Dodge, with its long-lived Challenger, has long been a possession of classic Americana: big car, bigger V8. Ford, with the well-updated Mustang with a variety of options, offered muscle car buyers a 21st-century take on heavy-displacement coupes. It’s always been that way until last week, when Ford decided that nostalgia would lead the seventh-generation Mustang—5.0, stick shift, not a hybrid—while Dodge looks ahead and turns the next Challenger into an all-electric muscle car. It’s a dizzying moment. How did we get into a world where Dodge seems more progressive than Ford?
For a little backstory, if you asked me about a favorite muscle car over the past decade that I’ve been licensed, the answer was simple: I’m a Ford Mustang fangirl. The fifth-generation Mustang that debuted in 2005 was the first of the “throwback”-style Big Three muscle cars, and to me, at the ripe old age of 10, it felt like a brilliant vision of how American automakers could offer classic styling on muscular coupes in an era of airbags and side crash tests. Judging by the past two decades of retrofuturistic V8 coupes, my 10-year awe was not misplaced, and Ford was well positioned to be the de facto muscle car king of the modern era.
The Mustang has also continuously improved throughout my life. The sixth generation, with the addition of independent rear suspension and the 7,000-rpm redline (and later 7,500-rpm redline) DOHC 5.0 Coyote V8 felt like a perfect blend of technological advancement and classic American displacement. In basic GT form it sounded great, was fun to drive, looked good, and later revisions and finishes (particularly in the form of the Mach 1, Bullitt Edition, Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT500) ranged from classic style to dazzling power to trackday readiness. Plus, with the introduction of the 2.3-litre four-cylinder Ecoboost engine from the base sixth-generation model, it felt like Ford had built an entry-level muscle car that wasn’t a consolation prize; the Ecoboost was, and is, an economic entry point that offered high tunability, didn’t feel punishingly slow or cheap, and still offered solid mileage. Whatever you were looking for in a muscle car, the sixth-generation Mustang felt like it had something for everyone.
The completely opposite approach, of course, was seen at any Dodge dealer at any point in the past 15 years. Where the Mustang looked ahead, the Challenger remained firmly rooted in the past, as evidenced by a platform that has survived three different business owners (DaimlerChrysler, Fiat-Chrysler of America, and now Stellantis) and a powertrain that only taller V8. The Challenger has still gotten faster every year, as the mad scientists at Dodge have grabbed ever bigger shoehorns to cram ever bigger pushrod V8s into the same massive engine bay, yes.
But where the Mustang was looking for better handling and high red lines to take it further into the 21st century, Dodge was just trying to see if the NHRA could ban the Challenger for being too fast in a straight line. (It worked, at least for a while.) It makes sense that drag-strip speed has remained the focus, because I’ve never liked driving a Challenger in anything but a straight line; it rides exactly as every ounce of its 4,000-pound curb weight implies: bad. The base-model V6, while on paper offered comparable power to the Ecoboost inline-four, never felt enjoyable and sounded downright bad, and the Challenger’s constantly aging interior meant it felt more and more like rental car spec in its twilight years. I understand the Challenger’s appeal to those pining for the bygone era of pre-EPA solid V8s, but the Mustang’s modernist outlook has always appealed to me more.
(Chevy fans are no doubt yelling at their computers: Victoria, hypocrite. The 2009 Camaro had independent rear suspension, the Ecotec turbo-four is just as good as the Ecoboost, and the ZL1 1LE is one of the fastest American cars ever to hit the mark. Nürburgring. To this I say the Ecotec is slow, I couldn’t see from the fifth generation, the sixth generation is as ugly as sin and its good versions cost as much as a Corvette, which I much preferred Damn, even Chevy gave the Camaro on Your hate mail will only make me stronger.)
Right: 2024 Ford Mustang. Ford
But now the sixth-generation Mustang is dead and the Challenger as we knew it is gone. With their departure, I feel like everything I’ve believed to be true for the past 15 years has been turned upside down.
Let’s start with Dodge: In the vacuum left by the tall, long-running Challenger, Dodge has teased the all-electric Charger Daytona SRT concept to replace the decades-old ICE muscle car platform. That concept promises Hellcat-level performance with an advanced four-wheel drive EV powertrain backing it, and a production version will hopefully hit US roads within the next few years. The Daytona SRT’s sights are set high: its specs promise it’s not just future muscle cars, but a lot more expensive EVs. It features a two-speed transmission and 800V architecture, both technology first seen on the Porsche Taycan. It also offers a broader perspective of what fun an EV can offer than… pretty much anyone on the market currently has, with an “electromechanical shifter” and a “push-to-pass” button and a jet-style flipchart . up start button, and yes, the “Fratzonic Chambered Exhaust” that promises 126 decibels of “engine” sound. While I’m not sure how all of these features will be received, they’re a valiant attempt at reimagining both a car and a genre that Dodge never attempted to overhaul. It’s one of the most ambitious statements I’ve seen come out of Dodge in my life, and I applaud the effort to modernize muscle, silly “engine noise” and the like.
Ford, meanwhile, has given us the decidedly less ambitious seventh-generation Mustang, riding on an updated version of the same platform as the sixth-generation, with the usual 5.0-litre V8 or turbocharged 2.3-litre Ecoboost four-cylinder. Also, basic buyers can now not have a manual transmission and their dashboards will now consist entirely of iPads. There will probably be no electrification until 2028, and the all-wheel drive hybrid variant was scrapped at the last minute. The 2024 model offers a little more power, but overall it feels like a cut. Where the previous generations aimed higher and higher, the seventh generation is definitely more of the same. While the sixth generation offered almost everything you could wish for in a muscle car with a fresh platform, the seventh generation feels like a greatest hits album meant to bring back memories of the good old days.
If you want to experience Ford’s take on an electric muscle car in the near future, your only option seems to be the Mach-E crossover, at least for now. While the Mach-E is fast and capable, it’s also a four-door crossover that functionally represents nothing more than Ford’s willingness to put a prancing pony decal on an SUV. If the Mach-E were to be the future of muscle, I think car enthusiasts are in for a bleak future.
I can’t claim to know if muscle cars can really survive the coming shift to electrification. Maybe crossovers are just destined to be the form factor of the future; the Mach-E just rests in the writing on the wall, and the seventh-generation Mustang really is the last swan song for ICE and American muscle. The seventh-generation Mustang will no doubt be good, just like the generation before it. It’s also very possible that finances or ambitions will change and Dodge won’t be able to make a production car that closely matches its concept, and the wisdom of Ford’s approach will prove itself…for now.
However, the Charger Daytona SRT represents a valiant effort to envision a future where EVs dominate and car enthusiasts still do. pleasure, however. And that’s why I find myself standing really hard for Dodge for the first time in my life.
Do you have a tip? Send us a message: email@example.com