It’s been nearly 50 years since Plymouth and Ford ushered in a new class of performance vehicle—the ponycar. Each manufacturer based its combatant on their respective compact-car platforms: Plymouth’s Valiant became the Barracuda, and Ford’s Falcon led to the Mustang. The Mustang was so successful it earned the right to have the entire category titled after its galloping namesake.
With two doors, a long hood, a short trunk, and a low cost of admission, ponycars were marketed to a younger audience than their larger muscle-car brethren. For the ’67 model year, General Motors stepped into the ponycar market with the Camaro and Firebird. Following the Barracuda and Mustang philosophy, the Camaro and Firebird borrowed heavily from compact-car chassis that underpinned its Nova.
Ford added the Mercury Cougar for ’67, as well, and AMC joined the fray with the Javelin for ’68. Last to join the ponycar market was Dodge, which debuted the Challenger for the ’70 model year (alongside a redesigned third-generation Barracuda).
Over time, ponycars added iconic performance models that packed Detroit’s most potent engines: Hemi, Boss, and ZL1. They also packed on the pounds. Ultimately, their horsepower, weight, and sticker price are what made these cars vulnerable to the gas crunch of the ’70s. The Challenger only lasted one generation before bowing out of the market after ’74, along with the Barracuda (the car that arguably gave birth to the segment) and the Javelin. The Cougar moved into the personal luxury market and lasted until ’02.
Eventually, GM got out of the ponycar market, as well, leaving Mustang the entirety of the market from ’03 until ’08 when Challenger made its comeback for the ’09 model year, followed by Camaro for ’10.
Obviously, today’s automotive marketplace is far different than it was in the mid ’60s. Plymouth (the go-to brand for low-price Mopar muscle) and Pontiac (GM’s boldest and sportiest brand) are both gone, as are Mercury and AMC. The automotive marketplace is crowded with hundreds of models from dozens of makes, and many younger buyers can’t afford a new car—let alone a V8-powered bruiser that stickers for twice the cost of the median new car purchase. Yet here we are, with the most powerful class of ponycars ever on the market: Challenger SRT, Camaro ZL1, and Mustang Shelby GT500. Market be damned.
Though the 662hp ’14 Mustang GT500 will be near the end of its production as you read this, and emissions and fuel economy regulations are poised to tighten yet again, 2014 will not be the last time we have such a powerful ponycar lineup. Chrysler’s SRT division is readying a supercharged Challenger to take on its higher-powered rivals from Dearborn and Detroit. We’re also confident the next-generation Mustang and Camaro will pack plenty of power under their smaller hoods, but we’ll play Chicken Little just long enough to convince ourselves that this might be the last time we’ll have the opportunity to drive such ludicrously powered ponycars from the Big Three. If the future holds nothing but fuel-efficient turbo six- cylinders, what would you have us do with these three cars while we’ve got the chance? Yes, that’s exactly what we were thinking.
What’s it like to take three 500–600hp ponycars to an eighth-mile dragstrip and race on street tires? It’s a whole lot of fun, but when you’ve got drivers that are racing these vehicles for the very first time—it’s not pretty.
Tire spin, wheelhop, missed shifts, and unimpressive e.t.’s were the norm on our rookie runs in the cars. Of the five drivers we took to the track, none had any previous experience with these cars, so we had little in the way of expectations. The other drivers and the crowd at Irwindale Speedway (IrwindaleSpeedway.com) were a different story.
Many of Irwindale’s drag racers were familiar with these machines; they’d seen them on the track before and read all about them in magazines, so they knew what they should be capable of, even if some were a bit optimistic.
After repeated passes in the Mustang that resulted in missed 1–2 shifts, a few of our fellow racers even offered to take the wheel. Unfortunately, the shift problem wasn’t something new from the GT500. Despite the low mileage of our test car, the clutch engagement was very high in the pedal’s travel, which didn’t leave much room for error. The previous drivers of this media-fleet machine hadn’t been too kind to the clutch. We’re looking at you, Motor Trend. Our best time in the GT500 was an 8.57 at 93 mph in the eighth-mile. Clearly, there is more left in the car.
The Camaro ZL1 had the most options when it came to launch controls. With the traction control set in Mode 2, we launched with our foot to the floor and the ECM holding the engine to 4,250 rpm. If we were too quick off the clutch, the car wheelhopped, but we did get in a run with just a little bit of wheelspin that resulted in 8.47 seconds at 88 mph in the eighth-mile.
