally aspirated V6 variants, the Genesis Coupe bucks muscle car trends straight away by skipping a V8 option entirely. Nevertheless, both versions of the car generation appropriate horsepower and torque figures, with the 2.0T rated at 271 hp for the 2013-2014 model years (on par with Ford, Chevy, and Dodge V6s) and the 3.8-liter V6 rated at 348 hp from 2013 onward. Earlier models of the 2.0T were rated at 210 hp, while early V6 versions of the Genesis Coupe mustered 306 hp.
A range of manual and automatic transmissions have been offered throughout the Genesis Coupe's lifetime, but for those looking for the best driving experience, focus on the 2013 and later models, which received either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic.
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