The new car market aims to please a variety of people and move forwards with new technologies, but has that undermined one of the auto industry’s favorite segments? Ask any non enthusiast to name a muscle car and they’ll undoubtedly mention the Mustang or Camaro. Some car enthusiasts might claim those have gone too far from their roots and aren’t true muscle cars anymore. Pedants will say the Mustang was never a muscle car and has always been pony car. The proliferation of new characteristics into old favorites has warped what we may define as a “muscle car.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a muscle car is “any of a group of American-made 2-door sports coupes with powerful engines made for high-performance driving.” However, newer models have completely blurred the lines of what is and isn’t considered a muscle car. Cars like the Pontiac GTO, Plymouth Superbird, and the original Dodge Charger are all unapologetic muscle cars, characterized by their 2 door coupe bodies, big V8s, and American manufacturer. Today, people might consider cars like the Dodge Charger (now a sedan), BMW M4, and Ford Mustang Ecoboost muscle car because of their heritage as muscle cars or focus on cruising and straight line speed. So what’s what?
Let’s add another wrinkle to this question: pony cars. Pony cars are “an affordable, compact, highly styled car with a sporty or performance-oriented image” (according to Wikipedia), and the most notable example of which is the Ford Mustang. But the Mustang also fits the definition of a muscle car. Other notable pony cars are the Plymouth Barracuda and Chevy Camaro, but these are also generally considered to be muscle cars. The general difference between them is this: pony cars look fast, while muscle cars are fast. Can they overlap? Of course. Can some cars be more of one than the other? Sure.
Perhaps the biggest dispute amongst enthusiasts when it comes to whether something is a muscle car or not is cylinder count. Many people will claim that something is not a muscle car unless it has a big V8. The most notable examples of this are all of the new V6 and even turbo 4 cylinder “muscle” cars. A V8 isn’t explicitly stated in the definition of a muscle car, but it’s a very important characteristic that is a big part of the character of a muscle car. Cars like the Ecoboost Ford Mustang fit the definition of a muscle car but lack a V8. So Ecoboost Mustang is technically a muscle car, but you could make the argument that it’s not a “true” muscle car by virtue of its 4 cylinder engine. The same goes for other muscle cars with less than 8 cylinders.
You might notice one commonality between the definitions of pony car and muscle car: “American”. Are muscle cars limited exclusively to the United States? Short answer: yes. Long answer: mostly. European or Japanese automakers could make muscle cars, but naturally aspirated V8, rear wheel drive, manual sports coupes aren’t all too common from overseas automakers. So cars like the BMW M4 could technically fit the definition of a muscle car aside from being American, but that car has priorities that are totally different from a comparably priced Dodge Challenger Hellcat. As a result, European and Japanese cars generally aren’t considered to be muscle cars, but they could be if they truly wanted to.
Another very debatable aspect of muscle cars is the number of doors. Most muscle cars are 2 door coupes, but now we have cars like the Chevy SS and Dodge Charger that are very similar to the Camaro and Challenger, respectively, with the exception of having 4 doors. If anything about the definition of a muscle should be changed, it is the notion that they must have 2 doors. Why can’t people with kids have fun? The SS and Charger both offer extremely powerful V8s and muscular good looks with the performance to match. There’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be considered muscle cars.
A common muscle car stereotype is that they can’t handle. Does that mean that some cars, like the recent Camaro and Mustang, have graduated from the status as muscle cars to full-fledged sports cars? The Corvette is clearly a sports car, with its world-class handling and 2-seat fastback body. Same goes for the Dodge Viper. The Camaro and Mustang make interesting cases for being sports cars, especially the 4 and 6 cylinder variants. They have many characteristics of common sports cars like the Subaru BRZ and Mazda Miata. However, I would be very hesitant to call them sports cars, if for no other reason than their respective heritages as muscle and pony cars.
The Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Challenger (as well as Chevy SS and Dodge Charger) sold today are all muscle cars by definition. Yes, some have more muscle car characteristics than others. But that doesn’t change the fact that they should all be considered muscle cars.