Crucial Cars: Toyota MR2

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we put the spotlight on Toyota’s feisty sports car, the MR2.

Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-seater. For you trivia buffs, that’s how Toyota came up with the name of its sports car that debuted in the mid-1980s. Encompassing three generations before bowing out 20 years later, the MR2 endeared itself to thousands of driving enthusiasts.

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The dancing doorstop

The first-generation MR2 debuted for the 1985 model year. Petite, low to the ground and weighing just around 2,300 pounds, the athletic little runabout quickly became the poster car for affordable sports-car thrills. For good reason, car magazines such as Road & Track and Car and Driver raved about the MR2. A 1.6-liter, DOHC 16-valve inline four making 112 horsepower sat behind the cockpit and ran through either a slick-shifting five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic. The buff books called the manual one of the best in the world due to its satisfying, toggle-switch-like action. The engine’s smooth, high-revving nature also made it a blast to run through the gears, and with such little mass to push around it provided sprightly acceleration. As such, 0-60 mph sprints in the 8.5 second range and quarter-mile runs of around 16.5 seconds were possible and very quick for a car powered by a 1.6-liter four.

The MR2 saw a mid-cycle refresh for 1987, with the more notable changes including a slight bump in engine output (to 115 hp), bigger brakes, restyled front bumper/taillights, a T-bar roof option (with removable glass panels) and a sportier three-spoke steering wheel.

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For 1988, those wanting more gusto saw their wish granted in the form of the MR2 Supercharged, which boasted a force-fed 1.6-liter four making a stated 145 hp. The actual output was likely considerably higher, as performance testing had the little rocket hitting 60 mph in less than seven seconds and running the quarter in the low-15-second range. The following year would see only minor changes, such as an LED-strip-style third brake light, more aerodynamic mirrors, and for the Supercharged version, a rear anti-roll bar.

The baby Ferrari follows

After taking 1990 off, the MR2 returned for the 1991 model year completely redesigned. Looking a lot like a 3/4-scale Ferrari 348 minus the cheese-grater side intakes, it boasted not only exotic car looks but increased power, comfort, and performance. It also gained around 300 pounds in curb weight, though most viewed that as a small price to pay given the aforementioned upgrades.

With its 2.2-liter, DOC four making a willing 130 hp, the base MR2 was respectably quick, as it could hit 60 and run the quarter mile a few tenths quicker than its predecessor. As before, the athletic MR2 was more about providing backroads entertainment than it was about straight line thrills. Transmission choices were the same as before. Yet those with more of a need for speed had only to choose the top dog in the lineup, which was now turbocharged rather than supercharged. With its force-fed 2.0-liter four making a robust 200 horses, the new MR2 Turbo could rocket to 60 in just around six seconds flat and rip through the quarter in the mid-14-second range.

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Addressing concerns about the car’s propensity toward snap oversteer when pushed to its cornering limits, Toyota made a number of suspension changes as well as the fitment of 15-inch tires (versus the former 14s) for 1993 to make the car more forgiving of non-expert pilots. That year also saw more standard features for the Turbo (including T-tops, air conditioning and cruise control), as well as a newly optional limited-slip differential for that line-topping model.

For 1994, base versions got five more horses (for a total of 135), while all versions got a revised taillight panel (with a color-keyed center insert). Other update highlights included a one-piece (versus the previous three-piece) rear spoiler and revised power steering that provided more assist at low speeds and less at higher speeds. The following year, this MR2’s last in the U.S. market, saw no changes of note.

Along came a Spyder

After a four-year hiatus, the MR2 returned to the U.S. This third (and last) generation took a somewhat retro tack, as it morphed into a more traditionally styled, soft-top sports car. Toyota emphasized this new theme by adding “Spyder” (basically Italian for convertible sports car) to its name. Aimed squarely at Mazda’s ridiculously popular Miata, the latest MR2 traded its formerly sexy curves for a somewhat blocky body “accented” by oversize headlights and taillights. To say it lost some “eyeball” would be understating things. And there was no longer a pumped-up supercharged or turbocharged version.

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Still, there was plenty to like here. Although the sole engine choice was a 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four, it featured variable valve timing and cranked out a respectable 138 hp. A five-speed manual gearbox was the only transmission initially offered. Notably, the Spyder was very light, boasting a curb weight of just around 2,200 pounds, which translated into peppy acceleration (0-60 in around seven seconds flat). A longer wheelbase than before gave both a smoother ride over broken pavement along with greater stability when pushed hard on a twisty road. Finally, the MR2 Spyder offered a lot of bang for the buck, and with a price tag of around $24,000, it not only was a blast to drive but came nicely equipped with air conditioning, full power features and sharp alloy wheels. City dwellers or those who just didn’t like clutch pedals could, in 2002, choose the newly optional five-speed, automated clutch manual gearbox. The following year saw that transmission upgraded to six-speeds, slightly restyled front/rear fascias, revised seats and recalibrated suspension components.

