American Hustle: Camaro Z/28, Mustang GT, Challenger Hellcat
These Detroit-bred ponycars leave most any competitor for dead.
"The freewheeling, wide-open era of the American automobile, unfortunately, is over. Time to face reality. "—Motor Trend, February 1974
That's the trouble with trying to predict the future: You never know how it's going to turn out. Exactly 41 years after that gloomy quote from our sister publication—written amid the bleakness of gas-rationed, emissions-strangled 1970s America—not only is the freewheeling, wide-open era of the American automobile not over, it's outrunning even our wildest dreams and throwing a wild foam party to celebrate. As evidenced by the three spectacular new sports machines you see here—the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, and the Ford Mustang GT—the Big Three aren't just back, they're taking names and slapping in-your-face high-fives each time they humiliate a sniffy rival. On tap are mind-bending horsepower, Le Mans moves, cutting-edge electronic gizmos, and designs that, at a glance, can squeeze an adrenal gland dry in seconds. This is American Hustle, circa 2015, and it's so damn fabulous we're black and blue from pinching ourselves.
Three of a Kind
And so it is in 2015, though these latest hustlers have simply gone gonzo with performance goodies. The least potent member of the trio, the new 2015 Ford Mustang GT, romps with 435 hp from its 5.0-liter DOHC V-8. Its long-serving, much-maligned live rear axle at last is dead, replaced by a modern, multilink independent rear suspension. An available Performance Pack (included on our test car) adds tighter springs, high-pressure gas dampers in back, a stiffer rear anti-roll bar, big Brembo brakes, and more. The new bodywork is clean and handsome but flaunts a decidedly European aesthetic; Ford's design team across the pond did much of the styling. It's undoubtedly unsettling to the Mustang faithful on our shores—the forums are full of groans over the new look—but also probably necessary given Ford's plans to market the car worldwide. Base price for the new 2015 Ford Mustang GT Premium: $36,925. With the Performance Pack ($2,495), leather Recaro seats ($1,595), navigation ($795), and more, our test car checked in at $45,885.
The original Challenger died out in 1974, but Dodge wowed the crowds at the 2006 Detroit auto show when it unveiled its fabulous, retro-savvy Challenger concept car. Two years later, it sent all those starry-eyed onlookers into a mass-hysteria happy dance when its production Challenger road car finally appeared—looking pretty much the same. And while various Challengers since have featured impressive engines, including an SRT model making 470 horses, the latest and greatest Dodge simply blows all of them into oblivion. With a supercharged, twin-intercooled 6.2-liter Hemi V-8 with 707 hp, you can now buy a street-legal Dodge with near-NASCAR output and a top speed just one tick below 200 mph. Also on board: an optional eight-speed ZF automatic with paddle shifters; Brembo brakes the size of a sombrero; 20-inch, seven-spoke "Slingshot" forged-alloy wheels; and a slew of stability-control electronics to try to keep the whole thing on the ground. All-in price, including leather seats, navigation, and $1,700 in gas guzzler tax, is a cool $65,870.
If the Mustang is a suave, Euro-flavored GT and the Hellcat an atomic subwoofer on wheels, Chevy's groundbreaking new Camaro Z/28 is as focused as a jet fighter. Check first under the hood: Therein lies a true leviathan of a V-8, the same dry-sump, naturally aspirated 7.0-liter LS7 that powered last year's Corvette Z06. Output, all 505 hp of it, flows to the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28's rear wheels through a short-throw, close-ratio six-speed manual and a Torsen limited-slip differential. Brakes are enormous Brembo carbon ceramics, standard. The chassis benefits from exotic spool-valve dampers straight off a Formula 1 grid. And the Z/28 wears what's said to be the world's widest production-car front tires, 305/30ZR-19 Pirelli P Zero Trofeo Rs, the design a supersticky compound that delivers staggering braking and cornering power. Indeed, so dedicated is this new Camaro to speed, the "stereo" has but one speaker, and air conditioning is included only by special option. But prepare thyself for sticker shock of the 480-volt variety: Including guzzler tax, the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 checks in at $75,000. That thud you just heard was your Uncle Vinnie, who grew up driving Camaros, fainting in the family room.
