The Second Renaissance of Motor City Muscle

Detroit may be getting greener, but the town hasn't forgotten its roots.

It seems forever and a day ago ... those heady days of 2007 when the pre-recession economy had no idea the cliff that lay just around the corner. Back then enthusiasts were abuzz about the all-new 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, the updated 2009 Ford Mustang, and almost-ready-for-production 2009 Chevrolet Camaro. Finally, we thought, Detroit was getting its act together and making exciting cars that reflected the true passion of The Motor City.

This was the first modern renaissance of Motor City Muscle.

Then we all drove off the cliff together. Regardless of whether you had your foot on the throttle or were just taken for a ride, today it's a totally different automotive world.

It's greener. Less thirsty. Higher quality. More refined.

But some things never change; a segment of the automotive market will always want fun, powerful, and (gasp with politically correct disdain) macho cars. God bless'em! These drivers believe that until you've done wild smoking doughnuts in a parking lot, you haven't really lived.

According to Automotive News, 2010 calendar year sales of the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro totaled nearly 200,000 units. With the option of way too much V-8 horsepower, muscle cars represent a backlash against the neutering of America.

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These buyers may be forever adolescent, environmentally in denial or otherwise deviant of polite societal norms, but much of the broader market vicariously enjoys muscle cars. Most Americans can admit that even if they'd never own a Challenger, Mustang or Camaro, these cars attract the eye and (perhaps) elicit just a little car lust. Even a brutal recession couldn't totally extinguish the love for these cars.

Chrysler, Ford and General Motors see a business case backing further develop this vehicle genre. Therefore, each company continues to improve or expand their line up.

After the recessionary near-death experience, consider this the second renaissance of Motor City Muscle.

It will surprise many that the traditional pony and muscle cars from Detroit have quietly become responsible citizens. With modern and efficient standard V-6 engines that produce more power than V-8 engines from even a few years ago, the Challenger delivers 27 mph highway, the Camaro achieves 29 mpg highway, and the Mustang delivers 31 mpg highway. Even better figures are be coming.

For those who have always wanted an overtly bold and sporty vehicle, now is the time to look at what's driving out of post-bankruptcy Detroit. What follows is a quick review of AOL Autos' favorites.

2011 Dodge Challenger

When it comes to pony cars, Dodge was late to the first dance following the original 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang by five years. But looking at the original 1970 Challenger, some would say, "Better late than never." Fortunately, the current Dodge Challenger brings forward many of the 1970's best styling cues, standing out as one of today's most successfully-executed retro designs.

Introduced as a 2008 model, the Challenger is significantly larger than the Mustang and Camaro. While this diminishes the Dodge's sportyness, it enhances its practicality with a real back seat and a sizeable trunk.

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Major changes impact the Challenger for 2011. The base engine is now the all-new Chrysler Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, a smooth, quiet and efficient motor. It produces 305-horsepower and bumps up highway fuel economy to 27 mpg, an increase of two from 2010's less powerful 3.5-liter V-6.

For those who want HEMI performance, the Challenger R/T's 5.7-liter V-8 unleashes 376-hp. The newest hombre in Dodge City is the 2011 Challenger SRT8 392. Available later this year, it's larger 6.4-liter (392 cubic inches for the Old School set) HEMI cranks out 470 horsepower.

AOL Autos drove the SRT8 392 late last year at Infenion Raceway (California) and found it a thrilling and engaging package. Challengers from 2008-2010 tended to be softer riding and less buttoned down in terms of handling. Dodge corrected all of this for 2011.

2011 Ford Mustang

There is only one pony car that's been in continuous production since 1964. It didn't vanish in the 1970s like the Challenger, Plymouth Barracuda or the American Motors Corporation Javelin. It also survived the 2000s, when the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro went missing. The Ford Mustang is a survivor.