For 2004, the MR2 Spyder received an optional Torsen limited-slip differential, a stronger structure (for better crash protection), and, to the chagrin of most enthusiasts, a one-inch taller ride height. To celebrate 2005, the last year for the MR2 Spyder in the U.S., Toyota added a six-disc CD changer to the standard equipment list.

With its two-decade run and massive popularity among driving enthusiasts looking for a fun, dependable, and low-running-cost ride, the Toyota MR2 is hard to beat. A few web sites catering to MR2 fans include MR2 World and International MR2 Owners Club.

Did you own a Toyota MR2? Tell us about it in the comments.

Crucial Cars: Buick Grand National

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we put the spotlight on Buick’s iconic ’80s muscle car, the Grand National.

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The year 1982 marked the slow rebirth of American performance cars. The “malaise” era, which ran roughly from 1975 through 1981 and marked a dark time when engines continually lost power, was finally ending. Thanks to new technologies, such as computerized fuel injection and ignition timing, engines could run more cleanly and efficiently while making more power than before.

Performance started its return to American car showrooms as Ford crowed “The Boss is Back” in advertisements for the ’82 Mustang GT with its “high output” 5-liter V8. General Motors was at the party, too, as Chevy and Pontiac rolled out leaner, sharper handling versions of the Camaro and Firebird, while Buick quietly brought out the Grand National.

Right about now, some of you might be thinking we’ve got the introductory year of Buick’s bruiser wrong. We can see it now: “Did you skip your morning coffee, guys? The Grand National came out in 1984, not 1982.” But serious Buick buffs may know that the Grand National debuted when “We Got the Beat” and “Eye of the Tiger” were burning up the Top 40 charts. And that the Grand National wore, for that one year, a silver/gray paint scheme.

Started out in silver

Something of a spiritual successor to Buick’s Skylark Gran Sport of the ’60s and ’70s, that first Grand National was similarly based on Buick’s midsize Regal personal luxury coupe. A 4.1-liter V6 with just 125 horsepower was the standard mill, with Buick’s turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 as an option. The turbo six made a respectable 175 hp—keep in mind these were the times that 5.0-liter V8s were making on the order of 150-165 horses.

Inspired by Buick’s success in NASCAR racing, the Grand National drew its name from the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National race series. A number of tweaks set it apart from your aunt’s vinyl roof-topped, bench-seated Regal. The Grand National featured a sharp charcoal gray/silver two-tone paint scheme with large “Buick” decals on its rear quarters, along with turbine-style alloy wheels. Inside were bucket seats, a console and a sporty metal-spoked, leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Given that there were only 215 Grand Nationals made that first year, one might be forgiven for not knowing this car ever existed.

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Skipping a year

For 1983, the Grand National took the year off. So did the Chevy Corvette, but that’s a story for another time. Meanwhile, the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird saw their performance variants getting stronger. Although those smaller, “pony car” segment cars aren’t direct rivals to the Grand National, it’s important to note that performance was now steadily on the rise for these American cars.

What was a direct rival came from Chevrolet, as it chose this year to debut its Monte Carlo SS. A cousin to Buick’s Regal (and Oldsmobile’s midsize Cutlass), it was built on the same platform, but rather than offering a turbo V6, the Monte SS sported a high-output 5.0-liter (305-cubic-inch) V8 making 180 horsepower.

Back in black

Returning to the Buick lineup for 1984, the Grand National took on a decidedly more sinister visage. Available only in black, with color-keyed bumpers and grille insert to further the menacing vibe, the Grand National also featured cool turbo V6 emblems on the body and inside the car.

Under the skin, the 3.8-liter turbo V6 was standard, and now fortified with sequential fuel injection and computer-controlled ignition, made 200 hp along with a healthy 300 lb-ft of torque. Running through its standard four-speed automatic (the only transmission available) and able to dash to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and run down the quarter-mile in the high-15s, the Grand National backed up its tough looks with serious-for-the time street cred. The 1985 Grand National was essentially a repeat of 1984.

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Gotta be cool now

Things got more serious for 1986, as the Grand National received a major increase in performance. The turbo V6 saw the fitment of an intercooler, which as the name suggested cooled the air going into the engine. Cooler air is denser than warmer air, which helps to create more power. Bottom line? A walloping output of 235 hp and 330 lb-ft.

It all made for a blacked-out personal luxury coupe that, in terms of straight-line gusto, could show its tail lights to the mighty Corvette, let alone those pesky Mustang GTs, Z28s, Trans Ams, Monte Carlo SSs, and Olds 442s. You want numbers? The ’86 Grand National could blast to 60 mph in the high 5-second range and unreel the quarter-mile in the low- to mid-14s.

Sadly, 1987 would be the last year for the Grand National (as GM prepared to launch its completely redesigned, front-wheel-drive midsizers for ’88), but it wasn’t going out quietly. Instead, Buick boosted the Grand National’s firepower to 245 hp and 355 lb-ft. Performance numbers were stunning, as car mags of the day got sub-5-second 0-60s with their quarter-mile times ranging from high-13s to low-14s.

It takes a keen eye to discern the minor visual differences between an ’86 and an ’87, as the latter has a completely blacked-out grille (no chrome mustache) with thicker vertical bars inside it.

