BRAWN IN THE USA
Feel like creating a commotion in traffic? Short of stripping down to your underwear and prancing through the middle of a busy intersection, we recommend grabbing some retro-styled US muscle cars and taking them for a spin in a neighborhood near you.
Not officially available in Australia, and therefore quite rare (and pricey) here, the latest-generation Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger are welcome sights for the hordes of Aussie petrolheads brought up on a diet of homegrown, tyre-shredding V8 coupes and sedans.
Our stand-out trio from America’s Big Three – supplied by Melbourne-based conversion specialist Mustang Motorsport – certainly caused plenty of rubber-necking and commuter chaos during our weekday photo-shoot and test drive in the Mount Dandenong region of Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs.
From being quizzed by the locals outside Kallista Deli, where we parked the cars during lunch, to camera-clicking drivers frantically pulling over to the side of the road to glimpse the three muscle cars tearing past, we felt as conspicuous as Shane Warne and Liz Hurley in a fluoro-pink convertible.
Take it from us: these modern, muscle-bound recreations of ‘old school’ pony cars cause a greater stir in traffic than the latest Ferrari or Lamborghini – at around a third the cost of an Italian supercar.
WHO’S THE BOSS?
As the newest, and arguably most visually appealing of our trio, the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 re-captures much of the in-your-face attitude and ballsy thrills of American V8 muscle cars from the golden era of the ’60s and early-’70s.
With its menacing orange-and-black warpaint, it’s also one of the finest in a long line of ‘special editions’ introduced by Ford since the fifth-generation Mustang hit the US market in 2004.
Like the legendary ’69 Boss Mustang that won the 1970 Trans Am Championship, the latest Boss is a road-legal racer designed to make average punters feel like their racing heroes behind the wheel. Ford even went so far as to benchmark the latest version against BMW’s M3 during its development, then claiming the Boss ’Stang could outpace the Bavarian coupe at the Laguna Seca racetrack.
The heart of the Boss Mustang is a higher-revving 328kW/551Nm version of the 5.0-litre (or 302 cubic inch) V8 fitted to the Mustang GT. The track pack also extends to 14-inch, four-piston Brembo stoppers all-round, and lightweight, 19-inch racing wheels shod with Pirelli P Zero rubber.
Suspension is beefed up via stiffer springs, larger diameter anti-roll bars and manually-adjustable dampers with five different settings. There’s also a beefier clutch and six-speed manual gearbox mated to a short-throw shifter, and retuned electronic steering, traction control and stability control.
Number 16 off the production line, our right-hand drive converted Boss was the first to arrive in Australia, and looks the goods with ‘Boss 302’ decals, blackened bonnet, small bootlid spoiler and metallic orange paint. Not unlike Parnelli Jones’ Trans Am winning racer, it also features a revised front fascia, distinguished by blocked-off fog lamps and an aggressive chin spoiler.
Inside, the Spartan interior is a mix of old and new, from the cue ball shifter to modern dash layout with blue-glowing digital gauges. The (optional) body-hugging Recaro seats and small, chunky, suede-covered steering wheel add to the modern racer feel.
With their low seating positions, high window lines and narrow glass, all the coupes felt slightly claustrophobic, but the Mustang with its generous headroom felt most roomy of the lot.
Dour trim and predominantly hard plastics were a letdown (as in the other cars), although it’s worth noting these are cut-price performance cars in the States, built to a budget.
What Ford has managed to recreate perfectly is the sonorous soundtrack of the original; just a hint of ‘lumpy’ idle at start-up, rising to a rich, metallic symphony through the four-way exhaust at full roar. It’s the most evocative of our trio, and 5kg less sound deadening in the Boss helped boost the in-cabin aural delights (the metal discs in the side pipes can be removed on the racetrack to further boost the volume).
The free-revving V8 delivered a rich spread of torque across the rev range in a surprisingly smooth manner. It’s also quicker – on paper – than the other two, surging from standstill to 60mph (96km/h) in a claimed 4.3 seconds.
The Boss steered well, and felt remarkably agile and well balanced in corners for a hefty, 1447kg rear-wheel drive coupe (it’s the lightest of our bunch). It felt more composed and stable than the others when pushing hard through the curves, despite its live rear axle. It also soaked up the bumps with aplomb.
All in all, the Boss 302 was the most fun to drive; eliciting a big grin in everyone who got behind the wheel. Fellow test driver and muscle car tragic Matt Brogan was gushing in his praise.
“The 302 in our test car was linear, the exhaust note syrupy and the feel and feedback of the chassis talkative,” he observed. “It was by far the easiest of the three to drive at speed, and the most fun to lair-ise in (how politically incorrect).”
