Muscle Car Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

1999 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

(5.7L V8)

America Serves up Modern Muscle Machines to Suit Many Tastes

  • Comparison Test
  • Plenty of Bang, But the Buck Stops There
  • Improvements Spur Sales, But More Oats, Please!
  • A German Hellion from South Carolina
  • The Champion Takes on Another Contender
  • The Muscle Car That Refuses to Grow Up
  • The Truck That Thinks it's a Muscle Car
  • Powered to Sprint but Not Smooth Enough to Crui
  • Finding Family-Size Finesse in the Front-Drive Muscle Set
  • Specifications

Ahh, summer. Time to get out on the road and drive awhile, to go cruisin' with the top down. America's love affair with the automobile is best appreciated this time of year, and there's nothing quite like doing some of that motoring in an American-built muscle car. Today's modern high-performance machines are every bit as fast as the legendary muscle cars that date back to the 1960s -- except that our '90s counterparts have many more creature comforts, and they happen to stop and turn as well as they go fast in a straight line.

So, as the perfect way to top off our summer, we decided to offer you head-to-head comparisons for eight of the best-performing production vehicles built in North America. To start things off, we chose the granddaddy of all muscle-nameplate rivalries, the Chevy Camaro vs. Ford's Mustang. Naturally, we opted for the 320-horsepower, forced-air induction Z28 SS to represent Chevrolet. But because Ford is having a problem with its SVT Cobra motors this year, none were available for our test. So the 260-horse Mustang GT was sent in to take on the battle with the SS -- with some very surprising results.

For Round Two, we decided to put the new kid on the block, the American-built, 240-horespower BMW M Coupe, up against one of the most famous nameplates in American muscle-car history, Chevy's Corvette. Find out if the stout little German coupe can out-finesse a hardtop Vette with a 105-horsepower advantage. And Round Three pits the fastest General Motors F-Body against the fastest factory Ford. A stripper Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6, equipped with Ram Air and a six-speed manual, goes up against the supercharged SVT F-150 Lightning. That's a truck, you say? Yep, but with its 360 huffy horses underhood it's also the fastest Ford you can buy for quarter-mile sprints, so it makes for an interesting study in contrasts with the flared-nostril Firebird.

Finally, we finished up our comparo with a duel between a pair of sizzling front-drive sedans, the supercharged 240-horse Pontiac Grand Prix GTP and Chrysler's red-hot 253-horse 300M. We had a slight problem in that the folks at DaimlerChrysler said all the 300Ms in their press fleet were booked for the week we would be needing one for our test. So we simply went to Budget and rented a 300M for this test. We wanted to find out if the GTP -- the closest descendent to America's original muscle car, the Pontiac GTO -- would prove as sporting as the much-heralded 300M -- Chrysler's reborn "Letter Series" performance legend. To find out the answer to this and a host of other performance questions, we put all eight cars through their paces at California's Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, as well as subjecting them to the twists and turns of some specially chosen, two-lane canyon roads north of Los Angeles.

In true Edmunds.com fashion, we looked beyond the marketing hype, racetrack chest-thumping and buff-book hyperbole. Instead, we took the time to dig deep and unearth a gold mine of insight into how modern-day muscle cars can be expected to function in the real world. So hop in, buckle up ... and hang on!

No muscle car test could ever be complete without mention of the two perennial favorite combatants, the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang. This pair has been pitted against each other since the beginning of the pony-car era itself, so continuing the tradition to include the current offerings only makes sense. Except that most automotive testers usually compare cars of similar performance levels, and in this case, that wasn't possible.

Let us explain. A few years back, to get an SS version of the Z28 Camaro you had to have your Chevy dealer check the "SS RPO" box on your new vehicle order form. Chevrolet would then build your Z28 to order at the St. Therese factory in Canada, and drop-ship the brand-new Z28 out to a shop down the road called SLP (for Street Legal Performance), owned by noted GM tuner Ed Hamburger.

SLP would add all the extra performance goodies in its SS package (licensed to and sold by Chevrolet as a regular production option), and then send the car back to Chevy for delivery to the selling dealer. SLP also did most of the marketing on the SS, so Chevy didn't normally order SLP's cars for its journalist test fleet. SLP's own press fleet was limited to a single car or two, so auto writers had to wait in line before getting an SS. Because the SS model was factory-shipped, few people knew -- or even cared -- about this little performance detour to SLP.

On the other hand, the hottest Mustang -- save for some exotics sold by tuners Kenny Brown and Steve Saleen -- was (and still is) the factory-built SVT Cobra developed by the guys at Ford's Special Vehicle Team. While they're available only through SVT-certified Ford dealers (about 700 of the better than 4,200 Ford stores in North America are SVT dealers), Cobras come down the same assembly line as more mundane Mustangs. And despite being a limited-edition model (about 10,000 per year), Cobras were made available to journalists across the country.

Then things changed. A couple of years ago, Chevy bought the rights to SLP's package and took the SS "in-house," meaning it's built solely at the F-body factory and marketed by Chevrolet itself. Consequently, there are plenty of SS Camaros around to test. And this year, Ford's redesigned-for-'99 Cobra was found to have some engine parts that were not up to spec, causing the motors not to make the advertised 320 horsepower. Since May, all '99 SVT Mustang Cobras have been pulled from Ford press fleets across the country until a fix is completed. Meaning, no vehicle loans to journalists for road tests of any kind this summer.

So we decided to go ahead and pit Chevy's fire-breathing, 320-horse V8 Camaro Z28 SS against Ford's mainstream Mustang GT, which makes a mere 260 horses from its much smaller V8. Not fair, you say? Maybe not, but in reality it's your only purchase choice as of this writing. Ford's current hold on SVT Cobras includes the sale or delivery of all 1999 cars in stock, so the Mustang GT and Camaro SS are, indeed, the hottest versions of their respective nameplates that you can actually buy right now. Besides, the standard Z28 -- which IS the Mustang GT's direct competitor -- already owns a whopping 45-horse advantage over its Ford counterpart, so what's another 15 ponies among enemies?

Let's face it, ever since GM replaced the old L98 350 V8 with first the LT1, and more recently the LS1 5.7-liter, the F-body Camaro/Firebird twins have owned the pony-car performance crown. And ever since Mustang moved away from the venerable 5.0-liter V8 in 1996 for the 4.6-liter modular overhead-cam engine family, Ford fans have been taking it on the chin at the stoplights. But for those of you thinking you can stop reading right now because you've got the outcome of this test pretty much figured out already -- well, you've been reading far too many buff books.

The buff-book writers will tell you the Camaro SS simply spanks the bejabbers out of any Mustang in every performance category. Duh! So who honestly thinks the 60-horse advantage an SS has on a GT wouldn't show up in the acceleration numbers? But our SS (admittedly a fairly tired press car) proved only a few ticks quicker than the Mustang in our zero-to-60 mph tests and less than a half-second faster in the quarter-mile. And while the Camaro exhibited marginally better grip on the skidpad, the Ford outperformed the Chevy in our 60-to-zero braking tests and its handling proved more predictable out on the racetrack. Oh, did we mention our GT stickered for nearly $4,000 less than the SS?

