Muscle cars have been around since the early 1960s and ushered in a new era of performance and outright power within the auto industry. The classic muscle car formula has mostly stayed the same throughout the decades – a big engine up front, comfortable seating in the middle, drive going to the rear, and a purchase price low enough for blue-collar workers to afford.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the muscle car dwindle in popularity thanks to the oil crisis, but by the late 1990s, the trend picked back up with a vengeance. By the beginning of the 21st century, the muscle car world was filled with massively powerful vehicles such as the Ford Mustang GT500, but also saw some terrible attempts like the Chevrolet SSR, the Plymouth Prowler, and the Mercury Cougar. Luckily for motoring enthusiasts, muscle cars currently being sold are all pretty good and offer a wide variety of performance and drivetrains – from turbocharged 4-cylinders to mighty supercharged V8s.
The muscle car has ingrained itself into the motoring world to become one of its most popular segments – offering vehicles that start from as little as $25,000, going all the way up to well over $100,000 for racetrack-ready cars. Keeping that in mind, here are 5 of the best and 5 of the worst muscle cars of the 21st century – so far.
10 Worst – 2006-2009 Chevrolet Impala SS
The Chevrolet Impala is a legendary American car that used to have big V8 engines and was the more comfortable alternative to the Camaro and Chevelle. The Impala followed this ethos up until the seventh generation, which was a large sedan often used by the US Police as squad cars.
The eighth-generation came along, and Chevrolet got rid of the V8 engines and moved the Impala to a front-wheel-drive platform. In 2006, the ninth generation was launched, and with it returned the V8, but the model remained front-wheel-drive. The Impala was no longer a comfortable muscle car but had become a terrible and cheap sedan.
9 Worst – 2006 Dodge Charger
The Dodge Charger was revived in 2006 and was received with mixed results. Many praised the design with the aggressive muscle car look but criticized the fact that it had four doors. Regardless, the Charger was pretty boring back then, with most engines being coupled to a 4-speed automatic transmission.
Dodge luckily ramped up the ante with the Charger and turned it into a proper four-door muscle car, eventually being fitted with the ludicrous Hellcat V8. But that first-generation truly was a bad car – especially the base model with the underpowered 2.7-liter V6.
8 Worst – 2002 Ford Mustang GT
The Ford Mustang is the staple of American muscle, but the fourth generation SN-95 was among the worst of the Mustang models – not counting the second generation. The 2004 Mustang had been improved since it was launched in 1994, but the engines were underpowered, and the chassis was terribly tuned.
Most SN-95 Mustangs were V8s; however, the base model featured a heavily updated 3.8-liter Essex V6, which made just 190 hp at its peak. The Mustang GT was fitted with the 4.6-liter Modular V8 and produced just 260 hp – up from an insignificant 215 hp for the 1997 model. The fourth-generation Mustang was pretty unimpressive and is definitely among the worst muscle cars of the 21st century.
7 Worst – 2000-2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
The Chevrolet Monte Carlo was another well-known and adored American muscle car which was changed to the exact opposite of what it was. The Monte Carlo up until 1988 was a rear-drive car with big V8s and a more comfortable approach to the muscle car world.
By 1995, the Monte Carlo name had migrated to a coupe version of the Impala, featuring the same V6 engines. The 2000 redesign followed the Impala to another front-drive platform but had at least been given a V8. But where the Impala could almost be forgiven, the Monte Carlo could not due to its hideous styling – especially the rear.
6 Worst – 2002 Mercury Cougar
The Mercury Cougar was first launched in 1967 and was designed to be a fancier version of the Ford Mustang and Torino. The Cougar mostly kept to this philosophy over the course of its production run, until the seventh generation, when it was switched to the Thunderbird’s platform after sales started waning, but luckily kept the V8.
Finally, the eighth generation moved platforms again, but this time the drive wheels changed to the front and the V8 left. What was left was a weird, angular-styled coupe with the engines from the Ford Mondeo. Where the Cougar was a sideways smoke machine in the 1970s, it had become a sub-par coupe with questionable handling in the 2000s. Luckily it was discontinued in 2002.
5 Best – Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The Camaro ZL1 is, hands-down, one of the best muscle cars ever made. It is fitted with the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 from the Corvette C7 Z06 and makes 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels only via either a 6-speed manual or a 10-speed automatic. The ZL1 has many upgrades over the standard SS – including better engine cooling, Magnetic Ride Suspension, and carbon-fiber body panels to keep weight down.
The ZL1 can also be fitted with the 1LE aero pack, which adds a larger front splitter, a huge rear wing, a larger diffuser, and more carbon-fiber bits to improve the handling. The ZL1 is able to accelerate from 0-60 mph in just 3.5 seconds and can continue on to a top speed of 198 mph. As an added bonus, Hennessey Performance will boost the ZL1’s power to 1,000 hp with their famous HPE1000 package.
4 Best – Ford Mustang GT350R
The Ford Mustang GT350R is one of the best muscle cars of the 21st century because it was the first one to properly take on the Europeans in terms of lap times and cornering ability. The GT350 also had a European-inspired engine as the Voodoo V8 – a modification of the Coyote V8 found in the normal Mustang GT – was fitted with a flat-plane crankshaft.
This improves the engine response, changes the power and torque to be produced at a higher rpm, and, best of all, creates a glorious harmony of a V8 noise which revs all the way to 8250 rpm – nearly 2000 rpm higher than the Coyote. The GT350R also features a carbon-fiber hood, rear wing, and wheels.
3 Best – Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
The Dodge Challenger was one of the best muscle cars in the 1960s and 1970s but went away in the early 1980s due to various reasons. The model was revived in 2008 and has been on every enthusiast’s mind ever since. The first few models were a bit on the bad side, featuring a 4-speed automatic.
This all changed in 2015 when Dodge launched the Hellcat V8. Here was a 707 hp, 650 lb-ft supercharged 6.2-liter V8 from the factory and under warranty. The Hellcat changed the muscle car game completely, with Ford and Chevy taking years to reach Dodge’s level of insanity. Dodge took the Hellcat one step further and made an 840-hp version, called the Demon, which was the fastest production car on a drag strip. How cool is that?
2 Best – Ford Shelby Mustang GT500
Speaking of Ford and Chevy catching up – Ford did so in style. After the success of the GT350, they had to make the ultimate version of the Mustang, so they decided on a new GT500. Where older GT500s were great in a straight line, they were terrible everywhere else. The new GT500 would be a continuation of the GT350 philosophy.
In 2020, the GT500 was launched, and it had a supercharged 5.2-liter Predator V8, producing 760 hp and 625 lb.ft of torque. This is less than the equivalent Dodge Challenger Redeye, but the GT500 can actually go around corners without leaving a plume of smoke in its wake. The GT500 has become even more powerful with the addition of the “King of the Road” edition, which will be available from Shelby and will result in more than 900 hp. Take that, Dodge!
1 Best – Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing
The Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing is unlike the other muscle cars on this list, as it is the only one with four doors. This doesn’t mean that it is a practical family sedan – which it is – but rather a way to take three people along for the ludicrous ride. The CT5-V Blackwing is fitted with the same supercharged V8 as in the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, but in this application, it produces 668 hp and 659 lb-ft of torque.
The CT5-V Blackwing is the last of its kind and so Cadillac decided to make it extra special and offer the car with a manual transmission as standard, keeping the 10-speed automatic as an option. This means that while this comfortable cruiser can do the cruising bit comfortably, it can also turn into an utter lunatic with the change of gear and the stab of the throttle, making the CT5-V Blackwing one of the best muscle cars of the 21st century. It doesn’t look bad either.