As for that not “going out quietly” statement, the limited production (just 547 produced) Buick GNX was the Grand National taken to a higher level. Built in concert with McLaren Performance Technologies and ASC, the GNX boasted an upgraded turbocharger with a ceramic impeller and bigger intercooler, along with a less restrictive exhaust system, reprogrammed engine controller, beefed-up transmission, and reworked rear suspension.

Somehow, the GNX managed to look even more menacing than a standard Grand National, fitted with 16-inch wheels with black mesh centers, front fender vents and the deletion of the Grand National’s various emblems from the body sides and hood bulge. Unique interior treatment was part of the deal, too, as the dash featured round gauges and a serial number plaque on the dash, indicating which production number of the 547 GNXs your car was.

The GNX’s more powerful 3.8-liter turbo V6 made (a very conservatively rated) 276 hp and 360 lb-ft. Performance was unbelievable — this Buick was one of the quickest cars in the world with a 0-to-60 time of around 4.6 seconds and the ability to obliterate the quarter-mile in about 13.3 seconds. Put another way, the GNX could spank most anything on four wheels apart from the top dogs from the kennels of Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Indeed, the Grand National could not have gone out with a bigger “bang.”

Do you have fond memories of a Grand National? Share them in the comments.

Never Been to an Auto Auction? Here’s Why You’re Missing Out.

With high-stakes competitiveness and quick action, auto auctions are the most fun you can have outside your vehicle. They can be a unique way to score an incredible deal on a used car, and they’re a lot more local than you might think. Read on as we cover how to find a great ride for an even greater price.

The Local Scene

Depending on your location, there may be towing and government vehicle auctions nearby. Towing impound auctions are where seized vehicles are sold off to recoup costs. Government auto auctions are typically used vehicles that have aged out of their service life after serving your local city or county. They often sell with no reserve, so those who can do a little bit of tune-up work and don’t mind cosmetic imperfections can score a huge discount.

Almost all local auction vehicles are running and able to pass emissions or safety inspections.

The variety of vehicles covers pretty much everything made in the last 30 years, with the average age being roughly 10 to 15 years old. Conditions are all over the place, from the pristine and needs no work to the well-worn vehicle needing attention, and everything in between. Most vehicles have some slight wear and tear from the daily grind, and could stand a tune-up.

Local Auction Tips

  1. To get started, visit your local classifieds online and look in the automotive and auction sections. You should see a few auctions for the coming week, usually with website addresses listed. The websites are useful for getting a look at the vehicles before the auction. Most of them offer one picture per vehicle, but others offer more and go into detail on features and condition. If you find one you’re interested in, check the value to see what it’s worth. You should be getting a deal here, so do the research to make sure you don’t overpay.
  2. On the day of the auction, show up early. Sometimes the early bird gets free doughnuts and coffee.
  3. Oh, and you will want to survey the vehicles. Like buying any used car, carefully examine the vehicle for issues, and ask questions if staff is available. Every auction will start the vehicles before bidding begins so buyers can hear how they sound.
  4. Don’t worry about sneezing and accidentally purchasing a Ferrari. This isn’t a sitcom, and the auctioneers are used to first timers. You’ll need to be obvious with your intent to bid.
  5. Finally, have cash and a plan. Almost every site requires cash or card payment same day and the vehicle removed within 24 hours. Be ready to win.

Large International Auctions

Local car auctions are great if you’re looking for a daily driver but not so great for finding a weekend show car or special project. For a higher-end vehicle, you need to visit a more upscale auction. Barrett-Jackson is internationally known for selling beautiful machines of staggering variety, covering the entire breadth of automotive production. Past events have included a million-dollar Duesenberg, the General Lee, and a sixth-generation COPO Camaro with VIN 001. There’s even wild custom cars, like the Ringbrothers’ 1972 Pantera, and this insane GMC V12-powered roadster.

By now you’ve noticed that looking through sold lots on the Barrett-Jackson website is an amazing way to kill time at work. It’s also great in-person. These auctions operate similar to your local auctions, but on a much larger scale. Tickets are reasonably priced for the hours of eye candy you’ll get to ogle, and if you’re still looking for that cheap daily driver, Barrett-Jackson has you covered there, too.

Upcoming auctions include Arizona, Florida, Connecticut, and Nevada. Check out the event page to see schedules and get tickets. If you want to view the action from your couch, Barrett-Jackson auctions are internationally broadcast on Discovery or Velocity, depending on locale.

Maybe you’ll stumble upon a moment like this:

Have you ever bought an auction vehicle or hit up Barrett-Jackson? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Crucial Cars: Mazda RX-7, Part Two

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, Street Talk continues to shine the spotlight on a sports car with a strong, well-deserved fan base – the Mazda RX-7.

Back in the fall of 1978 when Mazda’s RX-7 sports car debuted (for the ‘79 model year), new wave music began shoving disco aside on radio, Space Invaders had kids shoving each other aside in video game centers, and Japanese cars accounted for about half of all new car sales in the U.S.

