Once upon a time, true performance models seemed largely limited to European and Asian imports. American cars were too focused on straight-line power to worry about handling. These days, it seems like you can’t turn around in a domestic dealership lot without coming face to face with a drool-worthy performance version of a classic. These don’t follow the old American recipe of “add more power and call it a day.” Most of them have advanced technologies like magnetorheological dampers, dual-clutch automatic transmissions, and sophisticated engine management systems.
“Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built,” is a classic quote attributed to Henry Ford. It’s easy to see why that is. Who wouldn’t want to experience the fun of racing? Plus, it’s a great way to test the vehicles and to inspire improvements. We have come a long way from the Benz Motorwagen. The performance versions of basic cars that are being offered from the factory today would make Henry Ford question why it would even take five minutes for the racing to start. Let’s look at some of the very best coming out of Detroit today.
1. Ford Focus RS
We start with the Ford Focus RS. Besides being impressive as a car, it is impressive that the RS will exist in America at all. For a long time, the U.S. market has been limited to watered-down versions of some of the best performance cars out there (I’m looking at you, EP3 Honda Civic Si). Ford has stated that the RS we receive in the states will be exactly the same as the one that is sold in Europe. As we have covered before, that’s going to make it extremely potent — 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque lead to a 0-60 time of 4.7 seconds. Plus, perhaps best of all: Drift mode!
2. Camaro ZL1
I know. I know! The Z/28 is the more track-focused of the two and, given that we are talking about auto racing, doesn’t that make it more relevant? Perhaps for the few people out there who are on the track. For those of us on the road who are looking for a car that will give us some grins, the ZL1 is the perfect choice. The 580 supercharged horsepower will keep you smiling for miles (or during the 4.1 second 0-60 time) on the straights while a track-tuned suspension and stellar brakes will keep you out of the ditch. Not to mention, the $20,000 that you’ll save on this car will leave you with some money to spend when you reach your destination. It must be said that our research has revealed that people have been buying Z/28s for significantly less than their MSRP, so this might be a time to look into it if you are searching for a track-monster.
3. Ford Shelby Mustang GT350
Unlike the days of yore, Ford has officially brought the Shelby name into its own camp. It’s producing the GT350 itself and leaving the more outrageous projects, such as the Super Snake, to Shelby American. This 526 horsepower fire-breather proves that Ford is serious about taking the outstanding 2015 Mustang platform and squeezing out every last potent drop of performance. The flat-plane V8, with its 8,250 RPM redline and stupendous soundtrack (here’s another track), remains and provides all the necessary oomph to push this pony to 60 miles per hour in 4.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 186. I bet that Shelby himself would have been proud to see this car wearing his name.
4. Cadillac ATS-V
Not long ago, Cadillac was known as the company that produced bloated land-yachts for retirees who were more interested in comfort than cornering. Then, in the early 2000s, top brass decided the car maker needed to try to reach the more performance-focused segment of the market that was currently served by the M and AMG portfolios. Cadillac released the Cadillac Sixteen concept in 2003 and the first CTS-V in 2004. Over the past decade, the performance-focused V-series has improved considerably. The introduction of the ATS in 2012 provided a model that would allow Cadillac to compete directly against the 3 Series. The ATS-V has been compared favorably with the German competition, especially for the performance of its chassis, which keeps it feeling planted no matter what you throw at it. The 3.6 liter twin-turbo V6 is good for 464 horsepower and, when mated to an automatic transmission, is good for a 0-60 time of 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 185 miles per hour.
5. Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
A discussion of modern American performance would not be complete without a mention of the Hellcat twins. The Dodge Charger and Challenger were both given the Super-Soldier serum from Captain America by being stuffed with a 707 horsepower Hellcat Hemi V8. While these cars are more in keeping with traditional muscle cars, and can be a bit terrifying as our own Micah Wright discovered, there is no question that they must be saluted for bringing the muscle car into the 21st century. While the two cars are very similar, I mentioned the Charger in this list for two reasons: The four doors make the performance that much more impressive, and I prefer the looks. When you get down to it, the two are fairly similar, but the Charger does a better version of being a well-rounded car (while managing a 2.9 second 0-60 time and a 204 mile per hour top speed — faster than the Challenger).
6. Chevrolet Corvette Z06
I’m being a bit of a hypocrite here. By my logic regarding the Z/28, I should really be including the base Stingray version of the ‘vette rather than the Z06. But when reviewers are describing the virtues of the car with phrases like “…an exhaust note that sounds like a Napalm Death concert being held inside a howitzer“, you know it’s something special (and they were right about the sound). The 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque is available at 3,600 RPM, and 60 miles per hour passes in 3.3 seconds, and the quarter mile in 11.4 seconds at 127 miles per hour, which makes it the fastest of this group. It pulls 1.14 Gs on the skidpad, which means your the massive smile on your face from driving this thing will end up sliding off your skull and into the passenger’s seat. It starts at just over $80,000 but can easily run with (and beat) some of best-performing cars in the world.
7. Dodge Viper
Ever since I was a kid, I have had a soft spot for the Viper. It was one of the posters I had up in my bedroom. It’s a crazy machine! Where else are you going to find an 8.4 liter V10 making ‘only’ 640 horsepower? The Hellcat mentioned above makes 707 horsepower with 6.2 liters. The Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport, which makes 1,200 horsepower, manages it with only 8.0 liters. Dodge has always stuck with the formula of: Giant engine + giant hood + giant tires + lots of snake emblems = fun. And with an 11.5 second quarter mile that nearly matches the Z06, 1.03 Gs on the skidpad, and an exhaust note that sound like a tiger purring at idle, I’d say their formula isn’t far off. This car isn’t practical and reviewers have bemoaned its stiff ride and cramped cabin, but there is no doubt that this snake can still bite.
The Ford GT will be added to this list when it hits showroom floors in 2017. Until then, these cars are more than up to the task of carrying the flag. It has often been said that the red, white, and blue don’t run. But, thanks to these cars, they might be running circles around the competition. ‘Merica!