Cars as explosive as these three need a proper firing range, so to give each of them a proper, timed shakedown (that's a lie: we just wanted to drive them really fast), we headed straight to 2.2-mile GingerMan Raceway in western Michigan.
The Hellcat tracks through a GingerMan bend in its preferred attitude—all crossed up—thanks to a supercharged, 6.2-liter volcano.
Weighing nearly 4,450 pounds, the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is no circuit wizard. But write it off as a big, clumsy bruiser, and you'll end up choking on its tire smoke. The broad-shouldered gladiator carves with remarkable adroitness for its heft, and though the steering wheel admittedly feels more like a suggestion than a command, the Hellcat dances like a circus bear. Part of its magic is a surprisingly stiff structure, which keeps roll to a minimum and holds the tires in proper contact with the tarmac. The other ingredient is pure muscle. With 650 lb-ft on tap, the Hellcat could park in corners and still be entertaining on the track—it's just that quick hammering down the straights. (Zero to 60 mph flashes by in just 3.7 seconds.)
In-house hot shoe Marc Noordeloos, who ran all our timed laps, reports: "The Hellcat is an animal. It has pretty good balance, which is surprising. I respected the brakes, and they held up quite well. In all, far better than I thought it'd be." Mind you, Marc ran his timed laps with the traction-control system set in Sport. Turn the nannies off completely and, well, after we tried that it took about 20 minutes for the tire smoke to clear (and our pulse to drop to 130). Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat lap time: 1:45.8
Ford's Mustang GT is a paragon of balance. The "slowest" of the trio, at 4.4 seconds to 60 mph, the 'Stang is still plenty quick hurtling around a race circuit—aided by a terrific six-speed manual, good steering feel, and a graceful chassis. The GT feels smaller than its rivals; it's easy to aim, and visibility is excellent. Too bad that it's not livelier. Blame the extra weight—the 2015 edition has packed on nearly 100 pounds compared to its predecessor. And although the new independent rear suspension handles that avoirdupois with poise, we can't help but think the new car should be lighter.
Noordeloos certainly enjoyed his laps. "Fun and quick on the track. Impressive. Balanced. Puts the power down nicely. The Track mode of the ESP is smartly set up. Brembo brakes held up well." One complaint shared by several of us: The V-8 is too buttoned-down. A little more fire in the exhaust, some added sizzle and spit would go a long way toward upping the GT's sex appeal. But we're picking nits here. The new Mustang is a fabulous all-rounder and easily bested the big Hellcat around GingerMan. And Ford isn't done. When the Mustang GT350 edition arrives next year, the package will evolve to true supercar status. Yeah, we're salivating, too.
Ford Mustang GT lap time: 1:44.8
The latest Mustang V-8 enjoys significant power strides, thanks to new heads with high-flow ports, larger valves, and intake and exhaust cams with increased lift. The balanced
chassis is happy to cut loose, too.
Given its hardware and mission profile, we expected a lot from Chevy's new purebred. It delivered. The Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 is to regular Camaros what a scalpel is to a steak knife. On the racetrack, its home field, it's a cheetah on the Serengeti. Except it never tires out. And it eats everything in its path (Lamborghinis included). Here's Noordeloos after his hot laps, trying to speak through an embarrassingly massive grin: "The Z/28 is insane around GingerMan. The grip is astonishing. It's more race car than street car. Most street-legal auto-mobiles fall on their face when pushed hard during extended runs on a circuit. That's not the case here. You can really lean on the minimalist Camaro, abusing it lap after lap. The Multimatic dampers work wonders, allowing the supersticky Pirellis to work their magic. I especially love the way it …." At that point, we had to cut Marc off. He was beginning to froth at the mouth.
The Z/28 does that to you. No previous Camaro experience prepares you for how good it is on the racetrack. Its handling is nothing short of sensational. It is a game-changing machine. Its lap time—a full 3 seconds quicker than the Mustang GT—says it all.
Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 lap time: 1:41.8
A superstar on the circuit, the Z/28 uses a bounty of race hardware in the LS7 V-8—including titanium intake valves and con rods, cold-air induction, a huge K&N air filter, and
dry-sump oil system. USA! USA!