With its rotary engine and lightweight and agile chassis, the RX-7 was as big a hit with driving enthusiasts as those video games were with teenagers. We’ve already covered the first two generations of the Mazda RX-7, so now with Part Two of this retrospective, we pick up where we left off.

Crucial Cars 1993 Mazda RX-7

1993 Mazda RX-7

Sleek, Sophisticated, and Speedy

Unveiled for the 1993 model year, the third generation of the Mazda RX-7 was a leap forward in sophistication. With its low, flowing body stretched out over the wheels, the organic form of the newest rotary rocket was a study in how form following function can yield something bordering on motorized sculpture. Mazda had the goal of making the car lighter and more powerful, and it was emphatically met. At about 2,800 pounds, the new Mazda RX-7 weighed over 200 pounds less than a comparably-equipped previous-generation RX-7. And the rotary engine, still measuring just 1.3 liters—but now sporting twin turbochargers—spun out 255 eager horsepower.

This RX-7 was initially offered in three trim levels: the well-equipped base, the luxury-themed Touring, and the hard-core performance R1. For most folks, the base or leather-lined Touring version was ideal, while the stiffly-sprung R1 (and its successor, the R2) was geared towards track-day enthusiasts willing to put up with a harsh ride in exchange for maximum handling performance. In any event, the cockpit was all business, if a little tight for larger folks.

The numbers generated by the third-gen RX-7 were nothing short of stunning. With the ability to hit 60 mph in the low-five-second range and rip down the quarter mile in about 14 seconds flat, this Mazda was as speedy as a Ferrari 348. Yet true to its heritage, the RX-7 really came into its own on a twisty road, where its lightweight, superb balance, athletic chassis and communicative steering made it a blast.

Available in the States for just three model years (1993 through 1995), due to the car’s ever increasing price (the result of a strong yen and weak dollar) and resultant decreasing demand, the third-gen RX-7 nonetheless made a big impact on enthusiasts, as well as Mazda’s history book.

The numbers generated by the third-gen RX-7 were nothing short of stunning, with the ability to hit 60 mph in the low-five-second range and rip down the quarter mile in about 14 seconds flat.

Mazda’s Rotary Car Takes a Different Road

After a nearly 10-year hiatus in the states, Mazda’s rotary-powered sports car returned for 2004 with a slightly different name and slightly different mission. Now called the RX-8, the latest version of Mazda’s flagship performance car dropped the turbochargers, gained a functional back seat and emerged as a considerably more practical, if less elegant, sports car choice.

Crucial Cars 2004 Mazda RX-8

2004 Mazda RX-8

With its higher roofline and bigger cabin, the RX-8 lost much of its former visual pizzazz. But the benefit of its bulkier physique was a much larger interior that allowed a pair of adult-rated seats in the back. Accessed by a pair of reverse-opening rear doors, that rear compartment could comfortably carry a pair of six-footers, an unheard of feat in a genuine sports car.

The complex twin-turbo rotary engine of the previous generation gave way to a redesigned, simpler, naturally-aspirated rotary dubbed “Renesis”. It made a solid 238 hp when matched to the six-speed manual gearbox, and 197 hp when running through the available four-speed automatic. The tach’s redline was marked at an impressive 9,000 rpm.

Although it expectedly gained weight compared to the RX-7, the RX-8 at around 3,030 pounds was still respectably light, especially for a genuine four-seater. Naturally, its acceleration wasn’t quite as thrilling as before. But with a 6.6-second 60 mph time and a 15.1 second quarter-mile performance, it was still swift enough to induce grins, especially once the tach’s needle swung past 5,000 rpm.

Available through 2011, the mostly unchanged RX-8 enjoyed a long run that spanned eight model years. And make no mistake, even with its ability to transport four full-size adults, Mazda’s rotary-powered sports machine was still plenty of fun to drive as it retained the loveable, light-on-its-feet and connected to the driver personality it had since day one.

Mazda RX-7 enthusiasts looking for advice, upcoming events, and classifieds should check out rx7club.comas well as rx7.org.

Our Favorite American Muscle Cars of Each Decade

The fireworks may be shooting off this weekend in celebration of our nation’s birthday, but it always sounds like the 4th of July to us when we hear the rumble and exhaust of a 650 hp V8 engine. What better way to honor the holiday than to pay homage to the beasts on four wheels that have come out of Michigan, Kentucky, and Ohio over the years.

American muscle cars have evolved throughout the decades as technology improved and styling cues shifted, but they have always stayed true to their powerhouse DNA. The result is a legacy of over 60 years that has made for one heck of a ride. Read on to find out which muscle cars we picked as our favorites from each decade.

The “First” Muscle Car: 1940s

1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 | Photo via Barrett-Jackson

After the first American-made car appeared in 1893, plenty of other high-revving vehicles began popping up on our roads (think early race cars and gangster getaway cars). But it wasn’t until Oldsmobile’s 1949 Rocket 88 that the first true American muscle car arrived. Designed with a revolutionary overhead valve concept V8 engine, the Rocket 88 output 135 horsepower and 283 lb·ft torque on a light and nimble chassis, boasting more power and better fuel economy than its peers.

