There won’t be very many readers visiting HotCars who do not know what the term ‘muscle car’ means. For the record, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the genre as “any of a group of American-made 2-door sports coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.”
To be fair, that definition is a little dated, as there are any number of four-door U.S. sedans that qualify as muscle cars – who, for example, would argue that the Dodge Charger Hellcat isn’t a muscle car, with its awe-inspiring 707hp supercharged V8? Muscle doesn’t get bigger or meaner than that.
But muscle cars don’t need to wave the stars and stripes to qualify – there are plenty of import models that comfortably qualify for muscle car status. To make the cut, foreign contenders must offer high-performance engines that deliver an exhaust note that will stir your soul. They must also flaunt visual cues that announce, sometimes subtly, that this is no ordinary commuter car. And, of course, they must also deliver down-the-road thrills to match the howl of their engines and the time warping thrust of their engines.
I have driven most of the cars on this list and can vouch for that one extra ingredient that nothing other than a muscle car can deliver. Namely, the heart-rushing intense anticipation as you approach the experience. And the memories that will linger long after that final blast of acceleration.
When the Subaru Impreza 22B STi launched back in 1998, Subaru announced that it had 280hp. At the time, Japanese automakers had a gentleman’s agreement not to exceed 280hp. There were persistent rumors, though, that the 2.2-liter turbocharged powerhouse had a lot more than 280 horses. That would certainly explain the Scooby’s 0-60mph dash in just 4.7 seconds, about as quick as a contemporary Corvette. So the muscle part of the deal is paid in full.
Subaru’s dominance in the World Rally Championship during the 1990s really shows in the all-wheel-drive 22B – employing all it knows about making insanely fast cars that don’t care what surface is underneath the wheels, the 22B is an incredibly rewarding steer.
Even though it is invested with typical British reserve, the Jaguar F-Type is the nearest thing the UK has to a modern full-house muscle car. Its 5.0-liter supercharged V8 pumps out 575hp. Performance, as you’d expect, is absolutely explosive, with 60mph flashing past in 3.2 seconds. And with a rear-biased all-wheel-drive chassis, the Jag has your back through the corners.
The noise it makes will have drivers opening the taps just to experience it. Car and Driver said: “Stomp the loud pedal and an eight-cylinder death-metal concert plays through the Inconel titanium exhaust system; lift off the throttle and a Vickers machine-gun rap fires from the quad tailpipes.”
The fourth-generation Toyota Supra was the most sporting example of the model ever launched. If its crouching tiger stance didn’t convince you of its intent, then the massive rear wing certainly would. The most powerful 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-six export versions featured 320hp and 315lb ft of torque. 25 years ago, these outputs would be well into supercar territory. Even today, the Supra’s performance figures are amazing – 0-60mph in just 4.6 seconds and a top speed of 177mph.
With rear-wheel drive and a beautifully balanced chassis, the Supra was a hit from day one. Road & Track magazine declared: “Like the Supra Turbo's acceleration, its handling and braking prowess are close to the best we've ever seen, regardless of cost.”
European muscle machines are sometimes styled with subtlety in mind. The Mercedes C 63 AMG Black Series is not one of them. Even observers with absolutely zero knowledge about cars will, with one glance, recognize the Merc as a serious contender. Its almost comically flared wheel arches, finned and vented hood and motorsport-grade rear spoiler announce its intentions. It’s not all for show, though, as even the little winglets on the front spoiler are about managing aerodynamics. It won’t surprise you to learn that the Black Series is a heroic performer on race circuits.
It ticks the awesome noise box, too. Car and Driver said: “The whole mess sounds like a DTM racer that ate a few hundred Chevrolet small-blocks for breakfast.”
On its looks alone, the Maserati GranTurismo is the standout winner on this list. Its credibility is only enhanced when observers learn that the 4.7-liter motor under the hood is a Ferrari V8. It packs 454hp, which is enough to rocket the big Maserati to 60mph in well under 5.0 seconds. That Ferrari exhaust note is utterly intoxicating in normal mode – select the sport mode and the exhaust note hardens into a glorious, hammering roar, arguably the best noise of any car here.
For such a big car – the GranTurismo is based on a shortened Quattroporte sedan – the GranTurismo is surprisingly agile. If you’re looking for characterful Italian muscle, this is it.