HOT ROD Publisher Jeff Dahlin managed the best run in the Challenger after never being behind the wheel of the car on the street. He stalled the car on his first attempt to launch yet managed to net a respectable trap speed. Embarrassed but undeterred, Jeff learned from his first pass. For his second run, he disabled the traction and launch controls, opting for an easier launch that wouldn’t shock the street tires. For this run, Jeff was lined up against our GT500, perhaps the more powerful car inspired him, because his conservative shifting technique helped him eke out the quicker eighth-mile e.t. with an 8.72 at 85 mph, as the GT500 floundered. “Had the GT500’s clutch worked properly, I would have lost the race, but I just outpaced a 662hp monster, and damn it, I’m going to claim it!” shouted a proud Dahlin.
When it comes to street tires and rookie drivers, the SRT Challenger can play in the same sandbox as the GT500 and the ZL1—for a much lower price. Still, we knew both our performance behind the wheel and the eighth-mile distance didn’t do the cars justice. We needed a longer track where these cars could really stretch their legs.
On the Road
We took our ponycar convoy on a 500-mile road trip to get a feel for the cars. We left HOT ROD’s El Segundo, California, office around noon on Friday, fueled up, and headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway. That took us through Venice, Santa Monica, and then Malibu, where we stopped for lunch. North of Malibu, PCH meets up with Highway 101, and we followed that until we took Highway 246 to Lompoc. Saturday, we spent the day at the Hot Rod Ranch for the Gasser Roundup. Classic car fans welcomed our late-model ponies with open arms, and we left that afternoon after answering a lot of questions about the new cars.
The city driving followed by open-highway miles allowed us to finally get comfortable behind the wheel. Each of our ponycars came equipped with a Tremec TR-6060 six-speed manual transmission, but they didn’t all feel the same. The ’13 Challenger, with its pistol-grip shifter, took a bit of getting used to, although it did win many of us over as we got more seat time. The shifters on both the Mustang and the Camaro seemed a little bit more precise than the Challenger. If this story had been a comic book, the Challenger’s gear changes would be illustrated with an authoritative Ca-Chunk.
With the Challenger, you get the feeling that this is a car you could build using your muscle-era Mopar as a foundation. The truth is, given enough time and money, you could probably make a B-body Charger feel as connected and as powerful as an SRT Challenger, but it would take a lot more than the $40,000 you’d spend on a new Challenger SRT Core at the dealership. The Core trim level is the most basic version you can get with the largest engine, and it wasn’t very often that we missed the leather seats and navigation. Maybe it’s because the Core package makes the Challenger feel like a muscle car should. It’s larger than the rest of the cars in the pack, and it feels heavier, while at the same time it’s also somehow more true to its roots—and that’s not just in the exterior design. It sounds right, it’s comfortable, and it’s just big. We almost wish the Challenger had been branded a Charger. The Charger name would have put it in its proper category as a muscle car, the good-looking, two-door version of its more sedate four-door Charger stable mate. On the other hand, it couldn’t look like this and not be a Challenger, and we don’t want to give that up. There’s just something about the Challenger that draws people to it. It seemed to gather the most admirers, even surrounded by the much more boisterous Ford and Chevy. We felt ourselves turning into cheerleaders for this underdog car that was the least expensive and had “only” 470 hp.
The ’14 Mustang Shelby GT500 is raw. We can’t think of a time when any of us thought that buying a Mustang with 662 hp off the assembly line would ever be a possibility. Ten years ago, this kind of power would have been in the realm of supercars only, and today it’s still so much power that people were dumbfounded every time they learned about the blown 5.8L. It has the most sophisticated engine of the bunch, but on the other hand, it has a solid axle and an almost jarring ride when you’re on the throttle. When it comes to straight-line performance, the GT500 wins hands down. It has an engine that is physically larger than anything else Ford puts into a passenger car. It barely fits under the hood. The big engine/small car formula is fitting of the Shelby moniker, and fitting of another comparison that Online Editor Diego Rosenberg made, “It’s Viper-lite.” Like the Viper, the Mustang is brutally fast and harsh to the point of being uncivilized. In fact, it has even more power than the 640hp SRT Viper, yet less tire than the Viper to put that power to the pavement.
If the Mustang were your second vehicle, you’d probably love every minute of it. Our log book notes on the Mustang mentioned the interior wasn’t as comfortable for some and, while there’s seemingly more interior space than the Camaro, some found the Ford’s optional Recaro seat to be too confining. Oddly enough, our tallest staffers didn’t seem to mind, as the lumbar bolsters fit them where they should. The combination of a worn-out clutch and tremendous power made the GT500 the most high-strung of the bunch to drive on the streets of Los Angeles. More than any of the other ponycars, it kept you on your toes.
