It’s an automotive battle that has raged on for nearly half a century. As other models – and entire brands – have come and gone, it’s the one rivalry in America that is so high-stakes it can put Yankees versus Red Sox, North Carolina versus Duke, and even Democrat versus Republican to shame. Aside from a seven-year break last decade, Mustang versus Camaro has been shorthand for the struggle for the best affordable performance that America has to offer. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, and played out in every town across the country. Through the good years and the lean ones, it’s made the auto world that much more interesting, and while the good times are already here for muscle cars, they’re about to get even better.
The Mustang is all-new for 2015, and so far has been a runaway success for Ford. With a host of engines ranging from a turbocharged inline-four to a high displacement V8, fantastic handling, and modern good looks, Ford has sold 56,571 Mustangs in the U.S. through May, well on its way to shattering last year’s 82,635 total. It makes Chevy’s current Camaro look like a lame duck. On the market since 2009 (with a facelift in 2014), the Chevy’s retro styling and cheap interior look hopelessly out of date compared to the new Ford.
But it won’t stay that way for long. Last month, Chevy unveiled the all-new for 2016 Camaro, a car that’s every bit as formidable as its cross-town rival. Lower, lighter, and more powerful than the out-going model, the new Camaro is a near point-by-point counter to the Mustang. Ford has its 310 horsepower 2.3 liter turbocharged four? Camaro has its own 270 horsepower turbocharged four banger. The Mustang’s class-leading interior? Chevy has dropped its cheap-feeling retro look for a high-tech cockpit worthy of the Corvette. And the 5.0 liter Mustang’s 435 horsepower V8? The Camaro SS’ 6.2 liter LT1 V8 should make a cool 455.
The new road cars are more than enough to make the faithful happy, but what happens when Chevy and Ford take the gloves off, abandon any pretense of civility, and get down to pure, unbridled power? Well, that’s when things get really interesting.
The entire muscle car spectrum could be summed up by looking at last-generation Shelby GT500 and Camaro Z/28. The Shelby was a continuation of the ’60s greats: With its 660 horsepower 5.8 liter V8, it offered Ferrari power at F-250 truck prices. Unfortunately, it felt shockingly cheap and couldn’t take a corner to save its life. Conversely, at $73,000 the 505 horsepower Camaro Z/28 may have come dangerously close to Porsche prices, but it could actually embarrass some of Stuttgart’s best on the track. Instead of being a straight line pig, it was a lithe, capable track-day monster, and is easily one of the greatest Camaros of all time.
Ford got an eduction watching the Z/28 enter the conversation as one of the world’s best, and opted to follow suit with its next-generation Shelby. While the next GT500 isn’t slated to arrive until 2017, the GT350R was built with one thing in mind: to take out the Z/28 Camaro. Ford borrowed technology usually found in Ferraris to build its new naturally aspirated 5.2 liter flat-plane crank V8 for the GT350 and R models, and at 526 horsepower, it should not only give the Z/28 a scare on the track, it also sounds positively evil.
Ford fired its first warning shot in January, when British car magazine Evo claimed that a preproduction GT350R posted a 7 minute 32.19 second lap time around the Nürburgring, besting the Z/28’s 7 minute 37.47 time. For now, Chevy hasn’t volunteered much on the next-generation Z/28, but speaking with Automotive News, General Motors product chief Mark Reuss dropped some tantalizing hints on what we can expect.
Talking about the Z/28s that dominated Trans Am racing in the late ’60s, Reuss said “We’re looking at the original formulas of the Trans Am homologation of the Z/28,” adding “Why was the [original 480 horsepower] 302 engine so special? So, the formula may change a little, but it still needs to be a wicked fast track car more capable maybe than the comfort- and driver-oriented models.”
Like every advantage that has come before it, the outgoing Z/28 will rule the roost until the GT350R comes along to unseat it. Then the big Ford will have its day before the all-new Z/28 comes along to steal its crown. It’s this neck-and-neck evenhandedness of the Mustang versus Camaro war that makes it so damn interesting, and has kept the faithful arguing for generations. With this latest crop, don’t expect the competition to go away anytime soon, it’ll only get better.