A quick walk around of the Skyline R34 GT-R will quickly establish its intent. There is a huge adjustable rear wing and fat blisters of wheel arch barely contain the most gorgeous 18-inch wheels in memory. The car’s nose evokes a Japanese Manga cartoon character – it has unique appeal and a real, brutal beauty.
Even though 277hp doesn’t sound like much, the Skyline’s sensationally effective, adjustable all-wheel-drive chassis means it can hit 60mph in 4.6 seconds. And its big, 2.6-liter straight six has a stirring, sonorous, almost BMW M3 ‘six-like engine note. If you want to stay with a well-driven example, I reckon you’ll need at least a Porsche 911. And a bit of luck.
It seems a little ungenerous to label this least-expensive Aston Martin Vantage the company’s ‘entry-level’ model – here is a 503hp twin-turbo V8 screamer that will surge to 60mph in 3.4 seconds and keep pulling until it hits 195mph. It also costs $153,000, thereby proving that one man’s ‘entry level’ is another’s ‘unaffordable.’
Apart from its absolutely towering performance, the Vantage is an approachable car that doesn’t intimidate. The UK’s Top Gear magazine said: “It sounds epic, looks fabulous, goes like stink and has one of those rare chassis that could entertain a pro driver and give the rank amateur the time of their life without endangering it.”
It might be tempting in this company to dismiss a V6 contender as not having quite as many cylinders as it should. In the case of the RS5, that would be a big mistake – the Audi’s twin-turbo 2.9-liter V6 generates a huge 444hp, and more importantly, a potent 442ft lb wedge of torque, available from as little as 1900rpm. Those figures give the RS5 performance that matches all but the most powerful in this group. That’s 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 174mph.
Whereas other muscle cars here revel in tire-smoking standing starts, the Audi is all about providing ludicrously fast progress, regardless of conditions. That’s thanks to the company’s brilliantly conceived Quattro all-wheel-drive setup.
A Honda Civic on a list of muscle cars? That might sound a bit dodgy until you consider that the Type R’s turbocharged ‘four packs 306hp in a lightweight body. With a chassis blessed with all-wheel drive, there is performance to rival cars with twice the number of cylinders. Consider that it’ll do 0-60mph in 4.9 seconds and top out at a shade under 170mph.
Car and Driver named the Civic Type R one of the ten best cars of 2018. One rather excitable tester from the magazine said: “Its funky looks are forgotten after your belly fills with butterflies from its bonkers engine and gigantic grip. Words can't fully describe what the Type R is like to drive.”
One of the most evocative names in sports car history, Lotus made a name for itself building lightweight models powered by four-cylinder engines. In the first part of its production run, this was true of the Esprit, which also had a starring role in the 1977 James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
It was the 1996 model that finally gave the Esprit performance to match its looks – the company installed its own 3.5-liter twin-turbo V8, which was actually detuned from 500hp to 350hp to protect the gearbox. Performance testing at the time provided 0-60mph times of 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 175mph. More than 20 years ago, these would have been stunning numbers.
Observers new to the Bentley Continental usually have trouble squaring the enormity of it with its Niagra Falls delivery of power. The engine develops a titanic 626hp, but it is the massive torque of 664lb ft at a low 1350rpm that helps launch the massive Bentley to 60mph in 3.5 seconds and, wait for it, on to a top speed of 207mph. The Bentley’s mighty engine is a W12, essentially two V6s that share a common crank.
Remarkably, the latest Continental is also more agile, amazing for a car weighing over 5,000lbs. The UK’s Top Gear magazine said: “The old Continental used to heave and struggle to keep its mass in order. Now it doesn’t. In fact the way it goes round corners is uncanny.”
One of the most exciting new car launches was that of the sensational Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio. Featuring a Ferrari-derived 505hp twin-turbo V6, this Alfa offers shattering performance – 0-60mph in 3.6 seconds and a top whack of a scarcely believable 191mph.
Virtually all enthusiast magazines and sites feature images of the Alfa being drifted at ridiculous angles, thanks largely to its rear-drive chassis and a ludicrous amount of power. But it’s also agile, with sharp responses and a beagle-like eagerness to change direction. The UK’s Autocar magazine said: “The Giulia is one of the most magnificent driver’s sedans in a decade.” And Autocar magazine is a tough audience.
