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7 American Muscle Cars for Independence Day

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author photo by Josh Sadlier June 2012

Muscle cars have been mounting a comeback in recent years, but which ones are worth buying? Here are AutoTrader's top 7 modern muscle cars made in the good ol' USA.

Automotive scribes tend to throw around the term "muscle car" as if everyone knows the definition by heart, but maybe it's time for a rethink. After all, the original muscle cars had their fifteen minutes way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, and it wasn't until the retro-fabulous Ford Mustang made its debut in 2004 that this genre began to re-enter the mainstream conversation.

So let's start with the basics. According to Merriam-Webster-yes, it's in the dictionary-a muscle car is "any of a group of American-made 2-door sports coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving." That's the classic definition. Times have changed, though, and nowadays you can get grade A American muscle in a variety of shapes and sizes. Accordingly, we're going to take a little editorial license and define modern muscle cars as American-made automobiles with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.

Got that? Good. Now let's talk about the cars themselves. We've narrowed the field to seven models that get our hearts racing every time we blip the throttle. In no particular order of awesomeness, here they are.

1. 2013 Ford Mustang GT

A couple of years ago, it was the suddenly respectable Mustang V6 that got all the headlines. Lately it has been either the racy Boss 302 or the insanely powerful GT500. But our pick of this litter is the 2013 Mustang GT, which extracts 420 horsepower from its 5.0-liter V8-and starts at just $30,300. We'd want a few options, of course, notably the beautiful panoramic roof and the Track package, which adds Brembo brakes, a Torsen limited-slip differential and a more aggressive 3.73:1 rear end. But otherwise, we like the Mustang GT just the way it is. For the money, nothing can touch the GT's combination of power, agility and style.

2. 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT-8

The Challenger is a bulkier beast than the Mustang, so it needs all the engine it can get. On a list of the most impressive American muscle cars, we say "Thanks, but no thanks" to the V8-powered Challenger R/T. Instead, we'd bring enough money to get our hands on a Challenger SRT-8 and its fearsome 6.4-liter V8. Don't get us wrong, the 375-hp R/T is no slouch, but the SRT-8 is rated at an impressive 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. Once you feel how effortlessly the big 6.4 moves the Challenger's considerable mass, you won't accept anything less.

3. 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Let's be clear: the "regular" V8-powered Camaro SS has plenty of power. That's not why we're climbing the ladder to the range-topping ZL1. Sure, 580 hp from a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 is nice, but what really sets the Camaro ZL1 apart is its sublime handling. Although we generally prefer the Mustang for spirited driving because of its superior visibility and tighter dimensions, Chevrolet has worked some real magic with the ZL1's suspension, highlighted by magneto-rheological dampers that provide both excellent cornering control and impressive cruising comfort. Throw in the Camaro's independent rear suspension-considering that all Mustangs these days have solid rear axles-and you've got one of the few muscle cars that can really dance.

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4. 2012 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

The Corvette Z06 is the first car on our list that stretches the limits of the classic definition. Technically speaking, the Vette is exactly what Merriam-Webster describes, but car nuts will tell you that the two-seat Corvette is more of a sports car or grand tourer than a muscle car. Still, we think the Z06 is a no-brainer here. Fire up the normally aspirated, race-inspired 7.0-liter LS7 V8, and you're bombarded with the best kinds of noise and vibration. Put your foot to the floor, and you'll lose your license faster than you can say, "But Officer, I couldn't help myself!" That's the thing about the Z06: you just can't resist dipping into that 505-hp honey pot whenever an opening presents itself. Second gear-second-is good for around 90 mph, and the quarter-mile flashes by in third at more than120 mph. For sheer thrills per mile, this car just might have the biggest muscles of them all.

5. 2012 Dodge Charger R/T

"All right," you're saying, "now they're pushing it." Yes, fine, the Charger R/T has four doors. But check this out: the Charger is actually closely related to the Challenger, since the cars share the same basic platform and engines. Think of the Charger as a four-door Challenger, and it starts to make more muscle-car sense. Now, if you're wondering why we're sticking with the 5.7-liter R/T in the Charger's case when a 6.4-liter SRT-8 version is also available, here's the rationale. Unlike the loud and proud Challenger, the Charger can do double duty as a practical four-door family sedan, and when we think of practicality, we think of value. To this end, the 370-hp R/T starts at an incredible $29,995, making it one of the best values in any segment, not to mention over $10,000 cheaper than the Charger SRT-8. Forget about that loaded-up Accord sedan, we say, and buy a Charger R/T instead.

6. 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8

Here's where our editorial license really starts earning its keep. Not only does the JGC have four doors, it's also a full-fledged SUV! So how could it qualify as a muscle car? Well, remember our modernized definition-and note that the Grand Cherokee SRT-8 comes stuffed with that familiar 470-hp 6.4-liter V8, as well as a sport-tuned suspension that enables this 5,000-pound all-wheel-drive bruiser to tackle two-lane roads like a sport sedan. Oh, and if you're worried that the JGC's standard all-wheel drive won't permit a proper muscle-car burnout, don't be. As Chrysler's legal team was no doubt dismayed to discover, the aftermarket has already come up with a simple computer reflash that releases 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels at rest. If you're intrigued, YouTube's got some great visual aids.

7. 2012 Ford Taurus SHO

Okay, we lied about there being no particular order to this list. We intentionally saved the one with the front-wheel-drive platform for last, because we knew it wouldn't go down easy with powerslide aficionados. Still, we've got a pretty convincing argument in the Taurus SHO's favor. First of all, the grunt is obviously there: try 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque from a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 running through all four wheels. It might not sound like a V8, but it sure goes like one. Then there's the SHO's king-of-the-road highway demeanor, which harks back to the very best American cruisers of yore. No, the SHO can't smoke the rear tires, and it's not going to set off your neighbor's car alarm with its exhaust note, either. But if you like your muscle mixed with an extra serving of civility, this trippy Taurus won't disappoint.

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7 American Muscle Cars for Independence Day - Autotrader