Despite regular assurances from General-Motors, Aussie muscle car enthusiasts are still waiting for the latest Chevrolet Camaro to officially go on sale Down Under. So until we see factory, right-hooker versions of the sexy coupe, which shares Commodore underpinnings and was jointly developed by Holden, ‘grey’ imports from the likes of Mustang Motorsport will have to suffice.
Our 2010 Camaro SS, complete with ‘Bumblebee’ Transformers graphics kit, stood out even in this company like a drag queen in an RSL. While mimicking the classic hunched quarters, long-bonnet design of the late-’60s Camaro, its bold, cutting-edge lines lend it a more modern feel than the Mustang and Challenger, which stick firmly to their retro roots.
Not surprisingly Brogan – a long-time owner of a ’76 Holden Monaro GTS – was a big fan.
“The way the body encapsulates the style of the first-gen Camaro really appeals to my love of late-’60s-early-’70s muscle,” he explained. “The long bonnet and set-back cabin, high wheel/short body ratio and short-cropped roof; it’s just so ostentatious. I love the dark grille and sunken headlamps – they really give the car personality. It’s easy to see why it was used in the Transformer movies.”
Behind the wheel though, the cool, gun-slit windows gave the Camaro the worst all-round vision of the lot, and a slightly intrusive sunroof didn’t help the limited headroom.
The leather seats were comfy and reasonably supportive, but the dash layout felt fussier than the Mustang’s, including retro-style squared off instruments, jet-thruster heat-and-vent controls, and a centre console quad gauge pack awkwardly located forward of the gearstick.
More Kia Rio than old-school muscle car, the interior did evoke a sense of anticipation, with 6400 redline and 300km/h speedo hinting at its performance potential.
Twisting the key and planting the right Blundstone though, made any thoughts of underpowered Korean cars quickly disappear. The 6.2-litre V8 made all the right ‘rugga-rugga-rugga’ noises at low speed, and a rorty bellow at full throttle; our only criticism some unwanted ‘boom’ from the aftermarket exhaust fitted by Mustang Motorsport to boost aural aggression.
Brogan tended to agree: “The noise on start-up is terrific, and that V8 burble at the lights is blatantly old school – if only it rocked on the cam!”
There’s plenty of high-revving histrionics on tap from the 299kW/535Nm bent-eight, plus enough low-end grunt for leisurely around-town work. The
Camaro also has a trick launch control system that allows just enough wheelspin to hook up the 20-inch rears and nail 0-96km/h sprints of 5.0 sec. Or switch off the traction control and smoke the P Zeroes ’till they melt!
In the curves, the Camaro provided plenty of grip, but it felt less tied down in the rear than the ’Stang, despite its stiff platform and coil-sprung independent rear set-up.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering was light but direct, and it was reasonably poised and confident in the twisty bits, despite a paunchy 1755kg. The Camaro was our pick of the bunch when it came to soaking up potholes and broken tarmac on our test route.
The six-speed auto slurred shifts around town, and the push-button ‘paddles’ behind the steering wheel were handy for upping the tempo. The monster brakes (355mm diameter front, 365 rear) with four-piston Brembo calipers were also up to the task, though not as tactile as the Mustang’s.
By day’s end Brogan had warmed to the on-road antics of the fifth-gen Camaro.
“The front-end points better than the original (I guess that’s not hard), but the rear is so loose,” he opined. “It’s really easy to hang the tail out, especially in the wet.”
MOPAR BULLY BOY
Like the Ford and GM offerings, Dodge delved into the back catalogue for inspiration when designing its latest muscle coupe; in this case, the 1970 Challenger R/T. But of our trio it’s the Mopar machine that more brazenly embraces the past, faithfully incorporating the narrow grille and four beady headlights, Coke-bottle waistline, and stretched hood of the still lusted-after 42-year-old Challenger.
Minor details like the shiny, chromed fuel cap, and post-mounted door mirrors modelled closely on the original’s, haven’t been forgotten.
The stealth, all-black exterior of our 2009 Challenger R/T made it more ‘under the radar’ than the others, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to police magnets like these. Our only gripe was the 20-inch five-spoke chrome alloys, which were a bit ‘aftermarket’ for our liking.
Brogan was also impressed with the authentic, blast-from-the-past styling.
“How 70s is that rear end? You’ve got to love it,” he enthused. “The whole shape just brings back nights at the drive-in, Jethro Tull, ballsy big blocks and quarter-mile times that some modern performance production models still fail to match.
“There’s no denying the Mopar connection with this beast. You can see bits of Barracuda, Charger and Challenger inside and out – even the ‘formal’ rear window gets a look in.”
Save for the fake carbon-fibre inserts around the centre console and doors, the sporty white-faced instruments and starter button, the Challenger’s drab, plasticky cabin lacked visual drama when compared to the other two.
