One shouldn't judge a muscle car by its stripes.
Beneath the blue and white nostalgia resides modern mechanicals with fuel injection, 6-speed transmissions, traction control and ABS. The newest , an inaugural edition 392 model, rivals the performance of its present-day peers, the and . The Shelby GT350 aims to repeat history, not on the track, but by raising a Mustang's performance to the level of a sports car. What are classic muscle car fans to do if they absolutely must have some modern blue and white in the garage?
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2nd - Dodge Challenger SRT8 392
With the return of the pony car has come the return of the muscle car. In the last six years we've had some great names—and their equally memorable styling—make an automotive comeback. , Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and, of course, the Dodge Challenger, which is arguably styled to most closely resemble the 1970 original. However, the Challenger hasn't quite been capable of living up to its name and rivaling its newly revived pony competition. The SRT8 has decent power and performance, but not enough to make up for its size and weight. That ends with the installation of a 392-cu.-in. (6.4-liter) V-8 that replaces the previous 6.1-liter. Yes, there was a 392 Hemi back in the day, but you'll find no mention of it in the history of the Challenger—until now, that is.
Upping compression and increasing the stroke help the revised iron-block V-8 breathe easier and rip out 470 naturally aspirated horsepower; 45 more than its predecessor. Even better is an extra 90 lb.-ft. of midrange twist, making for an even 470 lb.-ft. of torque at 2900 rpm. Paired with its optional pistol grip shifter situated on a Tremec TR6060 6-speed manual, the Hemi feels ready for a duel at high noon. With one hand wrapped around a new steering wheel that's smaller and thicker-rimmed, and the other twitching toward the at-the-ready shift lever, a driver can't help but practice quick-draw shifts during a passing maneuver. Drop from 6th to 3rd with a quick rev-matched throttle blip and the 392 belts out a roar as it dispatches slower traffic. The ergonomics are a departure from the past, both recent and distant, a welcome change that elicits driver involvement on a higher level and makes the biggest pony feel small.
Our comparison began with a Los Angeles to Las Vegas dash. We had a date to keep at Shelby American headquarters; the Challenger felt ready to cut some notches in its pistol grip. High noon at the drag strip was fast approaching as I did my best Vanishing Point impression, thrusting the Challenger's long nose into the night. The dawn light glinting off the aircraft carrier-length hood called for dark tinted glasses but the drive gave me time to appreciate the changes made to the SRT8. Besides the unique white leather interior, the chassis has revised bushings, bars and dampers, along with a more sporting alignment that features greater static camber. It takes the 392 up a notch on the track-performance pegboard, but does so thankfully without ruining its reputation as an open highway cruiser.
It wasn't until Road Test Editor Jonathan Elfalan and I took it through its paces at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that we could let its new character shine through. This Challenger now generates numbers that are on par with the other pony cars. Sadly it's still the largest of the three, and it can't overcome its mass when pushed hard. It is, however, the only pony car with seating for five, and although it can pull decent performance numbers, it still is a step off its smaller competitors when it comes to hustling around a track—which doesn't mean we didn't enjoy it. Its shifter is unique and without doubt a selling point. The gates could be a little better defined and positive, with isolation and quietness seemingly taking precedence. The engine is quite the opposite—with its growth in displacement and added torque, we expected a low-end beast. However, we found the opposite. After a few runs down the drag strip, Elfalan observed: "The new engine is noticeably more powerful at the top end, with most of the grunt coming from the midrange and up. I like it that way since it cuts down on the need to be overly careful with the throttle on corner exit. The gearing is quite tall and widely spaced with 2nd gear achieving the best balance between powerband and wheel speed for effortless powerslides on command." And that's where the Challenger excels, not with outright performance, but sufficient output teamed with grin-inducing dynamics making for excellent smoke-belching slides, burnouts and doughnuts. It's a refined muscle car that can cruise to Vegas at 23 mpg with a quiet cabin that lets just a little rumble tickle its passengers.
1st - Shelby GT350
The 2011 Mustang GT with its new all-aluminum 5.0-liter V-8 would have been a fair competitor, but it didn't seem right to let Dodge get away with a blue-and-white special edition that clearly pays tribute to past Shelby hot rods without comparing it to the modern-day original. Anyone familiar with Shelby American knows the company stands behind its products as street legal and track ready. Now more than ever this is true.
The 2011 Shelby GT350 built on the newest Ford Mustang platform is not really like the original since it's not built for homologation purposes. Rather, it's built to go fast and retain a reasonable level of comfort for the street. In the transformation of a 2011 5.0-liter Mustang to GT350 status, Shelby does more than just add its unique body kit and spruced-up interior. It begins with an approximately 30 percent stiffer Ford Racing suspension, caster/camber plates and Cragar 19-in. alloy wheels shod with Goodyear's freshest street compound—the Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 (the SRT8 runs on the older generation of that tire). These changes alone put the Shelby leaps ahead of any other pony car, let alone the Challenger, live rear axle or not. But there is a price to be paid: Potholes, speed bumps and large dips must be avoided.
Although the Shelby GT350 can be had sans Whipple supercharger for $26,995 (that's in addition to the cost of a Mustang GT), paying the extra $7000 for a near-GT500 525 bhp is a wise choice. Once you've indulged in its immediate power, it's hard to want anything else. Our test car, equipped with a proper 6-speed manual and short-throw shifter, will run circles around the soft-by-comparison GT500, and maybe even beat it down the quarter. It easily bests the Challenger 392...it wasn't even a fair fight. The only thing the Shelby has going against it is price. The total price of this GT350 is over $80,000. That's a lot, especially when you consider the cost of a 2010 Dodge Viper, a fact we tried not to focus on as we roared around Las Vegas. Did I mention that it's loud? The Borla center-exit exhaust sounds great at the track, but there's no getting away from it on the open road where a mute button would be appreciated. Still, the throaty exhaust is exactly what you want when you have a hankering to scare your passenger or chase down a Corvette. Elfalan summed up the GT350 well, saying: "The suspension feels dialed in, balanced front to rear with most of the stock Mustang squish removed. The body still moves around a lot, perhaps a factor of the solid rear axle, but turn-in is quick with good feel and response is crisp from the front end despite the electric-assist steering rack." The Shelby is the racier of the two and it has the exhaust burble to let everyone know it.
Similarly, when you're in the GT350, you can't miss its pedigree. Aside from Carroll Shelby's name being everywhere, the car itself transmits its character clearly through immediate response to steering and throttle. The Whipple supercharger emits a friendly whine at idle, the whimpering of an engine that wants to rev. Given the chance to clip an apex, the GT350 hunkers down neatly, its live rear axle forgotten about on smooth surfaces. Without a doubt, the GT350's just at home on a track as it is on the street.
Both of these machines are trapped in time. Only 1492 Challengers like this one will be built, and Shelby has a cap of 2200, with only 500 slated for 2011. Will these be coveted by collectors 30 years from now? We'll see. For now, we'll enjoy the modern muscle—comfortably reliving the good ol' days without the hassles of carburetors, drum brakes or bias-ply tires.