The Rocket dominated NASCAR that year and into the early ’50s, taking on the moniker, “King of NASCAR,” and paving the way for all muscle cars to come.

 The “Fabulous” Muscle Cars: 1950s

1955 Chevy Classic V8

1955 Chevy Bel Air V8

The muscle cars of the fabulous ’50s were all about pastel colors, whitewall tires, front bench seats, and convertible roof options. But make no mistake, these pioneer muscle cars had plenty of power under their long hoods. Thanks to a post-war boom in automotive sales, car manufacturers began loading up the horsepower and stretching cars’ limits. The most notable muscle car of this decade was the 1955 Chevy Classic V8.

The ’55 Chevy’s success came from it’s small-block 265 cu V8 engine, which was so reliable that it would become the foundation of Chevrolet’s muscle cars for the decades to come. Able to hit 195 horsepower, the ’55 Chevy found a place in the garages of millions of auto enthusiasts, accounting for nearly 23% of all car sales that year. This was the car that turned us onto muscle cars. And we’ve never looked back.

Runners-Up:

  • 1956 Mercury Montclair
    The Montclair featured a 260 hp V8 engine that put out plenty of power and had the 1950s classic look.
  • 1958 Packard Hawk
    Long wing panels, a hood scoop, and a supercharged 275 hp engine makes this Hawk a true ’50s muscle car.
  • 1959 Chrysler 300E
    Maybe ahead of its time, the 300E fell flat on sales, but has now become a rare gem among collectors. The 300E could belt out 380 horsepower—incredible for its time!

The ’55 Chevy found a place in the garages of millions of auto enthusiasts, accounting for nearly 23% of all car sales that year.

The Pony Cars: 1960s

1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429

1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429

The Ford Mustang hit the market in 1964, ushering in the era of pony cars—powerful compact cars—and creating a wave of competition that unleashed many of the muscle cars that we’ve come to love. It was the golden age for auto enthusiasts.

The Mustang looked fiercest with fastback rear-end styling, made famous in 1968’s action film Bullit. The “Boss 9” Mustang takes home the prize as our favorite Mustang with its hood scoop and 429 cu, 375 hp V8 engine. Ford has played around with different Mustang bodies and styles throughout the years, but a recurring theme is that they always wind up going back to this generation of Mustangs for inspiration. A true testament to the original pony car.

Runners-Up:

  • 1968 Dodge Charger R/T
    A true muscle car if there ever was one. The second-generation Charger was introduced for 1968 and ran through 1970, and gained fame via the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1969 Charger) and the first Fast and Furious movie (1970 Charger).
  • 1969 Plymouth Road Runner 426 Hemi
    The working man or woman’s muscle car. It didn’t have the flashy looks or steep price tag, but its engine was pure Hemi power.
  • 1969 Chevy Nova SS
    Quick and balanced. The Nova was ahead of its time in weight distribution during a period when muscle cars were getting longer and heavier. The Nova proved bigger isn’t always better.

End of the Golden Age: 1970s

1970 Dodge Challenger T/A

1970 Dodge Challenger T/A

At the turn of the decade, muscle cars weren’t just becoming more powerful, they were downright menacing on the streets. Dodge launched the Challenger in 1970, a late addition to the party, but it epitomized the golden era of muscle cars with its balance of a big, bold design and high-performing engine and suspension. The 1970s Dodge Challenger R/T came to fame as the getaway car in 1971’s film Vanishing Point; however, its 440 c.i. V8 engine, which unleashed 375 hp (considered a conservative rating), was the real show stealer.

Things were getting good when the global oil crisis and stricter emission laws forced car manufacturers to abruptly abandon large gas-hungry engines and turn their focus on developing more economical cars. The Challenger’s production halted in 1974, along with many other muscle cars of the golden era.

Runners-Up:

  • 1970 Chevrolet LS6 Chevelle
    At 450 hp and 500 lb·ft torque, it was the king of the streets. It’s cousin, the Camaro, went on to achieve greater success, but the Chevelle will always be a legend in its own right.
  • 1970 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda
    The first Barracuda came to market two weeks before the Mustang—it just could never surpass its junior competitor in sales and was stopped in 1974, never to return. This lost muscle car is still talked about by auto enthusiasts to this day.
  • 1971 AMC Javelin AMX
    The Javelin AMX didn’t have the biggest engine block, but it could hold its own thanks to its race-inspired design (its racing model won the 1971 and 1972 Trans Am Series championships). It was also the first pony car to be used by law enforcement agencies for highway patrol.

Diamonds in the Rough: 1980s

1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

The ’80s were not kind to domestic car manufacturers. Detroit’s technology hadn’t caught up fast enough to deal with the new emission and safety laws, allowing European and Asian manufacturers to outperform most American cars in the market. Thankfully there were a few diamonds in the rough: muscle cars engineered by teams who adapted to the times, allowing US cars to go neck and neck with the sporty BMWs and Nissans that were hitting the streets.