That's not to say the Camaro didn't perform well, for its numbers were in pure muscle-car territory. For that it can thank the LS1 engine, which -- as it is for Corvette -- is the heart and soul of the SS. As our testers put it, "the LS1 is the paradigm of a muscle-car engine. ... Grunt can be found from 1,000 rpm up to redline." Another wrote, "Gobs of torque that you can feel in every gear." Still another, "True muscle-car power." Indeed, we found this award-winning motor amazingly flexible, turning out a notoriously fat band of torque that would be the envy of many of the famed muscle cars of yesteryear. These days, few production V8s can outmuscle an LS1.

Our SS also came equipped with the Borg-Warner T-56 six-speed manual, the same heavy-duty tranny found in Corvettes and Vipers. Some staffers felt its second-to-fourth gear "skip-shift" feature was annoying, but others noted that spirited driving deactivates the emissions function, so it wasn't a problem. Nearly all our testers noticed vast amounts of driveline shake and shudder emanating right up through the baseball-sized shift knob. And most weren't fond of the car's clutch action, best described as feeling "heavy going in, and loose coming out." But we discounted some of that because not all F-bodies we've driven have exhibited that problem.

Outside, the SS gained high marks from most of us for its swoopy styling, clean, rakish stance and purposeful lines. Muscle cars are supposed to look mean, and this one screams its sex appeal, right down to its functional hood scoop. But the inside was not winning many friends. The Camaro is more difficult to get into and out of than the taller, more upright Mustang. With the SS sitting so low to the ground, you kind of plop down into the rather flat seats and drive in somewhat of a reclining position. Back seats and a trunk aren't big selling points for muscle cars -- and the Camaro is no exception. The back seats are tiny, and the cargo hold is deep but quite small for a hatchback car.

Interior design came in for less discussion than its execution, thanks to some intelligent ergonomics. But when it came to the look and feel inside, driver comments ranged from "cheesy materials abound," to "there's a total lack of refinement in here." Assorted squeaks and rattles and large amounts of tire and road noise booming off the rear hatch backlight sure didn't add to any illusions of build quality. But that's of little consequence to speed freaks.

Yet perhaps the biggest disappointment about the Camaro SS was its ride. Its chassis features upper and lower control arms in front, which keep the tires in better contact with the road than the more popular MacPherson struts. And its live rear axle is not only located by traditional trailing links, but by a special long torque arm and a Panhard rod added in for good measure. With stiff coils and front-and-rear antiroll bars, the SS is known for some amazingly flat cornering ability on a smooth racetrack.

The problem is, we were testing it on the challenging, undulating surfaces of The Streets of Willow race circuit. And our on-road evaluation had wound us through some tricky canyon two-lanes north of Los Angeles. In both instances, the Camaro's suspension was hard-pressed to afford a compromise between ride and handling. Most drivers found it downright twitchy at the limits, and some noted the car would bump-steer in cobbled fast turns.

Reading the copious notes of our testers would have you believe they were willing to overlook the Camaro's shortcomings in favor of its intoxicating power and give the nod to the SS over the Mustang. But tallying up their evaluation score sheets showed the Ford racked up more overall points than its more powerful Chevy rival. And that's EXACTLY how you, the consumers, have been voting with your wallets for the past several years.

The fact is -- power and performance be damned -- the Mustang has not only been outdistancing the Camaro on the sales charts by tens of thousands of units each year, but for 1999 it will have outsold both the F-body cars combined by a 2-to-1 margin! So even though the SS is wickedly fast, today's consumers seem to prefer a muscle car that can balance its racetrack abilities with some real-world functionality on the street. Somehow, the buff-book boys overlook that every time.

Funny thing, too, is that while Mustang has been winning the sales war, the enthusiast press has been trumpeting the Camaro (and sister Firebird) as the best performance value on the face of the planet, the most bang for the buck, the most go for the dough -- all thanks to its low base MSRP. But this year, the GT's base price is actually cheaper than the Z28 when you factor in the delivery charge. And we suggest you check those "as tested" prices the next time you read a buff-book Camaro vs. Mustang comparo. You'll find that more often than not, even the high-end SVT Cobra comes out a few thousand dollars less than a comparably equipped SS. A low base price doesn't mean much if the things most people want and buy are extra-cost options. Maybe it's time you look elsewhere for the real value story.

The way we figure it, the nearly $4,000 difference in price between our Mustang GT and Camaro SS works out costing you about $1,000 for each tenth of a second advantage on the dragstrip. If that sounds like a powerful bargain to you, then the Chevy is your clear choice. But if some of your car's muscle needs to be spent as a daily driver, then the Mustang makes living with its performance compromises a little easier to deal with.

When we first laid eyes on the new-for-'99 Mustang, some of us thought it would be the beginning of the end for Ford's original pony car. Sure, we knew it was coming to market with improvements to nearly every major system, but we didn't know if we should laugh or cry that Ford replaced the Stang's smooth, flowing curves with a bunch of sharp lines and creases.

Now, more than a year later, Ford is laughing -- all the way to the bank: Sales of the Mustang, now in its 35th year on the market, are up nearly 40 percent over last year. While we still believe the new sheetmetal won't wear its age very well, about the only thing we can say about it in the wake of overwhelming public acceptance is that it's, well, growing on us. But, as one tester pondered, "Do the scoops have to look so obviously fake?"

When we first decided to include the traditional Mustang vs. Camaro comparison in our test of modern-day North American-built muscle cars, we didn't know if we should laugh or cry that Ford's Special Vehicle Team had pulled all of its high-performance Cobra models out of the national press fleets. While SVT was busy trying to figure out why some '99 Cobra motors didn't make 320 horsepower like they're supposed to, we were busy trying to figure out what to run against the 320-horse Camaro Z28 SS that we reserved from Chevrolet. Some of us snickered when a 260-horse 1999 Mustang GT was summoned to fight the Cobra's battle against the vastly more powerful Camaro.

But now that the test is complete, the joke is on us: While our testers were busy noting the tire-frying power of the forced-induction LS1 Camaro SS, they were unwittingly scoring the Mustang higher in other critical evaluation areas such as ride, steering, visibility, comfort, entry/exit, etc. You guessed it, our final numbers show that Ford's '99 Mustang GT is a more competent overall vehicle than the rip-snorting Chevy Camaro Z28 SS.

Yep, we know what the buff books say, but the car most of them consistently choose has not only been afflicted with price creep, spotty build quality and lousy insurance rates, but a sales decline so steep that its very future hangs in the balance. In other words, if the car is so wonderful, how come hardly anybody out there in muscle-car land is willing to buy it? Well, this is just about the only place you'll find the answer to that question.

While the SVT Mustang Cobra -- with its high-revving twin-cam V8 and new, independent rear suspension -- would likely have fared better in our review, the GT did surprisingly well. That's due in no small part to some of the many improvements that were added for 1999. Yes, we noticed the power boost for the GT's SOHC 4.6-liter V8 (up 35 horses and 10 foot-pounds of torque from last year, to 260 and 302, respectively). The engine's new camshafts, intake manifold and larger valves make for improved airflow above 3000 rpm. But peak power doesn't arrive until 5000 rpm -- well after the LS1-powered Camaro has passed you by.

