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Muscle round-up: GTO, Mustang, Charger

GTO, Mustang and Charger bring back the Big-3's war of horsepower.

August 29, 2005; Posted: 10:03 a.m. EDT (1403 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I had one of those rare, truly beautiful driving moments behind the wheel of a 400-horsepower 2005 Pontiac GTO.

At the precise moment I approached a favorite twisty piece of road, a song came on the radio as if sent from heaven just for me: "Ballroom Blitz."

For those of you too young to remember -- I just became my parents -- "Ballroom Blitz," by a band called Sweet, was a hit in 1975. That was just after the last desperate breaths of the original muscle car craze. Muscle cars were done in by rising gasoline prices, they say, and by giant-sized insurance premiums.

Now they're coming back with more powerful and more efficient engines and safer, better handling cars.

No matter how improved these cars are, though, they are for experienced drivers only. In the versions talked about here, each packs at least 300 horsepower. That kind of power is not something you want in the hands of a driver who just finished with his learner's permit.

Pontiac GTO

Strong point: Power, power, more power

Weak point: Price, day-to-day drivability

Price: About $27,000

My introduction to the GTO was as a passenger with Consumer Reports test driver John Ibbotson on the magazine's test track in Connecticut.

Think those guys are all about how many grocery bags you can fit in the trunk? Let me tell you, those eggs would have been scrambled long before they got to the fridge.

The GTO can get loose and swing when you want it to, but it can also hold the line just fine when you don't. Step on the throttle and the car shoots forward in a fluid, controlled way. It's fast but not jumpy or skittish.

You can spin the tires, sure, but you have to want it. If what you really want is a no-drama express ticket to highway speeds. . . . Vroom! Off you go.

The GTO is built in Australia as a modified version of the Holden Monaro. Its interior look and feel is better than any other GM car at the price. Thanks to an engine it shares with the Chevrolet Corvette, the GTO has huge, gut-punch power and an engine sound to match.

The car really has just two major problems. One is a sticker price over easily goes over $30,000, once you include the cost of either an automatic transmission or a $1,700 gas guzzler tax, for the GTO's single trim level. No cheaper versions are available. That's steep for a car aimed at the young -- or as a midlife-crisis rescue car.

The other problem is that, particularly when equipped with a manual transmission, this car does not like to be driven slowly. Not even a little bit. The problem is a close-ratio six-speed transmission with a sloppy, widely moving shifter. It's a lot easier to get to the next gear in time if the engine is revving like mad before you try to shift.

Ignoring the normal first, second, third sequence of gears helps. A feature called "Skip shift" actually forces you to go from first gear straight to fourth in order to smooth things out under light acceleration, but it's all a pain.

As long as you keep driving like a nut, though, it's just fine.

Ford Mustang GT

Strong point: Style and performance at a bargain price

Weak point: Rock-hard, cheap interior stuff

Price: About $27,000 for the Mustang GT Premium

Of these three cars, it's the least expensive and has most personality by miles. In driving fun, it gives up nothing to the more powerful GTO. It's also a far easier car to drive and live with on a daily basis.

The latest Mustang doesn't just look like a Mustang. It feels like one, even from 20 feet away.

It feels even more like one from the driver's seat, looking at the retro-styled steering wheel and fat-numbered gauges and listening to the carefully tuned burble of the 300-horsepower V-8.

But, while it all looks great, the cheap plastics can make it seem like you're driving a giant Revell model.

Practicality isn't the point here. There's a trunk, but it's small. There are back seats and you could put a victim -- I mean a passenger -- there for a short ride.

As for fun, though, the Mustang's got plenty. Just a touch on the gas pedal and this thing wants to rip. Its solid rear axle is surprisingly supple. Overall, it offers an authentic muscle car experience that turns any trip to the store into an occasion for grins.

Since its appeal is almost entirely emotional it's hard to talk about the Mustang's value in the usual terms. This is a car that people either fall in love with or they just don't get it. Those who don't get it should check their pulse.

Dodge Charger

Selling point: A big sedan with chest-thumping power

Weak point: Big sedans just aren't as fun as smaller, lighter coupes.

Price: About $29,000 for Charger R/T

Stretching the definition of muscle car, Dodge added back doors and usable trunk space. Well, actually what they did was remold the Chrysler 300C into its bad-boy brother. But it's got the Charger name and the engine is called a Hemi.

It's a half-beat slower than the Mustang or GTO and it rolls around the corners with a bit more heft. It is, after all, a large sedan, not a coupe. Four people can get in and out of this car easily and sit in it comfortably -- five in a pinch -- and they can take all their luggage with them, too.

The interior is bland and, in places, cheap-looking and ugly. Rear visibility can be a little challenging, due to the high back fenders and cut-down rear windows.

While the Charger's thrills are bit more muted than the Mustang's or GTO's, it's the only one of these three cars that could stand alone as a family's primary rolling stock. It also offers stability control -- which neither the Mustang or GTO has -- along with side impact airbags, which the GTO lacks.

It's fun to get crazy, but there is something to be said for safety, especially when the family is along for the ride.

For more: Charger: Too nice for a mean ride?

Pictures: Modern muscle gallery

Pontiac GTO details and photos

Ford Mustang details and photos

Dodge Charger details and photos

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