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The New Ponycar Wars

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  • Ford starting the retro ponycar revival with the 2005 Mustang. - 3
  • The 2007-09 GT/CS was a factory special model, but not particularly limited in production. - 4
  • The Shelby GT500 wears a distinctive front fascia and a 540-hp supercharged engine. - 5
  • Other Shelby models include GT-H models that originally served in Hertz rental fleets. - 6
  • Revamped for 2010, the Mustang GT has a sleeker profile, yet a characteristic retro flair. - 7
  • Perhaps the most welcome change with the 2010 Mustang is a vastly upgraded interior with better materials. - 8
  • Introduced in 2008 the Dodge Challenger was an instant icon and should prove popular for decades to come. - 9
  • Challenger base and R/T models were introduced for the 2009 model year. - 10
  • A full-width taillight panel is a throwback to Detroit cars of another generation, but a welcome one. - 11
  • Challenger SRT8 and R/T 6-speed are equipped with a pistol-grip-type shifter handle that harkens back to the muscle car years. - 12
  • An available graphics package for 2009 models puts retro-style “R/T” striping on the Challenger’s flanks. - 13
  • Dodge is producing approximately 100 stripped-down Challengers for drag racing competition. - 14
  • The 2010 Camaro is obviously influenced by the 1969 Camaro, but its proportions are more progressive. - 15
  • A high beltline and bulging fenders gives the new Camaro a sleeker, almost top-chopped look. - 16
  • The Camaro’s RS option includes HID headlamps with "halo" rings. - 17
  • Evoking the 1969 Camaro’s instrument panel, the 2010 models feature round gauges set in rectangular binnacles. - 18
  • An optional gauge panel, like the 1969 model, includes a quartet of rectangular instruments mounted in the center console. - 19
  • The Camaro delivers an excellent balance of styling and road manners. - 20
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by Barry Kluczyk  More from Author

Camaro, Challenger, Mustang: Which is the best investment?

Photos by the author and courtesy of the manufacturers.

The first salvo in the new Ponycar Wars was launched by Ford when it introduced the 2005 Mustang. Incorporating the styling influences of first-generation models, the unabashedly retro Mustang was an undeniable marketplace hit–more than 160,000 were sold in calendar-year 2005, representing a 24-percent increase over 2004.

Caught mostly unaware, Chrysler scrambled a response in the form of the Dodge Challenger. Like the Mustang, it was a throwback design based on the Charger sedan platform that, unless compared side by side, looked for all the world like a carbon copy of the iconic 1970 Challenger. It remains comparatively popular, but its retaliatory punch has been softened by the economic downturn that has affected sales of all car lines from all automakers.

It’s within this economic storm that Chevrolet enters the fray with the re-born Camaro. Although obviously influenced by the first-generation models, it wears the most progressive design and, similar to the Challenger, is based on the platform of a larger car. In this case, it’s the architecture that underpins the Pontiac G8 and GM’s Holden sedans in Australia.

The last time all three of these nameplates were in simultaneous production was 1974. Each of Detroit’s modern, revitalized ponycars carries the long nose/short deck proportion that defined the genre when it debuted on the 1964-1/2 Mustang (hence the “ponycar” nickname), along with the classic rear-drive layout, but–thankfully–much has changed when it comes to engineering, performance, and build quality.

And while many models from those muscle car-era production years have become valuable collector items, many have not. Predicting which of the latest crop of ponycars will prove the hottest in 20 or 30 years may be impossible today, but if history is an indicator, we can prognosticate with a great degree of clarity about the models to seek on dealership lots today–and in the want ads 20 years from now.  

Ford Mustang
The 2010 Mustang represents the first facelift of the S197-based model that debuted for the 2005 model year. It’s a sleeker look that is less overt in its retro styling, but nonetheless recalls the styling of early Mustangs. The turn signals of the 2010 model, for example, look much like the simulated air intakes near the headlamps on 1970 models.

The 2010s also have updated and much-improved interiors that go a long way in quelling the primary complaint of the 2005-09 models: chintzy cabins. It wasn’t just the look of plastic in those years that annoyed, it was the generally flimsy, unsubstantial feel that gave the cars an aura of cheapness.

Low-rent interior notwithstanding, the S197-based Mustangs are solid-feeling behind the wheel. The body structure and chassis are commendably robust and there’s an impression of tightness that previous generations lacked. Ford also did an admirable job keeping the live-axle rear suspension viable in a world of independently suspended sports cars.

From a reliability standpoint, the 2005-up Mustangs have little to complain about. The three-valve, 4.6-liter engine of the GT is durable and powerful, if a little torque-challenged. And compared with its Dodge and Chevy competitors, it is lacking in the horsepower department. Rated at 315 horsepower, it is 61 horsepower shy of the 2009 Challenger R/T’s 5.7-liter Hemi and a whopping 111 horses shy of the 2010 Camaro SS. Of course, Ford also offers the Shelby GT500 with 540 horsepower, but that’s an expensive upgrade, whereas the GT is comparable in price with the Challenger R/T and Camaro SS. (In the Mustang’s favor is a decided weight advantage of nearly 600 pounds over the Challenger and about 450 pounds on the Camaro.)