We've found that the Borg-Warner designed and Tremec-sourced T-45 five-speed manual transmissions lack consistency from car to car, and ours was one that felt notchy and sluggish to some drivers. Clutch action, however, is consistently poor on the Mustang, as the pedal must travel up a long way before it reaches the engagement point. By that time, the revs have been up and waiting for a while, making quick gearchanges a daunting task.

As expected, the SS dusted the GT in acceleration runs, by a few ticks zero-to-60 and almost a half-second in the quarter-mile. Had it not been for the '99 power increase and the switch to a standard 3.27:1 rear axle ratio, things would have been much worse for the Ford. The addition of twin, three-inch diameter polished stainless-steel exhaust tips gave the GT a more distinguished burble -- something it needed to compete with the throaty roar of the Camaro.

Where the Mustang made inroads on the performance front was with its improved suspension. The GT benefited from the extra space for suspension travel stamped into the Mustang's rear floorpan to accommodate the Cobra's IRS. Engineers used that room to tune-out some of the previous car's ride harshness, and to dial in more control and compliance. A big factor here is the move to linear-rate springs, capable of 450-pounds-per-inch up front and 210-pounds-per-inch in the back.

Our editors found that the revamped underpinnings allow the GT to "take a set" nicely in hard turns, and make for very progressive side-to-side weight transfers for added stability during high-speed lane-changes. Some liked the improvements in the GT's steering as well, where a revised boost curve provides more linear response and better on-center feel. While it was outmuscled on the track, the GT excelled on the twisty two-lane canyon roads. We even noticed that Ford's changes to the steering rack, lower control arms and front stabilizer bars have reduced the Mustang's turning circle by three feet, making U-turns and parking lot maneuvers easier for us to accomplish.

Where the Ford's track numbers actually topped the Chevy's were in our 60-to-zero stopping distances: The Mustang needed four fewer feet to stop on average. The advantage is no doubt the result of Ford's upgraded brake components, including new aluminum twin-piston front calipers that not only whack 10 pounds off the front of the car, but also result in much better pedal feel. A new master cylinder improves the brake pedal's ratio of travel to braking force for better modulation. Our GT had optional ABS and traction control, the latter a new option for 1999 which must be ordered with the ABS. If wheelspin is detected at any speed, the Bosch system retards ignition timing, cuts fuel flow, and activates the brakes at one or both drive wheels, in that order. (Don't worry, we were sure to turn the system off with the console-mounted switch before we performed our acceleration runs.)

Inside, there's a new six-way power driver's seat to replace the four-way, but as one driver noted, "Who else puts power seat controls between your legs on the front of the seat?" Ford says the seat foam has been bolstered and that the seat tracks offer one inch of additional rearward travel to better accommodate taller drivers, but we think both areas could use even more improvement. The Mustang's back seat is vestigial at best, with only enough room for small objects or very small people.

Ford also says they've upgraded the Mustang's audio systems for the second straight year, with the standard 80-watt premium sound system getting better-sounding speakers. Of the optional CD/radio combination, the CD/cassette and the Mach 460 system, our car had the top-line Mach 460. Though it impressed most drivers for its sound quality and bass depth, all of our editors complained yet again about the unit's tiny little buttons -- Hello, Ford, are you listening?

But not all of our test car's mechanicals performed perfectly. As in the Camaro SS, most testers experienced large amounts of driveline lash and drivetrain vibration working its way up through the shifter. Some drivers even reported hearing valve flutter and a rear-end whine. Most disturbing was an apparent overheating problem, which tripped the "check coolant" lamp and cut power to the engine until we could park the GT, cool it down and add water to the overflow tank. Sure, the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees up in the high desert of California during our stay, but none of the other cars ever came close to running as hot. It was disconcerting to say the least, given the Mustang's recent history of cooling troubles.

Perhaps one editor summed it up best by saying: "Overall, the Mustang is definitely a fun car to drive, and drive quickly. It has a good blend of power and handling with fairly predictable limits. What it lacks in power, it makes up in poise over the Camaro." But another said: "I'm torn: The GT is better to drive around town than the Camaro, but not as good at the limit." And still another: "When it comes to muscle cars, you can never have too much firepower ... and the Mustang's V8 is no match for GM's LS1. ... Looking at my ratings, though, the Mustang actually beat the Camaro by a few points. This is contrary to my personal opinion, which is weird."

Weird, maybe, but still logical. The Camaro SS (and Firebird, for that matter) are much more powerful than the Mustang GT, but the Ford is quieter, rides better, and offers better interior ergonomics and quality. It is also less expensive and vastly more popular with consumers. We'd just feel better if it offered segment-leading horses.

"BMW? Dats not no Eeemerrricuuun car." Thanks, Roscoe, we knew that. Save the howls of discontent for when McDonald's finally discontinues the Big Mac Extra Value Meal, OK? This little yellow hobgoblin -- with the blue-and-white propeller on the hood -- is as American as a greasy french fry. All BMW Z3s and Z3 Coupes sold in America spill out of the Spartanburg, S.C., plant. Think of the BMW M Coupe as American muscle fueled by sauerkraut.

The Corvette has all the requirements for being penned by a 14-year-old boy doodling during English class. Big wheels, hunkered-down stance, swept-back roof, tight fenders, short overhangs. Yes, it has a big butt, but the Vette comes darn close to being Pamela Lee wrapped up in an automotive suit. The BMW, on the other hand, looks like something drawn by a kid from Superman's Bizarro planet. Long hood, super-wide rear fenders, bobtail hatch. People try to describe what it looks like -- Honda Civic Hatchback, Gremlin, VW Corrado, breadbox, slightly melted sugar cube -- but none of them ever call it "pretty" or "beautiful." Is it ugly? At first glance, it might seem that way. But the M Coupe has a strange way of growing on you. Especially after you get to drive it.

Getting into the BMW isn't exactly an easy chore, though for different reasons than the Vette. The Corvette requires an ungraceful butt-first plop to get in; the BMW is more of a hurtle-like maneuver to get past the small doors and the seat's side bolstering. Once settled, our staff was divided into two groups about how they liked habitation. The smaller/skinnier people seemed to enjoy the race-like seats and the close-quartered cabin. The taller/bigger folk felt the BMW was a bit too confining. Everyone did agree that the BMW's materials and overall interior design were considerably better than the Corvette's. There's some hard plastic here, but the well-placed controls and nice touches (like the chrome-bezel gauges) more than make up for it.

Twisting the key brings the BMW's 3.2-liter inline six engine to life. Its style and personality are considerably different than the Vette's V8. While the V8 is all about displacement, roughhouse, and more displacement, the BMW's engine is technology and mechanical perfection. Backing it up is a sweet and rhythmic engine note. So push the fabulous shifter into first gear, turn off the traction control, and nail it. The M Coupe spits off the line like an angry hornet. Because of the short gearing and rev-happy nature of the engine, redline comes quickly. Grab second, and the BMW is off snarling once again. But possibly by second gear, and certainly third, there seems to be something missing. It's fast, this BMW, but it's . . . not that fast.