The Camaro ZL1 was the one car that felt the most well rounded. Even if you start with a 6.2L Camaro SS, there’s just no way to build a car this well integrated and sorted out. The ZL1 was the unanimous winner for best seats and best shifter, while the navigation and steering wheel were at the top of the heap, as well. We didn’t set out to pick favorites, but the staff leaned toward the ZL1 as the car we’d like to take home. Even though we didn’t get to take it to a road course, where its magnetic ride control suspension could really shine, the Camaro gave us excellent feedback from the road and made us feel like it was capable of anything we could ask it to do.
If the Challenger’s no-frills, monochromatic interior is on one side of the spectrum, the Camaro’s interior is at the opposite end. It has soft-touch materials on the dash and doors with contrasting stitching, a complex center stack, and center-console-mounted auxiliary gauges that are a nice throwback to the first-generation Camaro but aren’t too useful thanks to their placement.
Because it takes automakers so long to validate a new product, we’ve often found the $1,000 navigation systems in the dashes of new cars are not as quick or as flexible as the free navigation app installed on your smart phone. The MyLink navigation in the Camaro surprised us in that regard, because it’s tied into the driver information center between the tach and speedometer—and also into the heads-up display—allowing our next turn to be projected onto the windshield so we never even had to look at the center stack.
Like the cockpit, the exterior of the Camaro is almost overdone. But we like it. So the Chevrolet is the ostentatious one, and the Mopar, even in bright orange, is understated. It’s certainly not the ’60s anymore.
The Mojave Mile and Mojave Magnum are standing 1-mile and 1.5-mile timed runs that use one runway of the Mojave Air and Space Port. The airport is active, so racing gets postponed briefly when jets had to land. We showed up on Sunday, the least-busy day of the two-day race, and staged our ponies with as many as 60 other cars that were lined up to see how fast they could go in 11?2 miles.
At the Mojave Mile, each car was tech inspected and assigned a class based on the level of additional safety equipment in the cars. All three cars were stickered for a maximum speed of 175 mph. Our first car out of the gate on the 11?2-mile course was the Challenger SRT. We were told not to leave rubber on the airport’s tarmac, so we had to launch carefully. Mike Finnegan took the helm and ran 174 mph in Fifth gear without any fuss from the 6.4L Hemi. It tracked straight, handled the irregular runway surface with ease, and didn’t use much of the 200-foot-wide runway. The engine’s smooth, naturally aspirated powerband allowed for easy shifts without fear of hitting the engine’s rev limiter. If our 470hp car nearly ran fast enough to break out of our tech-approved speed, how would the 662hp GT500 fare?
Again, Finnegan took the wheel. At more than 150 mph across the Mojave airport’s surface, the GT500’s Track-Pack suspension wasn’t very forgiving, and the car required every bit of his attention. Finnegan banged Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth gears as the 285-series tires fought the runway for traction. The Mustang was still pulling in Fifth at the finish line (and had several hundred rpm left on the tach to spare) clocking in at 187 mph. That was the end of racing for the GT500 in the 11?2-mile Magnum course, and Finn had to promise not to exceed the speed each car was tech’d for before he got behind the wheel of the Camaro.
Unlike the Mustang, the Camaro’s gearing is far from ideal when it came to running flat-out for a 11?2 miles. Trying to run the Mojave Mile Magnum course in Fifth gear meant hitting the rev limiter a couple hundred feet shy of the finish, and shifting into Sixth dropped the engine speed too low to keep pulling. The best run in the Camaro netted us a 178-mph pass, within the 5-mph cushion allowed by our 175-mph tech speed.
With two cars at the edge of breaking out of our tech speed (and one car blowing straight through it), we decided to switch to the 1-mile course. Each car got several runs, and the Mustang again proved it was the flat-out, straight-line king.
Chassis Dyno Testing
K&N (KNfilters.com, 800.318.7047) let us use its chassis dyno for testing both the baseline power numbers for each car and also for testing each car after a K&N intake was installed. The SuperFlow dyno we used was not particularly generous, and numbers can vary from dyno to dyno, but since we used the same dyno on the same day, the numbers are still useful to compare to one another.
