Three distinctly American sports cars. A budget of around $40,000 each. Days spent testing on the track and in town. All for the greater good of helping you determine which of these toys should take up residence in your driveway.

Working with that budget and premise, we gathered new Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang coupes to determine what these modern-day muscle cars could do on the street, sense which of the candidates stirred our soul, and which were just plain easy to live with once the shenanigans were done.

Our comparison test took place over several days in Southern California, where we wound our way from KBB HQ in Orange County to the famed Angeles Crest Mountain Highway, and then kept pointing our hoods north. The next day we assembled our tantalizing trio on the Streets of Willow Springs racetrack, where we could truly drive these things as they’re meant to be driven.

A price and pony for every budget

At our budget of around $40,000, each of these models was well equipped and representative of a volume-selling version. Each can be had for less, and each can be had for more. Much more, should your bank account allow. And the dollar figures rise in tandem with horsepower. A quick breakdown:

  • A base 2019 Ford Mustang coupe with a 310-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder begins at $26,395. At the other end of the spectrum, the Shelby GT350R with its 526-horsepower supercharged V8 tops $67,000. (this fall, the 2020 Shelby GT500 arrives with over 700 horsepower and what we can wager will be an even higher price tag.)
  • The 2019 Chevy Camaro coupe begins at $25,000 for a base model with a 275-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder, while the ZL1 variant with its 650-horsepower supercharged V8 will set you back more than $64,000. As with the Mustang, the Camaro is also available as a convertible. 
  • Then there’s the 2019 Dodge Challenger. A base SXT with a 305-horsepower V6 begins at $27,295, and radically ascends to once-unimaginable horsepower and prices for a mainstream American muscle car. At the other end of the spectrum is the new Challenger Hellcat Redeye, with a 797-horsepower supercharged V8 screaming under the hood and a $71,695 starting price. (The even more unfathomable Dodge Demon, with 840 horsepower and a roughly $85,000 price, was only made for 2018.)
     

But we soon found you don’t need the craziest version of these pony cars to light up the tarmac or induce miles of grins. Affordable performance and a decent dose of everyday practicality were the reasons these muscle cars were created, and those traits remain decades later.

In alphabetical order, let’s meet the contenders and see how they fared.
 

2019 Chevrolet Camaro – It starts with surprising value

One of the first things we noticed about the new Camaro coupe is just how much bang you get for the buck. This is perhaps best represented starting with the 2LT trim. For $28,495, it includes leather interior, power front seats that are both heated and ventilated, dual-zone climate control, an 8-inch touch-screen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, keyless entry and push-button start. Again, we are talking about a sub-$30,000 Chevy Camaro, and we haven’t even touched on performance features like a limited-slip differential, four drive modes, and 18-inch wheels.

For our test model, we stepped up one trim level to the 3LT. Starting at $31,995,  it adds a premium infotainment system with navigation and high-def screen, Bose audio, and auto-dimming rearview mirror.

This trim also opens the door for further options, some of which may or may not be worth your money. For example, we like and would endorse the $2,800 Convenience and Lighting Package that adds features like a heated steering wheel, heads-up display, and active safety systems like blind-spot monitoring and forward-collision alert. Raising our model to over $42K were features that would fall more into the “might be nice” vs. “recommend” category, such as Recaro front seats ($1,595), performance data and video recorder ($1,300) and the $4,500 1LE Track Performance package with 20-inch wheels, performance suspension and aesthetics like a satin black front splitter.

No matter which Camaro you choose, you’ll get that athletic stance and aggressive attitude that shouts, “Let’s race!”

Driving the Camaro

Once you finagle yourself into the Camaro’s cabin – and it takes some finagling with its low seats, high sills and overall cramped nature – you’ll find yourself piloting a pretty potent machine. The 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4's 275 horsepower is respectably punchy. On narrow canyon roads the Camaro tends to feel big, but on a track turned into a more fun machine.

The firm chassis enabled the Camaro to feel planted in corners. Its brakes were effective under heavy use, but on the soft side. One of the best surprises was the transmission: We really enjoyed using the 6-speed manual that was surprisingly crisp. Should you not want to deal with a stick and three pedals, the Camaro can be had with a smooth 8-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for an extra $1,495.

As we would find in the other coupes, but especially noticeable here, is the lack of rear side visibility. It pretty much became habit to double-check the blind spots.
 

2019 Dodge Challenger – When size matters

Even among two of its kind, the Challenger stands out from the Camaro and Mustang. First, it’s only offered as a coupe (though the Dodge Charger could be considered its 4-door sedan equivalent), but it’s a coupe with more functionality.

That added functionality comes thanks to the Challenger’s larger dimensions inside and out. At 197.9 inches in length, the Challenger easily bests the size competition between the Mustang and Camaro, each of which measures around 188 inches long.

Inside, where the Mustang and Camaro only have room for four with their two small and confined rear bucket seats, the Charger can actually fit five thanks to its 3-across rear bench. Yes, rear legroom is pretty scant at 33.1 inches, but that still beats the other two by a comfortable margin.

The Challenger also has an X-factor: It can be had with all-wheel drive (AWD) in addition to the standard rear-wheel drive (RWD). While these pony cars have been rear-wheel drive since their inception for the sake of performance, such setups can make drivers in cold-weather states gun-shy to take them out on slick roads. This is even more the case with sports cars wearing performance tires.