The lack of velocity is the key to this comparison test. The Corvette sees the M Coupe's 240 horsepower, and then it raises it by another 105 horsepower. That's like taking the inline six and then adding on the power from a complete Honda Civic DX engine. Torque is the same way. Here, the Corvette has 114 foot-pounds more torque than the BMW. Given the size of the two cars, one would think that the BMW's power deficit would be balanced out by lighter weight. But one would think wrong. That vault-like German engineering takes its toll, and the M Coupe is actually less than 100 pounds lighter than the Vette.

So our little (but not necessarily light) yellow hellion did its best to make up the horsepower deficit with its driving dynamics. On the racetrack, twirling the BMW's wheel was a joy. Like you've heard every other automotive publication say a gazillion times, the steering is incredibly light, responsive and precise. But, hey, it's true. In fact, out of all the subjective categories (engine performance, build quality, and so forth) that we ranked, the BMW's steering earned the highest marks. The M Coupe's brakes and suspension are also quite impressive. The BMW was slightly better than the Corvette in both tested 60-to-zero mph braking distances and in overall pedal feel and modulation. While the suspension certainly keeps the M Coupe stuck to the road, a surprising number of comments were made about how the BMW felt twitchy when it encountered corners, speed and bumps all at the same time. This is most likely due to the short wheelbase and rear suspension design that is not as sophisticated as the outgoing BMW E36 M3.

On the road, the M Coupe is much more amicable. Indicative of its gearing, the BMW's cruising rpm (3,000 in fifth gear at 70 mph) is twice as high as the Corvette's. But the higher rpm are never an annoyance, and acceleration is simply a throttle-prod away. Lane changes are also nearly instantaneous. Being good drivers, the Edmunds.com team always signals before changing lanes, and the BMW's turn stalk -- as well as the rest of the switchgear -- is solid and well-placed. (Well, almost all of it. Some of our staffers whined about the window switches being on the console instead of on the door. The radio controls aren't crystal clear, either.) For day or weekend trips, the M Coupe's rear cargo area is just about a perfect size. There's also a good selection of storage spaces up front in the cabin. There are, however, no cupholders. Is this an oversight by BMW, or is it on purpose? Should pure driver's cars even have cupholders?

OK, time's up. What's our pick? Well, let's see. The BMW is slower. It doesn't handle as good at the limit. It bounces around more over broken pavement. Oh, and it doesn't have any cupholders. Good God, it's a massacre, right? Well, not quite.

The Corvette retains its heavyweight champion status, as it should. For the money, you can't get anything that is as fast or has so many features. But the Corvette is ultimately down on one important item. Think of the BMW as James Brown's "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose." It's spontaneous. It's "Hip!" and "Haw!" and "Heeyyy!" The BMW talks to you, involves you. It's soul, in fact. Rock 'n' roll? Yes, the Vette's all about that. But soul? That'd be locked up by the BMW.

If Chevrolet's Corvette suddenly decided to enter the WWF (and given the current wrestling soap-opera scripts, don't discount the possibility), it would probably get a name like, "The Dominator." Or, "The Hammer." Maybe even, "Stone Cold Vette," if it were so lucky.

When it comes to all-around American muscle, it doesn't get any better than the Corvette. About one year ago, the C5 Corvette went up against a slew of other high-priced machines in Edmunds.com's Sports Car Comparison test. Thanks to its relatively low price and near-equal performance, it ended up with the title belt.

To locate a new contender to go up against our heavyweight champion, our staff held a rigorous screening procedure. (Lunch at Arby's. Contenders' names were scribbled on a napkin.) In the end, the list held one name: BMW M Coupe. Why? It's the Corvette's closest competitor when function, price and performance are considered. Mopar fans will lament the non-existence of a Viper. Yes, the Viper is America's top performance vehicle, but it's too expensive and specialized to operate in the real world (which is why it lost to the Vette in our Sports Car Test). And how about Ford's SVT Mustang Cobra? Mmm, close, but it's too pedestrian to go a full 15 rounds in the ring against the Vette. Our particular Nassau Blue test car was a Corvette hardtop. All hardtops come with a fixed roof, a standard Z51 suspension package, a 3.42 limited-slip rear axle, a six-speed manual transmission, and Goodyear Eagle F1 Extended Mobility tires. Optional equipment on our car consisted of Chevy's Active Handling system and a Bose audio system with a CD player.

This being a performance-oriented test, it's important to have the goodies. And that the Vette does. "Abs of Steel." "Buns of Steel." Richard Simmons' "Sweatin' to the Oldies 3." The Vette has got them all on DVD. Power comes from a 5.7-liter V8. Max horsepower is 345 at 5,600 rpm, and torque is rated at 350 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm. One might be inclined to think the old-school pushrod technology would be a recipe for lackluster top-end power. But that's not the case. The LS1 engine (a version of which is also found in the Camaro and Firebird) has fresh and healthy legs anywhere on the revband.

Our staff simply loved the tractable power. The Corvette is as happy to doodle around town as it is to race the Enterprise to Warp 8. Lapping the racetrack, some of our drivers found they could leave the Vette in third gear, thanks to the broad torque band. The BMW, with its short gearing and higher-strung engine, required constant shifting between second, third, and possibly fourth gears.

The Corvette has six total gears, as opposed to the BMW's five. The top two gears on the Corvette are really only useful for freeway use. With either gear engaged, the engine loafs around like a teenager without a summer job. At 70 mph in sixth, it's turning just 1,500 rpm. While this is good for fuel economy, a drop to fourth gear is required for solid passing power on the freeway. The transmission continues to have the first-to-fourth "skip shift" (also in the name of fuel economy), but it's only mildly intrusive here.

Equipped with the performance-oriented Z51 suspension package and 275/45ZR-17 (front) and 275/40ZR-18 (rear) tires, the Corvette drew high marks for its high grip and stability. You'll never confuse the Vette or the M Coupe for a road pillow, but both cars ride acceptably on the street. Aided by its wide track and long wheelbase, the Chevy always felt solid and in control.

The Active Handling feature was also useful. This comprehensive system operates in harmony with Corvette's antilock-brake and traction-control systems to selectively apply any of the four brakes to help the driver counteract and diffuse potentially dangerous handling situations, such as severe oversteer or understeer. Its presence is unnoticed on the street unless exquisitely boneheaded moves are performed. On the track, our more-skilled drivers had to turn the system off to gain maximum performance. The Active Handling system also has a "Competition Mode," in which only traction control is turned off, but Active Handling and antilock braking are still fully active. The Corvette's brakes do a great job of consistently hauling down the car from speed. The overall feel of the brakes wasn't as good as the BMW's, but the actual objective performance numbers were quite similar.

There's no getting around the fact that the Corvette is a big car. Thanks to its smaller physical size and more-accurate steering, the BMW was easier to position on the racetrack. And on tight canyon roads, the Vette's width was even more noticeable. For the most part though, Chevrolet has done a good job of making it seem smaller than it is. The view from the windshield is both functional and exciting, with a sloping hood and pumped-up fenders. The hardtop configuration does hurt rearward visibility, however. The thick C-pillars create much bigger blind spots than a Corvette Coupe would have. The hardtop also seems to hamper the ease in which items can be placed into the cargo area. And while we're on the hardtop-bashing bandwagon, our staff also prefers the look of the Corvette Coupe to the hardtop. So tell us again why Chevrolet brought out the hardtop version?

