The Ford Mustang Is the New Dodge Challenger

The seventh-generation Mustang is built around an aging platform, a big V8, and heaps of nostalgia. Sound familiar?

byVictoria Scott| PUBLISHED Sep 20, 2022 12:28 PM
The Ford Mustang Is the New Dodge Challenger
Ford/Victoria Scott
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Dodge, with its long-lived Challenger, has long been a holdout of classic Americana: big car, bigger V8. Ford, with the well-updated and diversely optioned Mustang, offered muscle car buyers a 21st-century take on displacement-heavy coupes. This is how it’s always been until last week, when Ford decided nostalgia would guide the seventh generation Mustang—5.0, stick shift, no hybrid—while Dodge is looking ahead and making the next Challenger a full-electric muscle car. It’s a head-spinning moment. How’d we end up in a world where Dodge seems more progressive than Ford?

For a little backstory: if you asked me for a favorite muscle car at any point in the past decade I've had a license, the answer has been simple: I'm a Ford Mustang fangirl. The fifth-generation Mustang that debuted in 2005 was the first of the "throwback"-styled Big Three muscle cars, and for me, at the ripe old age of 10, it felt like a brilliant vision of how American automakers could offer classic styling on brawny coupes in an era of airbags and side-impact crash tests. Judging by the past two decades of retrofuturistic V8 coupes, my 10-year-old awe wasn't misplaced, and Ford was well-positioned to be the de facto muscle car king of the modern era.

The Mustang has continually gotten better throughout my life, too. The sixth generation, with the addition of independent rear suspension and the 7,000-rpm-redline (and later 7,500-rpm-redline) DOHC 5.0 Coyote V8 felt like a perfect blend of technological advancement and classic American displacement. In basic GT form, it sounded great, it was fun to drive, it looked handsome, and later revisions and trims (especially in the form of the Mach 1, Bullitt Edition, Shelby GT350, and Shelby GT500) ran the gamut from classic style to eye-watering power to track-day readiness. Additionally, with the introduction of the sixth-generation base model's 2.3-liter four-cylinder Ecoboost motor, it felt like Ford had built an entry-level muscle car that wasn't a consolation prize; the Ecoboost was, and is, an economical entry point that offered high tunability, didn't feel punitively slow or cheap, and still offered solid mileage. No matter what you were looking for in a muscle car, the sixth-generation Mustang felt like it could offer something for everyone.

The complete opposite approach, of course, could be seen at a Dodge dealership at any point in the past 15 years. Where the Mustang looked forward, the Challenger stayed firmly planted in the past, as evidenced by a platform that's outlasted three different corporate owners (DaimlerChrysler, Fiat-Chrysler of America, and now Stellantis) and a drivetrain that only ever offered a bigger V8. The Challenger has still gotten faster every year as the mad scientists at Dodge have grabbed increasingly larger shoehorns to cram ever-bigger pushrod V8s into the same massive engine bay, yes.

But where the Mustang looked to improved handling and high redlines to move it further into the 21st century, Dodge just tried to see if it could get the NHRA to ban the Challenger for being too fast in a straight line. (It succeeded, at least for a while.) It makes sense that drag-strip speed has remained the focus, because I have never found driving a Challenger fun in anything but a straight line; it drives exactly like every ounce of its 4,000-plus-pound curb weight implies: poorly. The base-model V6, while offering similar power outputs on paper to the Ecoboost inline-four, never felt enjoyable and sounded downright bad, and the continually aging interior of the Challenger meant that in its twilight years, it has felt increasingly rental-car spec. I understand the allure of the Challenger to people with nostalgia for the bygone era of pre-EPA massive V8s, but the Mustang's modernist take has always appealed to me more.

(Chevy fans are assuredly screaming at their computers: Victoria, you hypocrite. The Camaro had independent rear suspension in 2009, the Ecotec turbo-four is just as good as the Ecoboost, and the ZL1 1LE is one of the fastest American cars to ever hit the Nürburgring. To this I say: the Ecotec is slow, I couldn't see out of the fifth generation, the sixth generation is ugly as sin and its good versions cost as much as a Corvette, which I'd much rather have. Hell, even Chevy gave up on the Camaro. Your hate mail will only make me stronger.)

But now the sixth generation Mustang is dead, and the Challenger as we knew it is gone. With their departures, I feel like everything I have held true for the past 15 years has been flipped upside down.

Let's start with Dodge: In the vacuum left by the long, long-running Challenger, Dodge has teased the all-electric Charger Daytona SRT concept to replace the decades-old ICE muscle car platform. That concept promises Hellcat-level performance with a cutting-edge all-wheel-drive EV drivetrain underpinning it, and a production version will hopefully hit U.S. roads within the next few years. The Daytona SRT's sights are aimed high: its specs promise that it could take on not just future muscle cars, but much higher-end EVs. It boasts a two-speed transmission and 800V architecture, both technology first seen on the Porsche Taycan. It also offers a broader perspective of what fun an EV can offer than ... virtually anyone on the market currently has, with an "electromechanical shifter" and a "push-to-pass" button and a fighter-jet-style flip-up starter button, and yeah, the "Fratzonic Chambered Exhaust" that promises 126 decibels of "engine" noise. While I'm not sure about how all of these features will be received, they're a valiant effort to reimagine both a car and a genre Dodge previously had never attempted to overhaul. It's one of the most ambitious statements I've seen come out of Dodge in my lifetime, and I applaud the attempt to modernize muscle, silly "engine noise" and all.

Ford, meanwhile ... has given us the decidedly less-ambitious seventh-generation Mustang, riding on an updated version of the same platform as the sixth generation, with the usual 5.0-liter V8 or turbo 2.3-liter Ecoboost four-cylinder. Also, base buyers now can't have a manual transmission, and their dashboards will now consist entirely of iPads. There's likely no electrification coming until 2028, and the hybrid all-wheel-drive variant was axed at the last second. The 2024 model offers a little more power, but overall, it feels like a retrenchment. Where the previous generations kept aiming higher, the seventh generation is decidedly more of the same. Where the sixth generation offered nearly everything you could want in a muscle car with a fresh platform, the seventh generation feels like a greatest hits album meant to reminisce on the good ol' days.

If you want to experience Ford's take on an electric muscle car in the near future, your only option seems to be the Mach-E crossover, at least for now. While the Mach-E is quick and competent, it's also a four-door crossover that functionally reimagines nothing other than Ford's willingness to put a prancing pony emblem on an SUV. If the Mach-E is supposed to be the future of muscle, I think auto enthusiasts are headed towards a bleak future.

I can't claim to know if muscle cars can truly survive the upcoming shift to electrification. Perhaps crossovers are simply destined to be the form factor of the future; the Mach-E is simply acquiescing to the writing on the wall, and the seventh-generation Mustang is genuinely the final swan song for ICE and American muscle. The seventh generation Mustang certainly will be good, no doubt, just as the generation before it was. It's also entirely possible that finances or ambitions change and Dodge can't make a production car that hews closely to its concept, and the wisdom of Ford's approach will bear itself out ... for now.

The Charger Daytona SRT, however, represents a valiant attempt to imagine a future where EVs reign dominant and car enthusiasts still get to have fun, however. And for that alone, I find myself rooting real hard for Dodge for the first time in my life.

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