The Real World
As performance-oriented as each of these new rides is, the question looms: Could you live with one day to day? Answer: easily. Of the trio, the track-focused 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 is the least comfortable on normal roads—its ride is harsher, the controls heavier. But it's still completely tractable; the mighty engine never complains at low speed, and the lone speaker will output music if you need something besides V-8 rumble in your ears. The interior is comfortably outfitted with outstanding seats, a thick steering wheel and well-spaced pedals. If you're willing to put up with a little extra effort and a lot fewer amenities during normal commutes, the Z/28 will pay you back on every twisty road you can find like few other road cars in the world.
The 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, for all its God of Thunder potential, is a peach at heart. Drive it gently, and it thrums along happily. This car, chock full of amenities, is tailor-built for long-distance motoring. The ride is almost plush, the controls smooth, the engine a waterfall of torque. And when the mood strikes, simply plant your right foot, and all cares (and just about everything else) disappear.
The author savors a fine cigar in the smokin' room.
The 2015 Ford Mustang GT strikes the group's best track/road trade-off. Quick if not breathtaking on the track, it's also sweet and satisfying blasting along a mountain two-lane. Some of the interior bits are downright silly (strange one-way toggle switches; a speedometer that reads "Ground Speed"), but all the standard conveniences are there for times when you'd simply like to let the miles roll on. This is the everyday ponycar, the versatility champ. The GT even stands as a performance bargain.
Our opinions are divided over which of the three we like best. We're unanimous, though, in our agreement that all three practitioners of the new American Hustle rock. No one alive during the dreary 1970s likely could've predicted we'd be enjoying muscle cars this fast and engaging and true to the original paradigm four decades later.
"Time to face reality," we heard back in 1974. Well, we're staring it right in its 2015 face. And reality sure looks amazing to us.
2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Specifications
- Base Price: $60,990
- Price as Tested: $65,870
- Engine: 6.2-liter supercharged OHV 16-valve V-8/707 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 650 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- 2-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
- EPA Mileage (city/ highway): 13/22 mpg
- L x W x H: 197.5 x 75.7 x 55.7 in
- Wheelbase: 116.2 in
- Weight: 4,439 lb
- 0-60 mph: 3.7 sec
- Â¼ Mile: 11.7 sec @ 125.4 mph
2015 Ford Mustang GT Premium Specifications
- Base Price: $36,925
- Price as Tested: $45,885
- Engine: 5.0-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8/435 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 400 lb-ft @ 4,250 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
- EPA Mileage (city/ highway): 15/25 mpg
- L x W x H: 188.3 x 75.4 x 54.4 in
- Wheelbase: 107.1 in
- Weight: 3,705 lb
- 0-60 mph: 4.4 sec
- Â¼ Mile: 12.8 sec @ 112.2 mph
2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 Specifications
- Base Price: $75,000
- Price as Tested: $75,000
- Engine: 7.0-liter OHV 16-valve V-8/505 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 481 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
- EPA Mileage (city/ highway): 13/19 mpg
- L x W x H: 192.3 x 76.9 x 52.4 in
- Wheelbase: 112.3 in
- Weight: 3,820 lb
- 0-60 mph: 4.0 sec
- Â¼ Mile: 12.3 sec @ 117.2 mph
Spectacular as they are, today's Big Three superstars share the shame of these embarrassing forebears.
1974-1978 Ford Mustang II
Not a bad idea in its day considering skyrocketing fuel prices and the popularity of small imports, the Mustang II was nevertheless a bad car. Cramped and irredeemably wimpy, it didn't even offer a V-8 engine when it debuted.
1978-1982 Dodge Challenger
This rebadged Mitsubishi offered a 426 engine of sorts—as in, four cylinders and 2.6 liters. On the plus side, the Challenger came with a five-speed manual and '70s-chic plaid upholstery.
1982-1992 Chevrolet Camaro
Half-baked as were so many GM cars in the 1980s, the third-gen Camaro had a sleek design and a modern(ish) suspension, but it resorted to Pontiac's 90-hp Iron Duke for a base engine. The 102-hp V-6 that came with the Camaro Berlinetta (not to be confused with the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta) wasn't much better.