Fortunately, all Corvettes are the same on the inside. The interior is simply one of General Motors' best designs. It's not horribly exciting, nor are the interior materials up to the BMW's level. But it all works well. The radio controls are big and easy to understand, as are the climate controls. For your tush, the Vette has seats that are both comfortable and supportive. There's also the dash-mounted Driver Information Center, which can be used to display a variety of digital gauge displays or warnings. Want to know how many miles to the gallon you're getting in real-time -- while you've got it floored in first gear? Find out here.

Basically, it boils down to this: For sheer grunt and numbers, the Vette puts the BMW in a headlock and gives it a big noogie. And for the rest of stuff that BMWs are renowned for -- interior perfection, quality and road feel -- the Vette comes close enough. The bell has rung, and the Corvette remains champion for another year. After all, they don't call it The Dominator for nothin'.

It was obvious somewhere around turn four on the first lap at The Streets of Willow racetrack. The magic of Pontiac's Firebird lies not in the car's technical advancements, subtle exhaust note or clean body lines... because the car possesses none of those attributes! In fact, if you could take the quintessential 15-year-old punk kid, with all the smart-ass attitude and unrefined social skills common to that species, and transform him into an automobile, you would have the Firebird Formula WS6. Powerful enough to be dangerous yet far too immature to utilize its abilities in a responsible manner, our Pewter Metallic Firebird was undeniably the most faithful representation of a true muscle car in this test.

Enhancing our Pontiac's upstart attitude was the 1LE autocross Package. This option group adds a performance suspension with larger stabilizer bars, stiffer front and rear springs and beefier control arms, while deleting such "wussy" items as power windows, power locks, power mirrors, a power antenna and a CD player. Checking the 1LE option also requires that you buy option MN6 (a six-speed manual transmission) and the aforementioned WS6 option group (a functional Ram Air induction system, P275/40ZR-17 tires and a low-restriction dual exhaust).

Of all the Firebird's muscle-bound hardware, it was the low-restriction exhaust system that most impressed our test drivers. "Sounds Cool! Excellent burble," and "A wonderful exhaust note" were typical comments relating to the 'Bird's aural abilities, giving it the edge in pure sound over the Supercharged Ford SVT Lightning, pricier Corvette, and even its near-twin F-body, the Camaro SS.

It didn't hurt that those exhaust burbles were emanating from a 320-horsepower, 5.7-liter LS1 V8. Despite this engine's lack of technology (it's a two-valve-per-cylinder pushrod V8) the Firebird stomped all comers from zero to 60, except for the lighter, LS1-equipped Corvette. Its 5.5-second time stole the Supercharged Lightning's thunder, beating it by seven-tenths of a second. The Firebird's slight acceleration advantage over the Camaro SS -- which was sporting an identical drivetrain -- had us wondering if it was the lack of power options and subsequent lower curb weight that put the Pontiac ahead.

As with the exhaust note, engine performance earned the Firebird rave reviews. Logbook entries included: "Great torque, especially in the midrange," and "Grunt can be found from 1,000 rpm to redline," and "A perfect evolution of the muscle-car powerplant." If horsepower, torque and exhaust note were the only factors in this test, the Firebird likely would have won.

But even a muscle car has to perform the occasional real world, daily-driving duty, and it's under these conditions where the Firebird felt more like its "screaming chicken" nemesis. The six-speed transmission, for instance, was a joy to manipulate at the track where the engine's full power band could be exploited. Short-shift it on public roads, however, and you're instantly reminded of GM's inane first-to-fourth "skip-shift" feature that is supposed to save fuel and our environment. Lame! Then there's the autocross suspension that kept the Firebird planted on Willow's rolling pavement but crashed over the smallest of road surface irregularities in the canyons above Los Angeles.

Braking performance was another area of concern, with one tester reporting a serious fade problem during his track time. For the most part our Firebird's power brakes were easy to modulate, offering progressive pedal feel. The Pontiac averaged 131.4 feet when braking from 60 to zero, which was slightly better than the Lightning and not bad for a vehicle of its size and weight. Still, when pushed into maximum braking situations or while braking hard on a rough surface, the ABS would clatter loudly. As uninspiring as these noises were, they paled in comparison to the Lightning's braking problems, giving the Firebird a solid win in this category.

Where the Firebird lost to the Lightning was in the car's overall design and build quality. Interior pieces like a thin steering wheel, rubbery shift knob, busy cruise control/wiper/turn-signal stalk, and high-gloss plastic with exposed screw heads never let you forget that this is a GM product. (This particular car had a driver's-side window glass molding that refused to stay clipped to the door.) We'd also like to see Pontiac lose the gray radio and climate-control knobs they've been using for too long, despite whatever brand identity these pieces may represent. While they're at it, how about some closer gap tolerances between interior panels and a power outlet that doesn't interfere with the emergency brake handle?

Passenger and cargo accommodations did little to improve the Firebird's status among testers. Everyone agreed that its low driver's seating position, fat C-pillar and wide body proportions made parking lot maneuvers a challenge. Front seat comfort, despite a lack of power adjustments, was acceptable. Rear seats, as is typical for the GM F-body cars, were difficult to access and even more difficult to occupy for full-sized adults. Only the Lightning's complete lack of a rear seat gave the Firebird an advantage here.

The advantage went right back to Ford when analyzing cargo capacity. Everything from a high luggage lift-over to a senseless rear-seat fold-down system had us grumbling about loading the Firebird up for a weekend getaway. The deep well in the Firebird's rear cargo area was great for keeping items stationary during high-G activity, but the overall cargo space -- plus a stubborn rear hatch that was difficult to close -- convinced us we'd be better off to just throw things in the Lightning's exposed bed and pray for clear skies (which, in Southern California, usually works).

While the Firebird's interior design appeared to lack passion and function, the exterior gets credit for both making a strong statement and creating additional horsepower. Whether or not you like the Firebird's appearance is purely a matter of choice, though one tester accurately described the car as "having its genitalia hangin' right out there for everyone to see!" Gonad placement aside, we like that the Pontiac's radical hood actually works to get cool, outside air into the engine for increased power. Is there a more effective method of paying homage to the muscle-car era? What? Did somebody say supercharger?

It's easy to find things to nit-pick about the Firebird. Why does GM still use a separate key for door locks and ignition? Why does the body flex so much over large bumps? When will they make the next "Smoky and the Bandit" movie? If you're the type of person who breaks a car down to its most basic elements (like we do during our 25-point evaluation), you'll find plenty to gripe about -- making the Firebird an easy target and a tough sell. If, however, you simply get in it and drive, occasionally steering it with the throttle and keeping the radio turned off so you can clearly hear the exhaust note, its magic will infect you like a certain young boy in a famous Stephen King novel, blinding you to any and all faults the car may have.

Just remember to call a priest if the odometer starts rolling backward and you have an undeniable urge to buy a CB radio.

Or is it the muscle car that thinks it's a truck? A few minutes behind the wheel of Ford's latest Lightning will have you convinced of one thing: It performs like no truck has a right to.