The Challenger challenges that notion. By introducing the Dodge Challenger all-wheel drive in 2017, Dodge created a version of its muscle car, albeit in V6 form only, that will appeal to buyers who want an extra measure of confidence for winter driving. Even more impressive, thanks to an active transfer case with front-axle disconnect, Challenger’s AWD system only sends power to the front wheels when needed. The rest of the time, it functions like a standard RWD system.

Big engines are the theme of this big muscle car. It says something that of the 2019 Challenger’s five available engine setups, four of them are V8s. Unlike the Mustang and Camaro, Dodge doesn’t even bother with a 4-cylinder.

Our midtrim Challenger R/T test model is the V8 bargain among this set thanks to a price starting just over $34,000 delivering a 5.7-liter Hemi under the hood. Perhaps an even better example of the Challenger’s bang-for-the-buck is the R/T Scat Pack variant. For $39,995, you get a 6.4-liter V8 putting out 485 horsepower. Nearly 500 horsepower for under $40,000? That’s tremendous.

Our test model with the 5.7-liter still slotted under the $40k mark even with recommendable features like the upgraded 8.4-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, navigation, better audio, and in-vehicle Wi-Fi. Also on the menu and worth the extra $1,295 is the Driver Convenience Group with high-intensity headlights and blind-spot monitoring. You’ll see the need for that last feature the first time you climb into the Challenger and try to see out the rear sides.

We also must note the Houndstooth cloth seats on this model. They were classic and comfortable.

Driving the Challenger

For better or worse, the Challenger is a brute. There’s just no denying its large proportions, and when equipped with a V8 like our test model, it’s a beast. For many buyers, that’s the appeal. If you have a tire budget set aside for all your planned burnouts, this is your car.

The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 – technically the least-powerful V8 in the Challenger lineup – still had gobs of power, wonderful throttle response, and a bellowing exhaust note. Sending 372 horsepower to the rear-wheels via a 6-speed Tremec manual transmission can’t help but feel gratifying. That’s the case at least in the wild where the Challenger can run, such as our sprints up and down mountain roads and on the track. In traffic, not so much.

While in general, the Challenger is on the more refined end of the ride quality spectrum, ours was quite stiff with its high-performance suspension and 20-inch wheels. But that also meant better-than-you’d-expect handling. Likewise, the Challenger touted sharp steering, strong brakes, and quick responses that belied this car’s size. In a car with engine options that can be turned up to 11, even a Challenger that comes in around a 6 packs more potency than most drivers will be able to use to its fullest.
 

2019 Ford Mustang – A cool and confident icon

You never have to explain a Ford Mustang. Whether you bought it to add excitement to everyday commutes, relive the past or make memories for the future, any rationale is good rationale when it comes to owning this American icon.

This is the model that essentially created the pony car segment when it arrived in 1964. Back then, as with today, its appeal ran broad and wide. Where the Camaro and Challenger portray menacing attitudes, the Mustang has less pretense. Yes, it’s stylish and sporty and exudes power, but its vibe is a more of a cool confidence. Remember, it was a Mustang that starred alongside Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.” (And for 2019, Ford has added a limited edition Mustang Bullitt to the lineup.)

The Mustang also splits the difference in design between its two rivals. It has just enough retro to let you know it’s a Mustang, with enough interesting lines and sleek coupe profile to keep looking fresh.

With its most recent overhaul came a new level of creature comforts that included heated and ventilated seats, upgraded versions of Ford’s Sync infotainment system, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. That trend continues for 2019, with the introduction of an ear-pleasing 12-speaker, 1,000-watt audio system by Bang & Olufsen.

Aside from its performance that we’ll get to in a minute, another aspect of the Mustang we love is that every model can be equipped with an advanced suite of safety and driver-assistance features. For just $1,000, the Ford Safe & Smart package adds adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping alert, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking. We reckon the first buyers of those 1964½ Mustangs couldn’t even dream of such features.

Driving the Ford Mustang

Whether on the road or track, the Mustang had a lither feel than the Challenger and Camaro. It simply drives smaller than its dimensions would suggest.

Our test model, an EcoBoost Premium coupe, was fitted with the small-but-mighty 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder connected to a new 10-speed automatic transmission. Similar to the Camaro, this variant features amenities like climate-controlled seats, leather upholstery, and dual-zone climate control. Options like the auto transmission, navigation system, 12-inch digital dash, and magnetic ride system lift the price from around $31,400 to nearly $39,000.

Though this Mustang packed the smallest engine, it had little problem keeping up thanks to its 310 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. Remember, this is from a 4-cylinder, not the 5.0 GT.

That engine not only helped make the Mustang feel lighter, but poured on the power. Moreover, it made the Mustang fun to fling. It was the most rewarding on the tight canyon roads, and easy to set and place on the track. What this engine might lack in visceral brute force it makes up for in playfulness. Switching to the Sport Plus setting also brought the most out of Ford’s performance coupe.

As for the 10-speed automatic transmission, it rarely if ever seemed lost or confused. Instead, it just shifted precisely and kicked down gears when needed. (We’ve also found equal satisfaction in our prior tests with manual-transmission Mustangs.)

And the winner is...

At the end of our days testing these three similar but distinct American sports cars, we couldn’t help but be impressed with each. The truth is, there is no one winner here, because they all are.

That isn’t a cop out. The beauty of the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro is that, while they all have similar roots and goals, each fills its objectives in a unique way. Rivalries such as these only make each competitor the best they can be. And that’s a benefit for anyone shopping for an iconic, powerful, feature-rich sports car that won’t break the bank.

So if you’re considering buying and experiencing one of these fabled modern muscle cars, there is in fact a winner: You.

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