Like the interior, Ford’s penny-saving initiative could be seen in the lack of decorative engine covers that were suggested at the car’s press preview. And compared with Mustangs from only a few years earlier, fewer detail items–such as the rear axle–were receiving coats of paint in the factory.

We’ve always wondered why Ford never gave the GT a six-speed, as the GM F-cars adopted way back in 1993, but even the revamped 2010 model makes due with a five-speed manual. Its contemporary competitors each offer a six-speed manual. It also has an old-school solid rear axle, whereas the Challenger and Camaro have independent rears.

The 2005-and-up Mustangs have generated a tuning and re-styling phenomenon that is almost impossible to accurately track, which will make the future collectability status of the cars a challenge. Countless “tuner” versions have been offered, with notables such as Roush and Steeda topping the list–and new, factory-blessed special models from Shelby seem to arrive almost monthly.
Ford has issued its own special editions, too, in the forms of the Bullitt and California Special. In short, there are more specialty models on the market than there are Wall Street executives updating their resumes. One, however, that didn’t make production was an anticipated Mach 1 that would have followed the successful run of 2003-04 models from the previous generation. The bottoms of 2005-and-later Mustang GT hoods are scored to be cut for the shaker-style air scoop, but the production plans were scuttled.

As is typically the case, those specialty models with an established pedigree and thorough paperwork will better hold their value and, possibly, grow in value over time. Also, as time marches on, trim combinations and options emerge as rare production items. Some known Mustang models and options that might prove valuable in the long run include the $1,995 glass roof option introduced for 2009, the 2007-current GT/CS California Special package, and the 2008 Bullitt. And let’s not forget Shelby models: The supercharged Shelby GT500 will always be worth considerably more than the lower-rung GT, but the dust will have to settle in the coming years to see which of the extra-special GT500s produced by Shelby, such as the GT500 KR or the GT-based models, will prove the most valuable.

Dodge Challenger
The Challenger launched in 2008 with only one model–the top-of-the-line SRT8 that packed the 425-horsepower 6.1-liter Hemi engine. Quite simply, there’s nothing else quite like it on the road today. If there were any drawbacks to the 2008 Challenger SRT8, they were the singular availability of a five-speed automatic transmission and the lack of a limited-slip differential. That changed with the 2009 models, as a six-speed manual was added to the equipment list, along with the more performance-oriented limited-slip diff

Also new for 2009 were the six-cylinder base models and the mid-level Challenger R/T, the latter powered by the venerable 5.7-liter Hemi engine. With 376 horses (manual)/372 (auto), the R/T is no slouch, but it doesn’t offset the car’s weight nearly as effectively as the SRT8’s 425-horsepower engine.

There’s no doubt that people who don’t know a Corvette from a lawn mower recognize the Challenger as something unique. But as great as it looks, it represents much of what went wrong with Mother Mopar during the Daimler-Chrysler years. Its architecture and many mechanical components comprise a mash-up of recycled Mercedes parts. The chassis is largely based on a previous-generation E-class, with the rear axle and five-speed automatic transmission also borrowed from older Benzes. That’s not all bad, as the Challenger feels remarkably strong, solid, and quiet; but still, there’s a definite feeling that compromises were made during development.

From a driver’s standpoint, the Challenger isn’t quite as engaging as the lighter, nimbler Mustang, nor the new Camaro (see below). The Hemi engine is a powerhouse for sure, but it’s pulling around a lot of heavy sheetmetal. The ride is smooth and comfortable, but when pushed, the physics of the Challenger SRT8’s 4,100-plus pounds cannot be denied (the 2010 Mustang GT coupe weighs only about 3,500 pounds).

Some have complained about a cheapish quality to the Challenger’s interior, but it’s not as obvious as the 2005-09 Mustang’s cabin. In fact, the Challenger’s cabin is quite nice–although the long-term durability and finish of both its and the Mustang’s interior remain to be seen.

History has shown that first-year models generally are the most valuable, and a comparatively generous 6,400 2008 SRT8 models were built. But it’s quite possible that the future value of these cars will be in the later manual-trans-equipped cars.
Guessing what the future holds for the Challenger is difficult, as the future of Chrysler itself is cloudy. As we finished this story, Challenger sales were averaging a little more than 3,000 per month. That doesn’t sound bad, given Chrysler’s overall sales are down more than 40 percent from 2008 levels, but an annualized rate of 36,000 sales is not great.