Those crazy guys at Ford's Special Vehicle Team thought it would be cute to stick an Eaton supercharger on a 5.4-liter Triton truck block and throw the whole thing in an F-150 FlareSide pickup. What they've created is the most performance-intensive cargo-hauler ever to roll out of a Ford dealership. With a healthy 360 horsepower and hefty 440 foot-pounds of torque, the Lightning boasts a 40 percent increase in power over a standard-issue 5.4-liter equipped F-150.

Horsepower wasn't the only thing on SVT's agenda when it created the new Lightning. A set of 18 x 9.5-inch wheels and 295/45R-18 tires complement a performance suspension that utilizes front and rear antiroll bars, staggered rear shocks, upgraded front shocks, and a lowered ride height. Additional hardware modifications include a 9.75-inch rear axle, four-wheel vented disc brakes, an oil cooler and an auxiliary transmission cooler.

Inside, a host of luxury items differentiate the Lightning from regular F-150s. A black-and-gray high-back bench seat, covered in supple cloth with leather inserts and power adjustments, is the most obvious SVT upgrade. Another welcome sight are the impressive white-faced gauges, including a boost gauge to tell you just how much atmosphere is being forced into the combustion chamber. Premium sound components are standard in every Lightning, and our test vehicle was equipped with the optional six-disc CD changer.

Exterior appearance items, like an aggressive front grille and large fog lights, immediately identify this truck as something special. There's also some lower body cladding and a mean-looking set of exhaust pipes poking out of the passenger side, just ahead of the rear tire. It all adds up to a clean, comprehensive look that sends a clear performance message without hitting you over the head (unlike the Firebird).

But the question remains: Is it a true muscle car? In the strictest sense, no. It can't be a muscle car when it's not a car at all. However, if you forget about that one minor detail and look at the performance numbers, you'll see that the Lightning scored a 6.2-second zero-to-60 time, well within muscle-car territory. It also managed to stop in 132.3 feet from 60 mph, less than a foot behind the Firebird and damn good for a 4,700-pound vehicle! A skidpad figure of 0.83g proves that those 18-inch Goodyear Eagles are doing their job, putting the big Ford on almost equal footing with the Pontiac's 0.84g's.

What these figures don't tell, however, is what the truck feels like when circumventing a racetrack like The Streets of Willow. Probably its most amazing trait is the instantaneous forward thrust that occurs when hitting the throttle. There's almost no supercharger lag from low speeds, and at medium to high speeds -- with the supercharger at full song -- the Lighting simply, well, bolts when you press on the throttle. This made for tricky corner exits when the combination of immediate power, lightened rear end and slight body roll would combine to spin the inside-rear tire during hard-throttle runs.

These same traits were ideal for highway passing maneuvers, however. The supercharger's wide power band simply launched the truck around slow-moving traffic and left more than one California driver staring in disbelief. Our test drivers were equally impressed, with all of them noting the powerful engine, responsive transmission, and audible supercharger whine. One of our testers felt the amount of engine and exhaust noise, especially at highway speeds, might get old during a road trip, but no one tired of the sound during our week-long test period. Comments like, "Loud but good, because it's supercharged," and "Wow! Superpower punch!" made it apparent that forced induction has real appeal.

Handling and ride quality was similarly impressive. At the track, the Lightning managed to stay upright, with minimal roll around Willow's tight course, including the right-left transitions that could have easily made the tall, heavy Lightning sway like a nervous child. Quick turn-in and a willingness to hold a line had our more brazen editors flinging the Lightning through apexes like they were Kenny Brown in one of his race-prepped Mustangs. Steering feedback was on the light side, and more than one editor noted too much power-assist, but overall the Ford scored solid points for handling. "Probably the best road feel I've experienced in a truck," noted our managing editor, and everyone agreed that it did amazingly well, especially "for a truck."

About the only performance aspect that didn't meet or surpass our expectations was the Lightning's behavior under maximum braking. As mentioned earlier, the actual distance required to stop the truck from 60 mph was impressively short. However, the behavior of the brake pedal when pressing hard on it was less than comforting. In addition to a massive amount of vibration, the pedal actually sank toward the floor. This sinking continued the entire time ABS was engaged and while it never completely ran out of travel, it seemed awfully close to the floor by the time the truck had stopped during our 60-to-zero brake tests. We're not sure what would have happened in a panic stop that began at 80 or 90 mph, but we're glad we never found out. This was the one obvious flaw in an otherwise stellar track performance from the Lightning.

Real-world driving was equally rewarding, with the Lightning showing up the Firebird in most areas. On smaller bumps that would have sent the Firebird jarring up and down, the Lightning's longer suspension travel would simply swallow them whole, sending only a minor undulation through to the driver. On bigger bumps, the Ford's truck nature would show through in a semi-violent rocking motion, especially from the rear of the vehicle. High-speed stability only added to the confidence in using the supercharger's wide torque band for passing maneuvers. On long sweepers such as highway entrance/exit ramps, the truck's reduced body roll made for confident and seamless merging.

If the SVT Lightning just performed well and looked cool, it would still be worth the price of admission. The bonus is its attractive and functional interior that, like the truck's road performance, takes the Lightning to a whole new level. The supportive and supple bench seat, the powerful and clean stereo sound, the thick steering wheel with easy-to-reach cruise-control buttons -- this is where the Lightning douses the Firebird. It also doesn't bode well for the Firebird that, even with the Lightning's higher price tag, the truck still won our value equation because of its long list of features like power windows, 18-inch wheels, a CD player and a power seat with lumbar support.

Improvements we'd like to see include a dead pedal for a place to plant your left foot when performance driving, automatic locks that unlock when you put the truck in park, an illuminated windshield wiper stalk, and larger storage compartment areas. The biggest fix, however, would be to offer this exact SVT package on an extended-cab pickup. Every driver noted the lack of a rear seat and indicated his disappointment that one isn't available. With Ford selling only a few thousand SVT Lightnings a year, they probably aren't worried too much about widening the truck's market appeal. But there are going to be thousands of family men who wish they could justify one of these vehicles, but they can't because of the limitations of its three-passenger cab.

In our final points tally, the Lightning beat the Firebird in three out of four categories to take the overall win. Only on a pure performance basis does the Firebird win, and with the exception of zero-to-60 acceleration, it wins by a very small margin. It was this level of performance that had so many testers claiming the Lightning kicked butt . . . "for a truck."

However, the final score indicates that the Lightning just plain kicks butt.

Pontiac's Grand Prix GTP has all the credentials of a modern, front-drive muscle car: sporty looks, a supercharged 240-horsepower V6, and a wide stance atop a set of 16-inch rubber. As the closest descendant Pontiac has to its legendary GTO, is seemed a worthy opponent to pit against another modern-day interpretation of storied performance nameplate -- the Chrysler 300M. But would this sport sedan with the breathed-upon engine prove too playful for the bigger, more luxurious Mopar? The results may surprise you.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise about the Pontiac was its abundance of power. Thanks to the 3.8-liter's supercharger, the GTP offered 280 foot-pounds of pull at just 3200 rpm, with a torque band that's both flat and broad. Consequently, the Grand Prix sprinted from zero to 60 more than a full second faster than the 300M, showing off its athletic prowess.

But there's a lot more to measuring performance than just acceleration numbers. And our testers soon discovered that while this car is fun to drive in a straight line with the throttle mashed, it proved more a one-trick pony than a performance workhorse.