Since 2009 - the car for which the classification Pony Car was coined - has undergone significant year-over-year changes. For 2011, the Mustang's old boat anchor 4.0-liter V-6 finally got booted from the engine compartment in favor of the new high-tech 3.7-liter V-6. Technologies like twin independent camshaft timing and 4-valves per cylinder help the engine produce 305-hp with class-leading highway fuel economy of 31-mpg.

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The 3.7-liter is such a powerful engine that most drivers won't think, "Gee, I could have had a V-8." That is, until they drive a Mustang with the all-new 5.0-liter V-8 engine. The power and sound are figuratively intoxicating. 412 smooth horsepower will do that to you. And if it doesn't, there's always the Shelby GT500. Its new all-aluminum supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 produces a pavement shredding 550-hp, up 10 from 2010, but it feels like more thanks to a significant weight loss program.

The base Mustang, the Mustang GT, and the Shelby GT500 are available in coupe and convertible bodies, giving buyers a range of choices. Regardless of model, AOL Autos recommends the Premium Interior Package. The quality of the materials plus the fit and finish are genuinely impressive and easily the best in the class.

Even with its expansive model range, Ford is expanding the Mustang line with the return of the Boss 302 for the 2012 model year. Fitted with a special higher-performance version of the GT's 5.0-liter V-8, the Boss 302 boasts racetrack ready performance with 440-horsepower, huge brakes, adjustable shock absorbers, and much more.

2011 Chevrolet Camaro

Axed in 2002, the Chevy Camaro returned to production as a 2009 model. Its return evoked controversy; about its exterior styling (some called it cartoonish), its interior styling (some panned it as cheap), and its lack of visibility (huge roof pillars and low windows make it hard to see the road and other drivers). Regardless, enthusiasts loved its power and handling.

The Camaro was the first of the pony cars to benefit from a thoroughly modern V-6 engine; the 3.6-liter V-6 first used in various Cadillac models. Recent news from General Motors claims that fuel economy for the 312-hp V-6 Camaro will improve during 2011, rising from today's 29 mpg highway to 30 mpg.

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The just-announced Camaro Convertible adds breadth to the Camaro line, and actually improves the car in many ways. Body stiffness is improved, as is visibility. At a base price of just under $30,000, it also offers a lot of street presence for the money.

Showing General Motor's commitment to the Camaro, GM recently announced that it will introduce two new Camaro variants per year through 2013. The ultra-high-performance 550-hp ZL1 Camaro with will be the first out, followed by a limited run of commemorative Transformers movie cars, then a run of Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars, capped by a limited-edition model called the Synergy.

2011 Dodge Charger

Significantly larger than the Challenger, Mustang and Camaro, the all-new Dodge Charger should be included in any discussion about modern Motor City Muscle.

The most recent incarnation of the Dodge Charger arrived as a 2006 model. Even with HEMI V-8 power, most enthusiasts never forgave Dodge for calling the four-door sedan a Charger. From the first 1964 Charger concept car, this Dodge was always a 2-door coupe.

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Even though the all-new 2011 Charger still has four doors, everything else about the car is so much better that all is forgiven. The exterior evokes styling cues from the 1968 Charger, but updates them and makes them new. The interior is modern, comfortable, and technically savvy.

On the road, the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 provides power that most drivers will associate with a V-8, while the optional 5.7-liter HEMI bellows an exhaust note that could only come from Detroit. This full-size car hustles around corners like a much smaller sport sedan. Those expecting loose handing and a floaty ride will be surprised.

Because the Charger remains rear-wheel-drive, it stands as a unique alternative to competitive front-wheel-drive competitors like the Ford Taurus.

Pontiac G8 - RIP

Had General Motors not killed the Pontiac Division, the G8 would definitely be included here. Like the Charger, the G8 was a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive performance sedan that made the driver forget his car had four doors. Unfortunately, the G8 didn't make it to this second renaissance, but it's something to think about if you're shopping used cars instead of new.

Yes, Detroit is back once again.

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