BMW’s M-sport arm has been building muscle car sedans for decades now, culminating in the latest, sublimely accomplished M5. The raw figures are captivating enough – 600hp, all-wheel drive, a lightning-quick eight-speed automatic and beautifully subtle, but menacing looks.
In Car and Driver’s hands, the M5 reached 60mph in 2.8 seconds. Remarkably, the magazine says the M5 is the fastest sedan they’ve ever tested. It might also be the best M5 in nearly two decades. As Car and Driver said: “The performance data is more impressive than before, but the car is more than just something that generates an eye-popping test sheet. It’s better to drive than its predecessor, which is something we haven’t been able to say about an M5 since 2000.”
The Kia Stinger GT ticks all the right muscle car boxes – a gutsy 365hp twin-turbo V6, rear-wheel drive to put the power down and concept-car good looks. If that doesn’t convince you, consider this – in his previous job, the man responsible for how the car goes down the road worked for BMW’s legendary sports tuning M-division.
The engine’s huge grunt propels the Stinger to 60mph in just 4.4 seconds, and as you’d expect of a car tuned by an M-division veteran, the handling is outstanding, easily the best of any Kia. Some of the most respected car testers reckon that it is even better than the BMWs it seeks to rival.
Flared wheel arches, giant rear wings and a vented hood all announce that this is no ordinary executive sedan. The Opel Lotus Omega – Vauxhall Lotus Carlton in the UK – deployed a straight-six tuned by Lotus to produce what was then an enormous 380hp. Performance was equal to virtually any contemporary supercar, with 60mph flashing past in 5.2 seconds and a top speed just shy of 180mph. In 1990, these were breathtaking figures, and the Lotus Omega held the record of being the fastest sedan in the world for a number of years.
In the UK, Lotus Carltons became a target for thieves and joyriders – police forces didn’t have any patrol cars remotely capable of staying with them.
Before BMW migrated a V6 turbo into its European muscle car, the M3 sported one of the most characterful V8s this side of a big-block Chevy. The move to a smaller (albeit fearsomely capable) motor was driven by emissions and fuel consumption pressures. Back in the day, BMW’s V8 produced 415hp as installed in the M3, and it made a noise that would make drivers forgive the awful fuel consumption that was the price.
UK enthusiast magazine Auto Express magazine in the UK agreed, saying: “There's so much shove that you really don't need to rev it hard to go quickly - but take it to the redline and you'll keep up with a Porsche 911, and it has an amazing soundtrack, too.”
Any fan of muscle cars would instantly recognize the British TVR Griffith as a fully paid-up member of the club. Arguably, it is also the least ‘European’ of the contenders listed here and would be more at home on Woodward Avenue than Wimbledon Common. The TVR was all about V8 power, rear-wheel drive and pretty much nothing else – there was no ABS braking, no traction control, no stability control, and no airbags. What you did with your right foot determined what sort of experience you were going to have.
Power from its 280hp V8 was brutal as this was a relatively light car. But it was an absolute hoot to drive, with an exhaust note that really belonged in a late ‘60s Mopar engine.
Following the act that was the sensational 2000 Nissan Skyline GT-R would feel a bit like coming on after Elton John at Shea stadium in the 1980s. Somehow, Nissan managed that with the 2015 GT-R. Just on the bald figures it generates, the GT-R is hugely exciting; according to Car and Driver magazine, the GT-R managed 0-60mph in 3.0 seconds, 0-100mph in 7.0 seconds and a top speed of 192mph. All of that courtesy of a 545hp twin-turbo 3.8-liter V6.
Car and Driver magazine said: “The GT-R remains one of the best values extant simply for the raw acceleration and speed it offers. There’s no question that the 2015 edition of the Nissan GT-R is the company’s best execution of the car so far.”
Since its launch some 55 years ago, Germany’s hotrod 911 has steadily, inexorably gained horsepower. The launch car in 1963 boasted about 130hp. Now, the entry-level Porsche packs nearly three times that amount. The Daddy of all Porsches remains, though the GT2 RS, with a mind-warping 700hp. That’s good for a 2.6-second sprint to 60mph and a top end of 211mph.