2013 Chrysler 300C SRT: Ponycar for the Family Man
It’s worth noting that we started the trip with the three aforementioned ponycars and, in order to get photos of all three cars on the road simultaneously, a camera car. For creative flexibility, we needed a car with a backseat that would allow for photographing from either side. With those caveats, what would the perfect camera car be? For our road trip, the 470hp Chrysler 300C SRT was the camera platform of choice. It had a smooth-shifting automatic, a compliant suspension to soak up the road and not jar the photographer, and plenty of room. It turned out that the 300C was the only car that nobody wanted to drive on our road trip, and we love the 300C.
|2014 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 Specs|
|Price as tested:||$65,870|
|Options:||SVT Track Pack: $2,995 (differential, transmission, and engine oil coolers); electronics package with navigation: $2,340; Recaro seats: $1,595; Equipment Group 821a: $3,395— Torsen differential, 19-inch (front), 20-inch (rear) forged-aluminum wheels, adjustable Bilstein dampers; destination: $795|
|Engine:||5.8L Supercharged DOHC V8|
|Horsepower (SAE):||662 hp at 6,500 rpm|
|Torque:||631 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm|
|Bore and stroke:||3.68×4.165 inches|
|EPA fuel economy rating:||15 mph city, 24 mpg highway|
|Front suspension:||Strut-type with stamped-steel lower control arms|
|Spindles:||Cast iron, with single lower ball joint|
|Front sway-bar diameter:||1.4 inch|
|Eie-rod endlink diameter:||0.60 inch|
|Rear suspension:||Solid axle, three-link with track bar; boxed lower arms, C-channel, stamped-steel upper arm|
|Differential:||Cast-iron centersection with aluminum cover, remote gear lube cooler|
|Rear sway-bar diameter:||1 inch|
|Front track width:||61.9 inches|
|Rear track width:||62.5 inches|
|Curb weight:||3,876 pounds|
|Front left:||1,134 pounds|
|Front right:||1,060 pounds|
|Rear left:||812 pounds|
|Rear right:||870 pounds|
- Amazing powertrain
- Excellent visibility
- Best exhaust note
- Harsh ride
- Race seats not the best for long hauls
- Difficult First-to-Second shifts
- Difficult-to-master navigation system
|2013 Dodge Challenger SRT Core|
|Price as tested:||$41,140|
|Options:||Goodyear Performance tires: $150; gas-guzzler tax: $1,000; destination: $995|
|Engine:||6.4L OHV V8|
|Horsepower (SAE):||470 hp at 6,000 rpm|
|Torque (SAE):||470 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm|
|Bore and stroke:||4.09×3.72 inches|
|EPA fuel economy rating:||14 mpg city, 23 mpg highway|
|Front suspension:||Short long arm with forged steel lower arms|
|Front sway-bar diameter:||1.19 inch|
|Tie-rod endlink diameter:||0.63 inch|
|Rear suspension:||Independent multi-link with stamped steel lower control arms|
|Differential:||Two-piece Getrag aluminum housing (no remote gear lube cooling)|
|Rear sway-bar diameter:||0.71 inch|
|Front track width:||63 inches|
|Front tire size:||245/45ZR20|
|Rear track width:||63.1 inches|
|Rear tire size:||255/45ZR20|
|Curb weight:||4,196 pounds|
|Front left:||1,156 pounds|
|Front right:||1,151 pounds|
|Rear left:||925 pounds|
|Rear right:||964 pounds|
- The least expensive by $20,000
- Burly pistol-grip shifter and shift linkage
- Turns a lot of heads while still being understated
- Comfortable seating position, especially for shorter drivers
- Foot-actuated parking brake not as useful as a hand brake
- Bland dash and gauges
- Poor outward visibility
- No automatic headlights
- Sixth gear (0.50:1) is pretty steep, and while it’s good for cruising, it makes the exhaust drone when you get to 1,300–1,400 rpm
|2014 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1|
|Price as tested:||$61,140|
|Options:||Recaro seats:$1,995; navigation system: $795; carbon-fiber hood insert: $600; interior suede microfiber: $500; gas-guzzler tax: $1,300; destination: $995|
|Engine:||6.2L Supercharged OHV V8|
|Horsepower (SAE):||580 hp at 6,000 rpm|
|Torque:||556 at 4,200 rpm|
|Bore and stroke:||4.06×3.62 inches|
|EPA fuel economy rating:||14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway|
|Front suspension:||Multi-link Strut|
|Front sway-bar diameter:||1 inch|
|Tie-rod endlink diameter:||0.65 inch|
|Rear suspension:||Independent multi-link with aluminum knuckles|
|Differential:||Cast iron, with aluminum cover, remote gear-lube cooling|
|Rear sway-bar diameter:||1.1 inch|
|Front track width:||63.7 inches|
|Front tire size:||285/35ZR20|
|Rear track width:||63.7 inches|
|Rear tire size:||305/35ZR20|
|Curb weight:||4,105 pounds|
|Front left:||1,087 pounds|
|Front right:||1,062 pounds|
|Rear left:||969 pounds|
|Rear right:||987 pounds|
- Best seats of the bunch
- Excellent ride and handling
- Makes you feel like a better driver than you are
- Heads-up display is gimmicky but pretty cool.
- Big outside, little inside
- Poor visibility
- Needs another 100 hp to make it pull like the Mustang