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Challenger vs Camaro vs Corvette vs Mustang

  1. It was a close finish, but it was always going be a Mustang that won. With just two laps remaining in the 200-lap race, Matt Kenseth made history by sticking his number 16 car up the inside of Carl Edwards’s Ford to take the first ever win in the NASCAR TopGear 300. The two had traded the lead - and layers of paint - for the last 50 laps of the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway Circuit, and none of the Chevys and Dodges had got even close, so the smart money was all on a Blue Oval victory.

    Words: Pat Devereux
    Photos: Daniel Byrne

    This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Apart from being a suitably gripping finish to the official race, it also drew to a close the first running of the totally unofficial TopGear 1000, which had ended in a blaze of tortured tyre smoke crossing the exact same finish line as the NASCARs just a few hours before. Loosely designed to celebrate the first running of the TG300, it covered a 1,000-mile real world route from the concrete valleys of Manhattan to the lush, rolling greenery of Charlotte via some of the best - and worst - driving roads the US has to offer.

  3. Naturally, the V8-powered, manual gearbox cars chosen for this drive were the nearest thing to their NASCAR cousins - the cartoonish 426bhp Chevy Camaro SS; the back-to-the-future 470bhp Dodge Challenger SRT-8 392; the tightly proportioned 444bhp Ford Mustang Boss 302; and, as the pace car - a dynamic marker for the others to aim at - the 505bhp Chevy Corvette Z06 Carbon. All the cars have their ferociously loyal followers but, as in the TG300, only one could emerge as the winner…

  4. Fighting our way out of the urban jungle that is Manhattan on the first day, all the cars have to use every inch of their suspension to try to mop up the worst of the appalling road surface. Manhattan was originally bought from some Indians for a dollar but, based on the way our squad of cars is being ricocheted from drain cover to wheel-swallowing trench, I think there’s a compelling case for a refund.

  5. The reason for the third-world-style roads is largely because most New Yorkers don’t have a car, so they don’t really care. Feet are the most popular form of transport here, and not just because you don’t need to pay for parking. If it rains, people here take a taxi, and if those are full, the metro. The most notable difference from London is that both are very cheap and plentiful. You never get refused a ride “Cos I’m only going east, mate.”

  6. Which is also the reason why our band of outlaws causes such a stir snaking its way southwest towards the Holland Tunnel. The angry-red Mustang seems to be sucking in the majority of the attention, but seeing all four together, bass V8 exhaust notes bouncing in all directions, is enough to make more than one traffic cop spit out his whistle and just stare. So all the cars score 11 out of 10 for kerb appeal.

  7. Emerging onto New Jersey soil after a deafening blast under the Hudson River - the Challenger’s huge Hemi bellow winning the best sound award - we settle into a steady cruise. Comfort and practicality are all trademarks of muscle cars, and these 21st-century versions haven’t forgotten their roots. All the cars - even the Vette - feature large, comfortable seats that allow you to run tank after tank of fuel through the loping engines without needing an hour’s butt massage each time you fill up.

  8. The Camaro wins the cruiser honours here, though, because of its ability to isolate the driver from the road - and because of the number of toys you have to play with. This will count against it later in the test when we get to the twisty roads, but for now its retro, square-dialled cabin is the best place to be. Not least because of its head-up display - shared with the Vette. So useful and obviously better than just regular dials, it convinces all of us it should be fitted as standard on every car.

  9. The first mistake happens, as ever, when we get to the first split in the freeway, and the lead car, given a 50 per cent chance of making the right turn, makes the wrong one. Despite lots of ‘it’ll be fine’ chat on our walkie-talkies, I know it won’t be. GoogleMaps on my phone is already showing a nasty red line of static traffic around Washington, and we are still more than two hours away. US TG presenter Rutledge had told us earlier that the traffic in that area is so bad he’d once had to relieve himself into a Coke bottle which, apart from being a miracle of accuracy, didn’t bode well for getting to our destination 700+ miles away this side of midnight. I make a note not to throw away my empty water bottle.

  10. Just as well, too. As the predicted lava flow of tail-lights greets us on the US capital city’s ring road, we are subjected to mile after mile of first, second, and, occasionally, third-gear traffic. There’s not much we can learn doing this - other than not to trust a photographer’s navigation - but there are a few points. The range-topping Mustang definitely has the most slick and precise gearbox of the group. The Challenger, with its opera-house-sized interior and remote sub woofer, the best sounds. Even if those sounds are doom-laden traffic reports.

  11. After grinding teeth and gears for another half hour, I snap and ask Google to get us out of here to somewhere, anywhere, else. Appropriately, it routes us to a place called Burke as we cut across the state on residential streets to the road we should have been on all along, the I-81. The original plan had been to run down this for a while then swerve off onto the super scenic and ultra-twisty Blue Ridge Parkway, but it’s too late for that now. We just need to get there.

