Every August, more than a million people come back to Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Old muscle cars from the 1960s rumble slowly from stoplight to stoplight as part of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, and you can smell the throttled-back machinery as it overheats in the stifling summer swelter. Everyone is trying very hard to remember a time when powerful V-8 engines helped make Detroit the capital of the automotive universe.
Woodward Avenue has changed a lot since the days when the Dodge Charger, the Ford Mustang, and the Pontiac GTO were icons of American street racing. This is still Michigan 1, the route that became the primary artery of Detroit’s development in the 1890s, when the city built railroad cars instead of automobiles. It extends some twenty-seven miles to Pontiac from downtown Detroit, but time has passed by many of the old landmarks along its lower reaches, such as the old Albert Kahn-designed GM building, the plant where Ford’s Model T was built, and Chrysler’s now-demolished headquarters in Highland Park.
For us, Woodward Avenue really begins when you drive over the bridge across Eight Mile Road, where the old suburbs of Ferndale and Royal Oak begin. Here the baby-boom generation reached critical mass in the early 1960s, and its members’ hormone-charged enthusiasm for cars created an enormous street-racing scene on Woodward Avenue. Every night, kids gathered at drive-ins such as the Totem Pole near Ten Mile Road, tuned their cars in gas stations such as Teddy Spehar’s Sunoco just a bit farther north, and then chose off in the parking lot of the Northwood Shopping Center for informal street races either on Woodward itself or on a nearby stretch of Interstate 75. From Ten Mile Road to Square Lake Road some eight miles away, Woodward Avenue was the most exciting stretch of pavement in the country, and it changed the way American cars were built, advertised, and even portrayed in the national media.
Most of the drive-ins are gone now, yet there’s a new generation of fast cars arriving on the scene. Just as in the 1960s, the new Charger, Mustang, and GTO are keyed to a marketing program directed at young, aggressive drivers. Muscle-bound, with powerful V-8 engines, these cars hope to become icons for a new generation. Are they the real thing or just overhyped remakes?
The Dodge Charger R/T has aroused a controversy because it has the wrong number of doors (four) compared with the Mopars that used to be flaunted by Ramchargers–Chrysler’s old, unofficial street-racing club. Like the Chrysler 300, which it resembles under the skin, the Charger attempts to take the traditional four-door sedan into two-door territory with a low, coupelike roofline. There’s an awful lot going on in the Charger, maybe too much: a truck-style grille, frenched headlights, a retro kick-up in the rear door meant to recall Chrysler E-body pony cars of the early ’70s, and a Kamm-style aero tail. It’s all been stitched together with lots of enthusiasm, but there’s not much beauty to behold.
The Ford Mustang inspires no controversy, as it repeats the past in a familiar way. Even teenage drivers, the foremost arbiters of automotive style in America, are utterly wild about the new Mustang’s reinvention of the pony-car look. The interior combines retro style and contemporary function with equal confidence, although the instrument panel is surprisingly massive, which conspires with the high beltline to make the car seem bigger than it should be.
The Pontiac GTO has had observers in an uproar since its introduction as a 2004 model, and plenty of people will tell you that it should look like one of those monstrous two-door GTO sleds of 1966-67. We’re not among them, yet there’s no way to sidestep the fundamental lozengelike look of this car, as it carries a sleep-inducing, Opel Omega-like shape in-herited from the Australian-built Holden Mo-naro, from which it’s derived. Pontiac dressed up the ’05 car with twin hood scoops and optional rocker sills to placate the GTO culture police, and they’re a worthwhile improvement.
For all the lollipop colors and extravagant styling of classic American muscle cars, the engine always has been the most important part of the formula for success on Woodward Avenue. So it’s impressive that the engines in the Charger R/T, the Mustang GT, and the GTO not only are powerful but also reflect the different engineering philosophies of their makers.
Although the entry-level Charger SE and the mid-price Charger SXT can be had with a 250-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, we’re sure that most people will find their way to the Charger R/T and its 340-hp, 5.7-liter V-8. (We tested the 350-hp version that comes with the $1600 Road/Track Performance package.) The Hemi brand name has carried this V-8 far, and it’s more evidence that Americans care deeply about the character of the engines in their cars. Derived from Dodge’s truck engine, this torquey V-8 has a durable but heavy iron block, while the aluminum heads incorporate pushrod-operated overhead valves. The useful bit of high technology is a system to shut down cylinders during part-throttle cruising, a measure that helps improve EPA highway fuel economy to 25 mpg.
The Mustang V-8 is a little displacement-challenged at just 4.6 liters, but Ford decided a decade ago to follow the path of efficiency with high-revving, overhead-cam cylinder heads. Indeed, the Mustang GT’s SOHC powerplant revs to 6000 rpm to deliver its 300 hp, and the increase in power as the engine winds up really makes this an exciting piece. Ford manages to get decent torque from this engine thanks to the combination of three valves per cylinder and variable valve timing.
The GTO incorporates the 400-hp, 6.0-liter LS2 V-8 from the C6 Corvette, and it’s an unreconstructed small-block V-8 with push-rods and overhead valves. Nevertheless, the engine’s prodigious output is a measure of the engineering effort that has gone into making this OHV configuration truly modern. GM has proven that the pushrod V-8 can be compact, potent, and surprisingly cost-effective.
Out on Woodward, the best street racing took place in the tree-lined section north of Bloomfield Hills, although the frequent turnaround lanes in the median made it easy to match up almost anywhere. Most speed contests took place at a launching speed of 30 mph, and usually twenty bucks was at stake.