“The interior probably doesn’t shout retro as loudly as the others, nor does the exhaust,” Brogan concurred. “It’s all a bit too 300C for my liking.”
It’s a big beast too, 250mm longer and over 50mm wider than the Mustang and at 1886kg, the heaviest here.
The external bulk doesn’t translate inside the cabin though, which felt cramped partly thanks to oversized seats and low roofline. Perched behind the big leather-rimmed helm on slippery leather seats, it did offer best all-round vision.
The 5.7-litre Hemi V8 sounded tame at idle, requiring a good stomp on the loud pedal to encourage a throaty, hard-edged note – though still a far cry from the NASCAR resonance of the Mustang. There was plenty of poke though, and Brogan (once again!) had no problem lighting up the Goodyear
Eagles for the camera.
The short-shifting, six-speed manual with its aggressive first-gear ratio helped get the big Dodge off the line smartly, although it was more lethargic from the lights (5.9sec 0-96km/h) than the others.
On the road, the extra size and bulk contributed to more roll around corners and it didn’t point as accurately thanks to vague steering. The rear end was also twitchier, particularly on wet patches – a good or bad thing, depending on your propensity for risk.
It was definitely more at home on fast sweepers than the trickier hairpins we encountered. The twin-piston (front) stoppers were also forced to work harder than the Brembo packages fitted to the others.
While not quite as smitten with the Challenger, Brogan admitted it still “commands a lot of respect at the lights and isn’t afraid to smoke the Goodyears with a bit of provocation – and who doesn’t love that!”
Our test-drivers were unanimous in their choice of top muscle coupe from this comparison. Given a blank cheque, the Boss Mustang proved the top pick, thanks to its thrilling performance, sonic signature and thuggish good looks. It’s the sort of car that could turn the most restrained Toyota driver into a hell-raising hoon...
That said, all vehicles fulfilled the prerequisites of any self-respecting muscle coupe; fuel-guzzling V8, attention-grabbing design and accommodation for at least four burly adults.
Granted, it might have been a fairer comparison if we’d driven the standard Mustang GT rather than the tricked-up Boss, or thrown in something a bit hotter from the Chevy and Chrysler stables like the supercharged Camaro ZL1 or 6.1-litre SRT-8 Challenger.
Also, the lack of track time – the proving ground of any bona fide, muscle-bound road racer – meant we didn’t really get to test the limits of these heavyweight thoroughbreds.
As for value for money, it’s hard to comprehend the steep Aussie sticker prices – even when taking into account various taxes, import and conversion costs – when they all retail in the US for around $40,000 (or much less).
From Mustang Motorsport, the Camaro costs $135K, the Challenger $140K, while the Boss will set you back $155K. It’s a big ask when the local equivalent from FPV and HSV pack as much – if not more – punch for a lot less outlay. That said, the Aussies don’t quite exude automotive sex appeal like their two-door American counterparts.
But if owning a V8 muscle coupe with retro style, tyre-frying performance and impeccable bloodline is high on your list, putting one of these scene stealers in your garage could be worth every cent.
PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED
Mustang Motorsport is a major player in Australia’s small but healthy late-model Mustang conversion industry. The Melbourne business has converted well over 200 Mustangs to right-hand drive since 2004.
Together with sister business Crossover Conversions, it also imports a range of other American vehicles under low-volume rules for conversion to right-hand drive spec, including Ford’s GT supercar – priced at a whopping $500,000-plus converted.
Our three feature cars have all benefitting from ‘mirror image’ conversions, meaning they retain identical dash design, materials and safety features as the original left-hooker but in reverse. They all come with a three-year warranty.
A visit to the company’s factory in the Melbourne suburb of Ferntree Gully, reveals a busy workshop and display area packed with late-model Mustang treasures, sporting names like Shelby, Bullitt, Eleanor, Saleen and Roush.
Mustang Motorsport was the first authorised Shelby mod shop outside of the US, supplying Shelby parts to local owners. According to Mustang Motorsport proprietor Craig Dean, supercharged Shelby models remain the most popular with buyers, with the ‘King of the road’ a neck-snapping 541kW GT500 Super Snake available for $300K.
Dean’s not afraid to back his products either, regularly competing in Mustang Motorsport-prepared cars in tarmac rally events including Targa Tasmania. In his spare time he also runs a side business importing American-built, luxury A-class Coachmen motorhomes.
||2011 FORD MUSTANG BOSS 302
2010 CHEVROLET CAMARO SS
||2009 DODGE CHALLENGER R/T|
||front eng, rear wheel drive
||front eng, rear wheel drive
||front eng, rear wheel drive
||0-96km/h - 4.3sec
||0-96kmh – 4.9sec
||0-96km/h – 5.9sec|
|Price (Mustang Motorsport)