  12. With night collapsing like a Sri Lankan batsman and 500 miles still to go, switching from the Stang to the Vette, I find one of those only-in-the-US radio stations that plays the same five songs in strict rotation, to give me a sense of time passing, and put the Z06’s 505bhp to work.

  13. Apart from some adrenalin-fuelled, wheel-wrenching corrections to stop the Vette tramlining off the broken road into oblivion on its almost absurdly wide tyres - its fronts are exactly the same size as the Mustang’s rears - the miles quickly unravel. With radar-toting cop cars hiding in the shadows down every second sliproad, we can’t go too quickly, but we can maintain a very healthy average, thanks to all the cars’ ability to torque quickly back to cruising speed after passing each truck.

  14. This Z06 Carbon Special Edition Vette - built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the car competing in the Le Mans 24hrs in 1960 - has definitely had a hard life. With just 4k miles on the clock, the engine sounds like it might have competed in all 24hrs of Le Mans, and the adjustable damping is only really working in Sport mode, but it’s still an awful lot of car and performance for the money.

  15. It might cost twice as much as the other three cars here (around $90k in the US), and hence rule itself outside the realistic realms of this test, but it offers Lamborghini-style performance figures from its vast 7.0-litre V8 engine and perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Try 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds, a top speed close to 200mph, and lap times on a par with, or quicker than, the full-house ZR-1. The new C7 Corvette, due to be released in 2013, will be a substantial update on this C6 model, with rumours flying around that it might even be mid-engined. But it’ll have to be very special to beat this one.

  16. A bleary few hours later, the Vette’s twin headlights show us the way to our overnight stop where we collapse into a dreamless sleep. Getting up the next day, after what feels like a minute after we went to sleep, we realise just how far we’ve come when we do a scan for the nearest Starbucks and see that it is more than 50 miles away. And then there’s the local accent. It’s gone from the New York Sopranos-style to the full Dukes of Hazzard in just a couple of inches on the map. Y’all.

  17. Cue jumping, orange Dodge Chargers, confederate flags - and some of the craziest roads any of us has ever driven on. If yesterday was all about the urban grind and freeway cruising, today is the complete opposite. Our destination is a hallowed stretch of US-129 known variously as the Tail of the Dragon, Deals Gap or simply The Gap. It’s an 11-mile piece of knotted tarmac through a dense forest that looks on the map like someone has unravelled a ball of string, dropped it on a piece of paper then built road where the string fell. If any of these cars has a handling flaw, it won’t stay hidden for long on here.

  18. The Gap, which cameoed in the 1958 Robert Mitchum flick Thunder Road, then in 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop, features 318 beautifully surfaced curves that snake uphill from the North Carolina side and then plunge down as they cross the Tennessee border. Each corner has a refreshingly literal name that gives you an idea what to expect: The Wall, Gravity Cavity, Triple Apex Corner, Pearly Gates, and Beginners’ End being just a few of the tags that stand out. All of them demand your full respect plus some rock steady, hand-eye-foot co-ordination if you want to do them justice - and not turn into another tragic crash statistic.

  19. If you do drop your car or bike - and two or three people do each day - after all the official paperwork you get to hang a piece of your shattered bodywork on The Tree of Shame, signposted as ‘No Gain And A Lot Of Pain’, which stands at the beginning of the run. The tree’s branches are already laden down with snapped-off mirrors, back protectors and shards of bodywork, each one a good reminder that if you don’t slay this dragon, it will jump up and bite you. Hard.

  20. If you can find it. With our navigation skills severely blinded by a lack of cellphone coverage, we know we are heading roughly in The Gap’s general direction, but we aren’t entirely sure how to get there. All we do know is that, having turned off the main highway, the roads have got a lot more interesting.

  21. Or at least they have for all the gang driving the other three cars. I’m in the black, bodykitted Camaro, and I’m feeling distinctly detached from what’s going on under the front and rear wheels. All the things that had made it the consummate cruiser in the city and on the freeway yesterday are now playing against the big Chevy. There is literally no sensation feeding back through the weirdly dished steering wheel. The car responds OK if you just brake, turn in and gas it where you think you should. And it’s quick when you bury the throttle. But I’m feeling more like a passenger than an engaged driver. Add to that a strangely muted engine note and a lack of all-round vision through the cool-looking-but-functionally-poor windows, and you almost might as well be at home driving your XBox instead. Weird.

  22. Charlie is having no such problems in the Vette, stuffing it through the corners on those vast expanses of rubber at each corner. While Dan and Mike a couple of miles behind are having plenty of sideways fun in the Boss 302 and the 392 Challenger. So I’m the only one keen to change cars when we reach the next stop. Discovering that the road we just ran up was merely another fabulous North Carolina side road and not the Tail of the Dragon, I’m tempted to switch to the Boss for the final run in. I’ve already driven - and marvelled - at its abilities on a track, so know it will be the ideal Gap attack car. But I resist the temptation and jump in the Dodge instead.