The 1985 Camaro IROC-Z was one of these cars. With stunningly sleek good looks, race-tuned handling and suspension, and a five-liter tuned port injection V8 engine rated at 215 hp, the Camaro proved that American muscle cars were able to incorporate new technology and market demands while still retaining their historic roots.

Runners-Up:

  • 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
    Redesigned for 1982, the Firebird Trans Am became an icon of the “sexy” ’80s culture with its low, sleek lines, pop-up headlights and blacked-out taillights. It also starred as KITT in Knight Rider.
  • 1987 Buick Regal GNX
    What was lost in the early ’70s was found in the late ’80s with the Regal GNX. Brute power that could beat Porches and Ferraris on the strip. Its boxy looks on the other hand, couldn’t quite match up.
  • 1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS
    This street-legal version of NASCAR’s famed model was a success among racing fans. Its aero-influenced styling tweaks and “High Output” (for the time), 305 c.i. 180-hp V8, made it feel like it was always race day.

Back To Muscle: 1990s

1996 Dodge Viper GTS Coupe

1996 Dodge Viper GTS Coupe

American muscle cars regained some pep to their step in the ’90s, going back to the ’60s playbook in style and power but with the added bonus of engineering advancements. The Dodge Viper debuted in 1992 and instantly became the muscle car. Featuring an aluminum 8L V10 engine that output 400 hp and 465 lb·ft torque, this lightweight roadster could withstand 1 lateral g-force on turns.

The Viper’s most endearing factor, however, was its simplicity. There was no traction control or anti-lock brakes—the early models didn’t even feature airbags or air conditioning. The driver was connected with the car, without any electronics or modern aids to interfere, and it made for a pureness that only early muscle cars could match. Novice drivers were often bit by the Viper on high speeds, but those who could charm the snake were in for an exhilarating ride.

Dodge released the second generation Viper in 1996, offering a GTS Coupe model with a “double bubble” roof that made the car famous. This Viper had 50 more horsepower and a few concessions including airbags, air conditioning, and even power windows.

There was no traction control or anti-lock brakes—the early models didn’t even feature airbags or air conditioning.

Runners-Up:

  • 1992 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
    This was the car that got our hearts racing, and not always in the good way. With a 4.6L V8 engine that output 210 hp, this rear-wheel drive sedan could catch speeding cars faster than you could say, “Miranda Rights.”
  • 1991 Chevrolet Camaro 5.7 V8 Z28
    While import cars were still lapping most domestics, the Camaro held true in the ’90s and reminded the world that American muscle cars could go with the best of them. This ’91 model rewards the Camaro with a second listing.
  • 1996 Ford Mustang Cobra
    Sporting a 32-valve, DOHC V8 making 305 horsepower, the 1996 Cobra signaled a new sophistication and performance level for Ford’s iconic pony car.

Millennial Refinement: 2000s

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

Like we could forget the Vette. Launched in 1953 from Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Chevrolet Corvette has been a legendary American muscle car throughout the decades. From its sleek and sophisticated Stingray styling to its powerful and balanced V8 engine, the Vette is the definition of the cool muscle car. In 2009, it somehow became even better with the release of the ZR1.

The ZR1 was given a supercharged 6.2L V8 engine that output 638 hp and 604 lb·ft torque—the most powerful engine ever put into a sports car by GM at the time. With a top speed of 205 mph, 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds, and 0-100 mph in 7.6 seconds, the ZR1 could chop contemporary Porsche 911 Turbo and Ferrari F430 imports on any given day. Our favorite feature on this Vette was the clear carbon-fiber hood panel that gave onlookers a glimpse of the beastly engine inside.

The 2000s refined American muscle cars, adding a layer of technological sophistication. The end products were things of beauty.

Runners-Up:

  • 2007 Dodge Charger SRT-8 Super Bee
    Dodge rediscovered its muscle roots in the 2000s, bringing back famed muscle cars such as the Charger and Super Bee. Built as a Charger but modified as a limited-edition Super Bee version, this blast from the past output 425 hp from its V8 Hemi engine.
  • 2005 Ford GT
    What started as a concept car based off Ford’s 1960s GT40 race cars, became a reality in 2005. This mid-engine, retro-inspired supercar put out blazing fast speeds.
  • 2002 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am WS-6
    Making our list a second time, the Firebird Trans Am was at the peak of its powers by this time, its last year of production. Able to hit 60 mph in about 5 seconds flat and run the quarter-mile in the mid-13s, this bird could certainly fly.

Modern Technology Meets Raw Power: 2010s

2016 Cadillac CTS-V

2016 Cadillac CTS-V

Like the 2000s, this current generation of muscle cars has benefited from evolving automotive technology. Instead of fighting a losing battle against emission standards circa the ’70s and ’80s, engineers now battle against each other on making the most powerful yet efficient engine. This age of technology has produced supercars that have broken every track record on the books.