Driving hard on the twisting track and two-lane canyon roads revealed the GTP's suspension is tuned more toward point-and-shoot maneuvers in traffic than for attacking the twisties. The ride felt way too wallowy, making the car difficult to handle in mid-corner bumps, especially with its somewhat vague steering feel. One driver said, "I feel like a mariner at the mercy of the sea" about the car's bouncy suspension, while another compared the feeling of flooring the car on undulating surfaces to "a tiger learning to walk." Still another editor insisted that there was too much body roll on both the track and road, and that the steering felt too disconnected.

Weight management was an issue with the GTP and we noticed an excessive amount of dive and squat during acceleration and braking tests. The Grand Prix's Goodyear P225/60R-16 tires screeched constantly on the racetrack but quietly performed well in less-intense road-driving situations. On the plus side, its automatic transmission was flexible, with responsive downshifts and positive upshifts, but some staffers thought the addition of an "automanual" gearbox like the Chrysler's would increase the Pontiac's fun-to-drive quotient.

On the outside, the GTP plays the part of a muscle car much better than the 300M does, but our editors had differing opinions about the Pontiac's looks. One driver tagged it as "one of the best-looking sedans on the market," while another lamented its bulbous rear-end. Others found the styling to be subtle and sporty without going over the top and called its front beak "purposeful." Yet one labeled it a "cheesy wannabe," and still another said the add-on bodyside panels made the car look fat -- not to be confused with phat -- and that the door-edge guard moldings looked out of place, like a scar on skin.

What most could agree upon was that the GTP has a functional interior, both ergonomically sound and well-laid out. The stereo buttons are thoughtfully mounted above the climate controls, and the popular Head Up Display (HUD) neatly reflected our cruising speed and radio stations on the windshield to help us keep our eyes on the road. We appreciated the soft-touch door panels, steering-wheel-mounted controls, conveniently placed cupholders, fair amount of storage cubbies, and excellent visibility.

What we didn't like inside was the tacky look and feel of some materials, the difficult-to-use HVAC system, an irritating equalizer that is nearly impossible to fine tune, the cluttered secondary stalk, and cramped rear-seat legroom. We were also turned off by some poor build quality, which left gaps in panels so large that you could see the wiring behind them, and a glove box door that was not attached straight. The front cupholders proved much too shallow for a water bottle, which tumbled out during the first hard corner we took, but we were pleased with the generous amount of trunk space and the ski pass-through in the rear seat.

Stylistically, the GTP's cabin design reminded us of a bad '80s-era computer-game flashback complete with arcade-style gauges, even though we did enjoy the function of the fuel computer. But all the plastic-and-vinyl pieces left the cockpit looking more like a toy than a serious performance machine.

Overall, our staff felt the Grand Prix needs more refinement -- both on the inside and underneath in the chassis-tuning department. Sure, it's easy to like the GTP's strong pull of power, but the problem is it's hard to use much of that power when driving in the twisties reveals an overly harsh suspension. It's true this model offers some cool gadgets, but it lacks an air of class that's found inside the 300M.

We were impressed with the load of equipment the GTP offers for $26K, but we're confused as to why Pontiac would ruin a potentially good thing with its less-than-sporting suspension, brakes and steering. And if they want the Grand Prix to be taken seriously, why all the colored plastic buttons and digital readouts instead of analog and a splash of leather and chrome? As the closest thing to Pontiac's historic GTO -- the original muscle car, to many purists -- the GTP needs a dose of real performance hardware to carry the brand's heritage. As it is, the GTP concentrates too much on boy-racer doodads to be of major enthusiast consequence.

Both the Grand Prix GTP and Chrysler's 300M are competing in the luxury sport-sedan bracket, but they have quite opposing personalities. We think two very different kinds of people would buy each of these cars. If a front-drive four-door with some hard-charging grunt satisfies your need for speed, and you happen to like GM's brand of techno-wizardry, then the GTP's for you. If, on the other hand, you appreciate a little luxury in your life and want your roomy sedan to deliver a mix of high-revving gusto and agile handling, choose the 300M. For our money, the 300M packs its muscle in a more enjoyable package.

After the 1999 Chrysler 300M finished mid-pack in our eight-car Near-Luxury Sedan Comparison Test earlier this year, we came away more impressed with the car's sporting credentials than with its luxury amenities. "This ain't no four-door sports car," we reported, "it's a four-door hot rod!" So it was a natural choice to bring it back to go up against the powerful Pontiac Grand Prix GTP in this month's shootout of muscular American front-drivers.

But this time around, instead of having to match up with seven competitors, the 300M needed only to go head-to-head with Pontiac's street bully, the GTP. And despite revealing a slightly different set of strengths and weaknesses, the 300M emerged the more balanced of the two, thanks mainly to its competent chassis.

Both on the track and in the canyons, the 300M's suspension exhibited far more composure under spirited driving. The big Chrysler kept its Michelin XGT V4 225/60R-16s solidly planted during a wide variety of track and road exercises designed to find its limits. Handling felt fluid and quick, and the ride was controlled even over mid-turn bumps and dips that conspired to upset the car's balance. Our editors also praised the 300M's precise steering, which gave drivers a sense of confidence when pushing the car aggressively around corners.

Chrysler's advertisements portray the 300M as a modern version of the classic American performance sedan, pointing to the proud and powerful heritage of the "Letter Series" Chryslers that date back to the 1950s. And as we have said before about the 300M, there's a lot about this car -- from its bulky size to its guttural engine roar -- that hearkens back to classic American iron.

But no one will mistake the way its high-revving 3.5-liter V6 puts 253 horsepower through the front wheels for the kind of low-end thrust that Hemi V8s sent to the rear wheels of early 300s. In fact, despite holding a 13-horse advantage over the GTP, the 300M can't muster enough bottom-end grunt to outpace the Pontiac in a zero-to-60 sprint. Though the Chrysler made up about half of that lost time at the top end of the quarter-mile, it still falls nearly a half-second and several mph short in a typical drag race.

Perhaps due to our test-vehicle's rental-car roots, this particular 300M was notably slow off the line and disturbingly loud inside the cabin. We couldn't get it to even match the zero-to-60 mph number we achieved with the press version we tested earlier this year. (We posted an average of 7.9 seconds, compared to our previous 7.7-second time.) Driving the supercharged Grand Prix and the 300M back-to-back really makes you notice the Chrysler's lack of off-the-line strength. The GTP makes power down low and quickly; the 300M's power builds mid-range, then flattens out when the engine tops 5,000 rpm.

The 300M comes equipped with a smooth-shifting automatic transmission controlled by the Autostick feature, which is supposed to increase the car's fun factor by allowing drivers to choose their own gears easily. The actual shifter action in our test car was loose, easily slipping from one gear to the next -- almost too easily. At the same time, the Autostick seemed ultra sensitive in this car -- just lightly tapping it by accident could cause you to shift gears inadvertently. But the brakes performed admirably, with the Chrysler not only bettering the Pontiac's 60-to-zero stopping distance by a few feet, but also offering good pedal feel and modulation.