Unsurprisingly, the performance on offer is theatrically epic. The UK’s Top Gear tester said: “The most remarkable thing about the way it accelerates is that it punches past 150mph as readily as it does 80. The force is entirely relentless, the noise a deep, bassy chunter, much lower and more guttural than other 911s.”
The 2014 Rolls Royce Wraith with 624hp had the distinction of being the most powerful production Rolls Royce ever produced. That a car of such proportions is capable of reaching 60mph in just 4.4 seconds is remarkable, as is its ability to hit 100mph in 10.0 seconds. Not even an Audi RS4 can manage that.
This is still a Rolls Royce so its performance is delivered in a suitably relaxed fashion. It also features some amazing tech – the eight-speed ZF auto monitors the sat-nav’s reading of the road ahead and selects an appropriate gear to cater for it. So if you’re headed for a corner and lift off, the auto knows that the corner is coming and holds a gear for you, rather than shifting up.
It’s no coincidence that BMW launched the Z8 in California. You’ll find some of the world’s most particular muscle car fans here, and the rapturous reception the Z8 received established it as a real player. It featured a 400hp V8 borrowed from BMW’s sensational M5, enough to give it a 0-60mph time of 4.7 seconds. At the time, it was the fastest BMW Motor Trend had ever tested.
Motor Trend also confirmed the Z8’s status as a proper muscle car: “We're tempted to say BMW has built a better Viper-with British style and manners, German engineering and reliability, and true muscle car fire. As with the Cobra 427, we'll all remember the first time we saw a Z8, the first time we heard one.”
It is difficult to believe that the same company that produces the Corolla is responsible for this BMW M3-baiting super sedan. Toyota’s prestige arm Lexus will be known to most as makers of vault-quiet, superbly refined luxury cruisers – the IS F isn’t one of those. I still have a recording of a maximum acceleration run in the launch model back in 2008. Played back for friends, most assume it’s a Maserati or Ferrari V8, all crackles and pops on the overrun.
For the record, the IS F deploys a 5.0-liter V8 with 417hp. And it’s not just a straight-line speed merchant – the IS F is a balanced and fluent handling car, a worthy rival to the M3.
Yes, this is an SUV and, technically, shouldn’t qualify to be in this group. But if packing a 575hp supercharged V8 that’ll haul it to 60mph in just 4.8 seconds doesn’t get the Rangie a pass I don’t know what will. Even more stunning is the fact that, in 2014, a Range Rover Sport SVR established a new record for putting in the fastest lap ever recorded by a production SUV at the legendary – and massively challenging – Nurburgring circuit in Germany.
The Range Rover Sport SVR will also do something that no other car on this list could hope to. Namely, tackle a rough offroad trail at speed, thanks to a hugely capable and adjustable four-wheel drive system.
Despite its classic British roadster looks, the Morgan Aero 8 absolutely nails the muscle car formula. It sports a large BMW-sourced 4.8-liter V8, rear-wheel drive and no electronic stability control to get in the way of enjoying its 367hp. Weighing just 1180kgs, the Morgan can get to 60mph in about 4.3 seconds, which is verging on supercar territory. The sound from those side-exit exhausts is all part of the excitement this car generates.
It’s not just a pose-mobile, either. The Aero 8 has a very stiff chassis, and Morgan’s success in GT racing has resulted in a car with first-rate agility, body control and tons of mechanical grip.
What happens when you stuff a 550hp V8 into a car not much bigger than a Wal-Mart shopping cart? Absolute bedlam, that’s what – the Caterham Levante was a limited production roadster created by a company called RS Performance. It featured a 2.4-liter V8 with the aforementioned power. Claimed performance was 0-60mph in 2.9 seconds, 0-100mph in 5.9. Fast, then.
When Evo magazine tested the Caterham, the tester said: “ You know the bit when a spaceship goes into warp speed and the stars turn from pinpoints to pinstripes? That’s what it feels like. Except that there’s also a screaming noise (the Rotrex supercharger) and a full-scale hurricane blowing out of otherwise clear-blue skies.”
Sources: evo, autocar, motortrend, caranddriver, carmagazine, edmunds