  23. And it’s a very long way from disappointing. It might be physically bigger and heavier than the other cars, and the suspension a little softer for the first inch or so of travel, but it now handles like a truly modern muscle car, and that big Hemi is the most tractable motor with the most usable grunt here, Vette included. The 392 cubic inch engine - that’s 6424cc in real money - is up from 6.1-litres for the ‘11 model year, lifting both power and torque nicely. The chassis has also had some serious tweaking in all departments to make the car better able to put it all down on the road. Add in a set of Brembo brakes - just like the Camaro and Stang’s - and the Challenger is more than able to hold its head up in the company of the rest of the cars here. Looks-wise, if you want a classic-looking muscle car with modern manners and performance, this is the one for you.

  24. But it’s all about the engine and chassis now, as we appear to have finally found our way to the start of The Gap. Without pausing for thought, we blast off up the hill for the first run of the day, and within seconds I’m laughing out loud at how much fun this is. You have to turn in mid air for a couple of the switchbacks to make sure you have the car pointing in the right direction when you land. And there’s a blanket 30mph speed limit, which we are taking as an advisory only, so we are making significant progress up the hill, albeit somewhat sideways and occasionally on two wheels.

  25. Reaching the other side feeling like I’ve just done a fast-forward speed lap of the Nürburgring, I swap into the Stang and head back for another run in the opposite direction. Or rather, I will once this cop has finished with me. Standing beside the slowly cooling Ford, his tightly packaged gut bulging threateningly through the window, he isn’t going to be talked out of this one easily. “You were 19mph over. Licence and insurance please, sir,” he says with finality. “19mph over?” I say with you-need-to-check-your-speedgun surprise. Not because that figure seemed high… I thought I was going much faster than that.

  26. Once he has trudged back from his patrol car having failed to make sense of how a British person came to be speeding in deepest Tennessee driving a borrowed Mustang, he gives me a written warning and a few words of advice. “Watch out for those motorsikles,” he says. “They’ll lean right into the wrong side of the road. We’ve had six birds [a local term for bikers that fly off the road] this year. And I’m sure we’ll have a few more before the year’s done. So watch out for ‘em!”

  27. Prophetic words, as it turns out. Half-way down the hill, after an eventful couple of miles in which a carrier bag blows over Charlie’s face mid-bend and a walkie-talkie gets stuck under my brake pedal, we encounter some very slow, poorly ridden Harleys. We zap by them on the short straights, leaving them plenty of room. But when we get to the bottom and are rhapsodising about the Mustang’s extraordinary ability to maintain its full composure at speed, it all gets ugly.

  28. A fat man with a beetroot-coloured face chugs up and starts shouting at us. “Stop. Do not move. Do you know who I am?” he says. “No,” Charlie says uninterestedly. “You just tried to kill me back there,” he says. “You seemed to be doing quite a good job yourself,” Charlie replies honestly, turning to walk towards him. And then it all gets a bit more serious. The fat man pulls back his jacket and unclips his gun. “Stand back! Don’t you threaten me!” he says, clearly not seeing the irony that he is packing a gun and we are not. At this point, this story could have veered off to hospital. But rather than an unwanted extra hole appearing in Charlie, it all eventually calms down - we swap long lists of expletives and leave in a flurry of tyre smoke, the fat man swearing at thin air to everyone’s amusement, except his own. The idiot.

  29. Having avoided a shootout at the Dragon Corral we blast away down the butterfly-filled valley as fast as four muscle cars will go, and I’m still loving the Mustang’s abilities. There just hasn’t ever been a muscle car this sorted before. It’s tight and right proportions contain a finely honed chassis and motor that are, frankly, extraordinary. There are handfuls of feel at the front and seatfulls of feel at the back which, allied to the almost ridiculously free-revving engine, make it a hooligan’s paradise ride. You can run it right to the edges of grip, front and rear, and then keep it there for as long as your hands or right foot likes. It contains bumps, jumps and steering changes seamlessly and, live rear axle or not, massively out-handles every other car here, except the Vette.

  30. As the small, wiggly country roads flow into ever bigger, straighter routes, we zero in on the finish line at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. In less than 24 hours, the TopGear US team will welcome and wave on their way the grid of Nationwide series NASCARs in the TopGear 300. But before that can happen, we have to line up our own pack of muscle cars at the track and pick a winner.

  31. Rolling through the tunnel onto the track the next day, there isn’t much doubt in any of our minds which of the four wins here. The Vette, for all its brilliance, prices itself out of the ballpark. Muscle cars should be affordable brutes. Which leaves three. The Camaro is a great modern representation of its storied forebears, but its cartoonish appearance and lack of driver feedback place it third. We hope the new ZL-1 is more involving. The Challenger, the most classically correct muscle car, takes the runner-up step for its gutsy engine, and road-owning presence. But, like the race that will be run in a couple of hours, it was always going to be the extraordinary Boss 302 Mustang which was going to win.

  32. All the other cars here are good, but the sorted Stang is a new great, and close enough to worry the Vette. A Pony car has never been faster, handled better or felt as complete than this. Good work, Ford. Good work.

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