And so, for this decade’s American muscle car, we’ve chosen a brand that used to be associated with quiet sophistication rather than high-octane performance. The 2016 Cadillac CTS-V may come from the makers of the DeVille, the steady sedan for well-to-do professionals for generations, but the 640 hp engine under the CTS-V’s hood is anything but retirement-age friendly. The CTS models have become progressively faster each year since introduced in 2002—as if the engineers were trying to sneak the horsepower numbers by the bosses—until finally, the 2009–2016 CTS-V generation appeared, muscles flexing.

The ’16 CTS-V sprints to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and reaches a top speed of 200 mph. The Eaton-supercharged 6.2L V8 engine outputs 630 lb·ft torque on top of the 640 hp. Built with track days in mind, Brembo brakes, race-tuned suspension, carbon fiber hood and panels, and a quad exhaust make the CTS-V a force to be reckoned with. It may not have the spartan and reckless qualities of earlier muscle cars, but the numbers don’t lie. This is a muscle car that will roar down the highway, it just so happens to come in a luxurious package.

Not since the ’60s and ’70s have we seen so many rumbling, high-throttle cars in a single decade. Best of all, many of them are faster versions of models from our favorite bygone era. We can’t wait to see what the 2020s will bring.

Built with track days in mind, Brembo brakes, race-tuned suspension, carbon fiber hood and panels, and a quad exhaust make the CTS-V a force to be reckoned with.

Runners-Up:

  • 2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
    707 horsepower. Need we say more? This monster has the most horsepower available on a production car to date thanks to its 6.2L V8 Hemi engine. The Challenger SRT Hellcat looks, sounds, and drives mean.
  • 2015 EQUUS BASS770
    If you took the best qualities from each of the ’60s pony cars and built them into one car, you’d get the EQUUS BASS770. Handcrafted by American engineers, this vehicle pays homage to that golden era while adding a supercharged V8 engine to make sure it can giddy-up with the modern-day guys.
  • 2016 Corvette Z06
    Like the Mustang, Camaro, Charger, and Challenger, the Vette deserves a second listing. The ’16 Z06 outputs 650 hp and can run 0-60 mph in only 2.95 seconds. We don’t take it lightly when saying this model is their best looking yet.

Tell us, do you agree with our choices? Which favorite muscle car did we miss? For more muscle car fun, take this short quiz to find out which decade of American muscle cars best fits your style!

Eight Facts You Didn’t Know About the Ford F-150

You can’t drive down a road in America without spotting at least a handful of Ford F-150 trucks. No surprise, really; the F-150 has been our country’s best-selling truck for years (keep reading to find out how many Ford has sold). You’re all pretty familiar with these trucks, so tell us, did you know these facts about the F-150?

1948 Ford F1

1948 Ford F1

1) The great-great-grandfather to the F-150 was the Ford F-1 which debuted for 1948. It quickly became a favorite of farmers and small business owners. Despite its name, it never participated in a Formula 1 race.

2) The F-150 moniker itself debuted for the 1975 model year, as the name for Ford’s half-ton pickup which slotted between the lighter-duty F-100 and the heavier-duty F250. Massive popularity soon ensued.

3) How massive? So much so that the Ford F-Series has been not only the best-selling pickup for nearly 40 years running, but the best-selling vehicle for the last 34 years. It has consistently outsold such hugely popular rides as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

4) The F-Series trucks are so popular that their total production comes in at a whopping 35 million trucks. Ford sells an F-Series truck every minute of every day and sold closer to a truck and a half per minute in 2015.

1976 Ford F-150 Ranger

1976 Ford F-150 Ranger

5) Long before it became the model name for its compact pickup truck introduced in the early ’80s, Ford used the “Ranger” label in the ’60s and ’70s to denote an upscale trim level of the F-Series.

2003_Ford_F-150_Harley-Davidson

2003 Ford F-150 Harley-Davidson

6) Truck and motorcycle enthusiasts had a moment of zen when Ford offered a Harley-Davidson edition of the F-150 at various times through the late-1990s and into the 2000s. It sported plenty of black leather and shiny chrome trim in tribute to the iconic American motorcycle. High-rise handlebars and loud exhaust pipes, however, were not on the options list.

2001 Ford F-150 Lightning

2001 Ford F-150 Lightning

7) Do you remember the Ford F-150 Lightning? It’s hard to forget it. Initially available from 1993 through 1995 with a 240-hp, 5.8-liter V8, the Lightning came thundering back for 1999 after a three year hiatus sporting a supercharged 5.4-liter V8. Produced through 2004, that Ford muscle truck could sprint to 60 mph in as quick as 5.2 seconds.

8) 2016 F-150 marks the 68th year of the iconic truck. Keep ’em coming, Ford.

Crucial Cars: Toyota Corolla AE86

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we put the spotlight on an iconic, rear-drive compact sport coupe – the Toyota Corolla AE86.

For the most part, the Toyota Corolla has long been known as a well-built, very reliable compact car, if not the most exciting thing on four wheels. When friends and relatives of ours are looking for an economical and practical used car that promises many years of trouble-free performance, the Corolla is typically on our short list of recommendations. But although most folks think of a staid four-door sedan when “Corolla” is mentioned, look closely at its family tree and you’ll see that there was a handsome jock or two in the family.