The design and relative rarity–at least when compared with the Mustang–leads us to believe the Challenger SRT8 and R/T models will hold higher resale value for a longer period. Their blend of contemporary and vintage design features should prevent them from every going out of vogue. A sure bet for future collectors is any R/T outfitted with the available body-side graphics package. It’s bold but not garish, and definitely complements the car’s retro aesthetic.

One more thing: This year Dodge will offer approximately 100 stripped-down, drag race-spec Challengers for NHRA competition. And if history has proven anything, it’s that factory-built drag cars are always in demand. Count on them as guaranteed future investments.

Chevrolet Camaro
It is perhaps the most difficult to project the impact the all-new Camaro will have on today’s enthusiasts and tomorrow’s collectors. It is launching as we write this, with few examples yet to make it into new owners’ driveways.

The current economic climate certainly makes an admittedly indulgent car like the Camaro hard to justify, but Chevrolet has touted thousands of pre-sales as proof of pent-up demand for it. They’ve also touted rather impressive fuel economy numbers, including up to 29 mpg in highway driving with the base, 3.6-liter direct-injected V-6 that also happens to make 304 horsepower.

From a styling standpoint, there’s no mistaking the 1969 Camaro’s influence, but the 2010 Camaro is the least overtly retro member of the new ponycar brigade. It is a more progressive design that we suspect will hold up well in the coming years. Graphics packages available as accessories add a decidedly vintage flair, such as SS-style hood stripes or “hockey stick”-type body-side graphics that accent the car in a tasteful manner.

We’ve had a brief, in-person look at the new production car and came away impressed with the attention to detail found throughout, particularly in the interior. (GM must have been glancing at all those Internet forum posts about the low-rent Mustang interiors.) At a time when automakers are scrutinizing even the innocuous items for cost savings, the Camaro appears to have gotten it right from the get go.

The new Camaro is also a very solid, comfortable, and responsive performer. It has the nameplate’s first-ever independent rear suspension and the body structure is reassuringly solid and flex-free. Like the Challenger, the Camaro is based on the platform of a larger sedan (the same as the Pontiac G8), so it’s by no means a small car. It’s not a featherweight, either: Camaro isn’t as portly as the Challenger, but automatic-equipped SS models push the 3,900-pound mark on the scale. That’s over 400 pounds more than a 2002 Z28 or a 2010 Mustang GT auto.

The driving experience of the new Camaro SS belies its weight, as the torquey 6.2-liter engines (a 426-horse LS3 with the manual trans and a 400-horse L99 with fuel-economy-enhancing cylinder deactivation technology with the automatic) quickly pull the car up to speed. Combined with the billet-carved feel of the chassis, the new Camaro is as refined as any imported sports car.

But the well-executed production models on dealership lots don’t tell the whole story, at least when it comes to performance. The Camaro SS may be the top offering now, but a badly kept industry rumor had the Z28 returning to the lineup with the 550-horsepower supercharged engine of the Cadillac CTS-V. That model has reportedly been delayed, if not canceled altogether–a sacrifice to GM’s more pressing priorities. The previously announced convertible model is reportedly still on track for the 2011 model year.

It is too early to gauge which trim combinations and options will prove the rarest and/or most desirable in the long run. An optional RS package adds HID headlamps and illuminated “halo rings” around the headlamp bezels. That seems like a no-brainer in the “gotta have” column–now and 20 years down the road.

There is also an extensive lineup of dealer accessories–SS-style stripes to exhaust systems and larger wheels–that can be ordered and installed when the customer purchases the car, so we suspect there will be plenty of uniquely trimmed used Camaros in a few years that were delivered new with the components. You can expect dealers to create their own special editions, too.

If it were us buying a new Camaro SS, we’d order the six-speed manual and the RS package, have some of the accessories installed, and keep every shred of paperwork associated with them. That would help ensure the car’s value and, with luck, some of the accessories may just turn out to be the equivalent of, say, a Twister Special Mustang in 20 or 30 years.

Bottom line
Although each of these re-born muscle cars appears to be a direct competitor with one another, they approach the market with differing philosophies. Having established the retro-styled aesthetic, the smaller, lighter, yet less powerful Mustang GT enjoys popularity that crosses all kinds of demographic lines.

The Challenger is something of a boutique car. It is dramatic, beautiful, and powerful, but relies more on style than driving substance. You’ll always turn heads in one, while the ubiquitous Mustang melds with the background, but you’re not likely to see one used in road racing competition. On the other hand, the Challenger will likely hold its value and be more desirable in the coming years.

The Camaro seemingly blends the best attributes of both the Ford and the Dodge. It has the dramatic styling and serious power as seen in the Challenger, but like the Mustang, it’s more of driver’s car.

If your loyalties fall along manufacturer lines, you won’t regret your maker’s offering, and if you can swing it, you can’t go wrong with a manual-equipped GT500, SRT8, or SS. Keep an eye on those production numbers, high-horse engines, and interesting option combinations and you’ll be enjoying a fast ponycar today, and enjoying a valuable investment down the road.


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