It turns out that our modern muscle cars are best at these speeds as well, especially if a manual transmission is involved. For example, the GTO has a reputation for terrible wheel hop under fierce acceleration, but the explanation is as simple as a rear suspension with semitrailing arms that’s overwhelmed by 400 lb-ft of torque, and it takes a launch at a paltry 1700 rpm to get an optimum 0-to-60-mph time of 5.1 seconds. The Mustang’s four-link, solid rear axle is surprisingly well located and simply chatters under brutal torque loads, but here again, a launch at 1900 rpm is required to convert its 320 lb-ft of torque into a run to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. On the other hand, there’s no drama from the Charger’s five-speed automatic as it takes you to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds.
Of course, the real racing on Woodward took place not only on the boulevard itself but also on the access roads and concrete lanes of nearby I-75, then only partially completed. Out there, high-powered Mopar Hemis and Royal Bobcat-equipped Pontiacs had plenty of room to run. The new Charger, Mustang, and GTO also need room to run, as they’re near-150-mph vehicles.
The Charger R/T tips the scales at 4134 pounds as a result of its Mercedes-engineered chassis components and a heavyweight V-8, yet it handles speed without a quiver of fright, shrugging off bumps and steering gently nose-first through bends. The Dodge’s stability control is always on duty, though, and its gentle but persistent intervention will quickly overheat the brakes, which don’t have much bite to them, anyway.
The Mustang GT also takes the path of stability during fast driving, its understeer making it incredibly predictable though not exactly lively or entertaining. A strong chassis structure and the thoroughly developed solid rear axle put the relatively sticky 235/55WR-17 Pirelli P Zero tires to good use. The numb, light-effort steering is a little slow to react, though, and it’s another factor that makes this 3516-pound car seem heavier than it really is. On the other hand, the five-speed gearbox is brilliant, its short throws and defiantly mechanical gear engagement helping to get the most from the high-winding SOHC V-8.
The GTO’s six-speed manual transmission doesn’t meet the Mustang’s standard, as the shift throws are long and the gate location is uncertain, although the actual gear engagement is crisp and clean. The GTO steers brilliantly, and you can place the car just where you want it. Once you put the hammer down, though, the GTO winds up on its semitrailing-arm rear suspension in a disconcerting way, as if it were getting ready to hop sideways across the road. Somehow, the 245/45WR-17 BFGoodrich G Force T/As always stick to the pavement, but it’s clear the car shows a different personality that depends on whether you’re smooth with the steering or you prefer to work the rear tires.
Unlike the muscle cars of the past, the Charger R/T, the Mustang GT, and the GTO can be driven to work each day without betraying the presence of a beast under the skin. The Charger is quiet and composed on its 235/ 55WR-18 Michelin MXM4 tires (in contrast to the harsh-riding twenty-inch tires on the SRT8), and the self-leveling rear dampers help the car bear up under the load of four people. The steering wanders a bit, though, as if the tires were a little too wide for the steering geometry. Inside, the car is very austere, just like the muscle cars of the ’60s, and there are hints of trucklike styling to help younger guys make the transition into civilized sedan transportation.
The GTO proves decidedly supple on the roads of the real world and far from the monster its speci-fications suggest. The Opel- and Holden-engineered chassis dates from the 1990s and makes the car heavy at 3705 pounds, but GM development has made the GTO feel mature and sophisticated. It’s also surprisingly roomy inside, al-though the high seat and low beltline make it seem compact.
If you’re after an authentic muscle car, the athletic, somewhat stiff-legged Mustang delivers the character you want. It’s coiled up for action at every second, as if bristling with steroids. The surprise is its ability to achieve such a feeling of latent energy without making you uncomfortable with suspension harshness or chassis flex.
Every generation has its muscle cars. The ’32 Ford with its flathead V-8, the ’55 Chevy Bel Air with its small-block V-8, and the ’68 Plymouth Road Runner with its Hemi V-8 all spoke to the soul of a generation, and their rapidly escalating values as collectible cars prove it. Maybe it’s a little too much to ask the same of the Charger R/T, which will be transformed in-to a 425-hp SRT8 this fall. Maybe the Mustang GT is only the start of something great, as the GT500 holds out a promise of 500 hp. And maybe the GTO just isn’t the right kind of American-bred package, as poor sales suggest.
Yet our drive on Woodward Avenue shows that these cars measure up to the ghosts of the past. The Charger R/T liberates itself from utility-bound sedan-think of the past, and its test numbers prove it can run with cars as serious as the Mustang GT and the GTO. It can even be had as a winged Daytona R/T with eye-popping 1960s-style colors. Meanwhile, the GTO shows that GM was too quick to cave in to the enthusiasm for fast pickups by canceling the Chevy Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird, as the American GT car clearly remains a relevant and compelling concept. Finally, the Mustang GT is the best evidence yet that muscular cars with V-8 engines still have a profound appeal that cuts across all generations. A car with real American muscle is meant to be affordable, fast, and more than a little bit raw, and the Mustang meets the criteria better than any other car in this group.
This summer, when the Woodward Dream Cruise comes around again, there should be no weeping for the ghosts of the past. American automakers can still make muscle cars with serious V-8 engines, and we’ve got the proof right here.
Dodge Charger R/T
Price (base/as tested): $29,995/$35,625
Engine: 5.7 L V-8, 350 hp, 390 lb-ft
0-60: 6.1 sec
Ford Mustang GT
Price (base/as tested): $26,330/$27,825
Engine: 4.6 L V-8, 300 hp, 320 lb-ft
0-60: 5.6 sec
Price (base/as tested): $32,995/$33,690
Engine: 6.0 L V-8, 400 hp, 400 lb-ft
0-60: 5.1 sec