Opinions regarding the 300M's exterior styling ran the gamut, from, "I like the aggressive front end and smooth overall shape," to, "in contrast to the GTP, the Chrysler has been whipped hard with an ugly stick." One evaluator disliked the car's high rear deck and thick rear end, yet another liked it, giving Chrysler credit for trying to be "stylish and different." But most drivers appreciated the vehicle's aerodynamic lines and elegant contours, and all made mention of the front end's retro-classic design. We all agreed that this particular 300M would look better if it wore something other than its drab, dark-green metallic paint and was fitted with Chrysler's 17-inch chrome wheels.

There was far less controversy when discussing the vehicle's interior, however. Everyone loved it. Ergonomics were well done and it was obvious that care had been taken to create a simple, yet classy design and layout. Luxury appointments like the black-on-white gauges ringed in chrome appealed to all drivers, and Chrysler's dash-mounted analog clock looked classy and sharp, though someone pointed out that Infiniti had come up with the jewel-look clock idea first. One driver even went so far as to note that "fireflies have nothing on those indiglo-lit gauges."

Where it lost some points inside was not having any rear cupholders, but we were happy to discover visor extenders, steering wheel-mounted controls, and a top-mounted outside temperature display and compass. We also appreciated the roomy rear seats, low lift-in for luggage, amazingly spacious trunk, and easy-to-see underhood service points.

While we've applauded Chrysler for doing more than just rebadging a Concorde and calling it a 300, we're not sure simply trying to remain true to the original Chrysler 300's bloodline is enough to earn it a "Car Of The Year" honor. At the same time, more than a few of our drivers reported being won over by this car during our test.

The bottom line is that all of our editors rated it above the GTP, and half of us even said if we could keep just two cars from all eight involved in this test, the 300M would be one of them. Now that's a modern muscle car that even a family can live with.

Specifications

Vehicle: 1999 Ford Mustang GT

Final Assembly:Dearborn, Mich., USA
Drivetrain:4.6-liter, SOHC 2V V8, 260hp @ 5250 rpm; 302 ft-lbs. @ 4000 rpm; 5-speed manual; RWD.
EPA rating:17 mpg City / 24 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3242
Suspension: f-MacPherson strut; r-live axle; antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS; traction control.
Tires / Wheels: P245/45ZR-17s on 17 x 8-inch wheels.

Vehicle: 1999 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 SS

Final Assembly: St. Therese, Quebec, Canada
Drivetrain: 5.7-liter LS1 pushrod V8, 320hp @ 5200 rpm, 345 ft-lbs. @ 4400; 6-speed manual; RWD.
EPA rating:19 mpg City / 28 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3439
Suspension:f-SLA; r-live axle w/torque arm, Panhard rod; antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS.
Tires / Wheels: P275/40ZR-17s on 17 x 9-inch wheels.

Vehicle: 1999 Chevrolet Corvette

Final Assembly: Bowling Green, Ky., USA
Drivetrain: 5.7-liter LS1 pushrod V8, 345hp @ 5600 rpm, 350 ft-lbs. @ 4400 rpm; 6-speed manual; RWD.
EPA rating: 18 mpg City / 28 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3174
Suspension:4-wheel independent (f-SLA; r-5-link); antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS; traction control; Active Handling.
Tires / Wheels: P245/45ZR-17 on 8.5-inch wheels front; P275/40ZR-18 on 9.5-inch wheels rear.

Vehicle: 1999 BMW M Coupe

Final Assembly:Spartanburg, S.C., USA
Drivetrain:3.2-liter, DOHC 24V inline six, 240hp @ 6000 rpm; 236 ft-lbs. @ 3800 rpm; 5-speed manual; RWD.
EPA rating:19 mpg City / 26 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3131
Suspension:4-wheel independent; antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS; traction control.
Tires / Wheels: 225/45ZR-17 on 7.5-inch wheels front; 245/40ZR-17 on 9-inch wheels rear.

Vehicle: 1999 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning

Final Assembly: Oakville, (Toronto) Ontario, Canada
Drivetrain:5.4-liter, 2V SOHC supercharged V8, 360hp @ 4750 rpm, 440 ft-lbs. @ 3000 rpm; 4-speed automatic; RWD.
EPA rating: 13 mpg City / 17 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 4670
Suspension: f-A-arm; r-live axle, w/antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS.
Tires / Wheels: P295/45ZR-18s on 18 x 9.5-inch wheels.

Vehicle: 1999 Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6

Final Assembly:St. Therese, Quebec, Canada
Drivetrain:5.7-liter LS1 pushrod V8, 320hp @ 5200 rpm, 345 ft-lbs. @ 4400 rpm; 6-speed manual; RWD.
EPA rating: 19 mpg City / 28 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3341
Suspension:f-SLA; r-live axle w/torque arm, Panhard bar; antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS.

Vehicle: 1999 Chrysler 300M

Final Assembly: Bramalea, Ontario, Canada
Drivetrain: 3.5-liter, SOHC 24V V6, 253hp @ 6400 rpm, 255 ft-lbs. @ 3950 rpm; 4-speed automatic; FWD.
EPA rating: 18 mpg City / 27 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3567
Suspension: f-MacPherson strut; r-Chapman strut & links; antiroll bars, four-wheel disc brakes, ABS.
Tires / Wheels: P225/60VR-16s on 16 x 7.0-inch aluminum wheels.

Vehicle: 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP

Final Assembly:Kansas City, Kan., USA
Drivetrain:3.8-liter, supercharged V6, 240hp @ 5200 rpm, 280 ft-lbs. @ 3200 rpm; 4-speed automatic; FWD.
EPA rating: 18 mpg City / 28 mpg Highway
Curb Weight: 3414
Suspension: f-MacPherson strut; r-independent tri-link; antiroll bars; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS.
Tires / Wheels:P255/60R-16s on 16 x 6.5-inch wheels.

Ratings

Vehicle Make, Model 0-60 MPH 1/4-Mile Time @ Trap Speed 60-0 MPH Braking 200-FT. Skidpad g’s Edmunds.com Evaluation Rating / Possible Points Average Score
Ford Mustang GT Coupe 5.8 seconds 14.3@101.5 mph 127.9 feet 0.85 g 1398 / 2000 174.75
Chevrolet Camaro Z28 SS Coupe 5.6 seconds 14.0@103.9 mph 132.0 feet 0.86 g 1338 / 2000 167.25
Chevrolet Corvette Hardtop 5.3 seconds 13.3@109.4 mph 123.5 feet 0.87 g 1566 / 2000 195.75
BMW M Coupe 5.7 seconds 14.2@100.4 mph 118.5 feet 0.86 g 1497 / 2000 187.12
Ford SVT F-150 Lightning pickup 6.2 seconds 14.4@101.1 mph 132.3 feet 0.83 g 1593 / 2000 199.12
Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6 Coupe 5.5 seconds 13.9@107.6 mph 131.4 feet 0.84 g 1422 / 2000 177.75
Chrysler 300M Sedan 7.9 seconds 15.8@ 88.1 mph 135.0 feet 0.79 g 1568 / 2000 196.00
Pontiac Grand Prix GTP Sedan 6.8 seconds 15.4@ 94.6 mph 138.7 feet 0.77 g 1376 / 2000 172.00
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