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.