1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S Coupe

1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S Coupe

“Go” to match the “show”

It was 1984, kids accompanied by boomboxes were popping and locking in the streets, the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles, and Apple introduced the Macintosh computer. Oh, and Toyota created a hot-rod Corolla.

Although the Corolla coupe had been offered in “SR5” guise, a trim level highlighted by its then-notable 5-speed (rather than 4-speed) manual transmission, since the mid-’70s, a truly athletic version of Toyota’s bread and butter compact had yet to be offered. But that changed big time around midway through 1984 when, for the 1985 model year, Toyota brought out “GT-S” versions of its Corolla coupe and hatchback. The latter pair, also available in base and SR5 trim levels, had just been redesigned for ’84 and had the internal chassis code AE86.

These handsome, new two-door Corolla models retained rear-wheel drive while the also redesigned four-door Corolla sedan went to the increasingly popular front-wheel-drive layout. Although sending the power to the front wheels provided better traction on slippery roads and opened up more interior room, most serious driving enthusiasts preferred rear-wheel drive. The reasons for that preference included better front to rear weight balance, crisper turn-in response and, provided there’s enough sauce under the hood, the ability to powerslide the car’s tail around corners.

The GT-S provided that needed firepower in the form of a free-breathing, double-overhead-cam (DOHC), 16-valve (4 valves rather than the usual 2 per cylinder) 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Although its output of 112 horsepower might seem like a joke nowadays, keep in mind this was during an era where a Camaro Z28’s 5.0-liter V8 made anywhere from 155 to 215 horses. And these Corollas were light, tipping the scales at only around 2,300 pounds. By comparison, today’s Corolla (which is only available in a sedan) weighs 2,800 pounds.

The GT-S provided firepower in the form of a free-breathing, double-overhead-cam (DOHC), 16-valve 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.

1985 Toyota Corolla SR5

1985 Toyota Corolla SR5

According to Motorweek, a GT-S hatchback’s run to 60 mph took 9.8 seconds, not exactly thrilling but respectable for the day. The sprint down the quarter mile was more impressive at 16.7 seconds, a testament to the engine’s high-revving nature. More than numbers on a spec sheet, it was the twin-cam’s smooth and eager nature, channeled through a slick-shifting 5-speed, that made more than a few drivers exuberantly blurt out expletives of joy. The GT-S’ firmed-up suspension, precise steering and crisp, predictable handling ensured that slicing through a section of twisty blacktop could similarly give cause for celebration.

Drifting away

Produced for just three model years (1985-1987), the Corolla AE86 made for a relatively small but undeniably important chapter in the book of Corolla. As the 1990s and 2000s rolled on, a small but potent wave of turbocharged, all-wheel-drive athletes crashed onto the sport compact scene. During the ’90s the Mitsubishi Eclipse and its cousin the Eagle Talon provided the thrills, while it was the Subaru Impreza WRX / WRX STi and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (“Evo”) models that boosted the pulse rates of drivers after the new millennium dawned.

Produced for just three model years (1985-1987), the Corolla AE86 made for a relatively small but undeniably important chapter in the book of Corolla.

But the AE86 would come back into the spotlight once more. As the drifting movement from Japan took hold and gained popularity, enthusiasts sought out affordable and easily modded mounts. Naturally, the durable AE86 was still available via the used car classifieds, as was another popular choice, Nissan’s 240SX.

Chapter two, 25 years later

2013 Scion FR-S

2013 Scion FR-S

The everlasting appeal of a small, light, agile, and just plain fun to drive sport coupe was not lost unto Toyota. It took a few decades, but for 2013 the spiritual successor to the AE86 made a triumphant return. In a joint venture with Subaru (who provided the horizontally-opposed four cylinder powertrain), Toyota brought the FR-S to market via its Scion division. Enthusiasts everywhere rejoiced by raising a glass of ’93 octane in its honor (or so we assume).

Right out of the box the FR-S (and its Subaru BRZ twin) was near perfect. With 200 horsepower only propelling about 2,800 pounds, the 0-to-60 sprint took less than 7 seconds. The car’s nimble nature, firm ride, strong brakes, and communicative steering were indicative of a pure sports machine.

Although the FR-S undoubtedly paid tribute to the AE86 Corolla (the badges on the front fenders have a stylized “86” between a pair of horizontally-opposed pistons), there was no denying it had been kicked up more than a few notches. Indeed, one could also say that the “Toyobaru” twins marked the welcome return of an elemental, no frills sports car.

Cool Stuff about Camaros

Photo Courtesy Chevrolet

Photo Courtesy Chevrolet

With the recent introduction of the sixth generation of Chevy’s famous muscle car, there has been a great deal of renewed interest in Camaros, a performance favorite for nearly 50 years. The car has a long, rich history filled with fascinating details.

From a last-minute name change the year it was introduced to the exciting changes in the recently introduced 2016 model, the Camaro has a rich, wild history.

Let’s take a look.

First, How Is the 2016 Version Better?

While your initial impression of the 2016 model may be indifferent from that of the outgoing model, your opinion is bound to change once you’ve entered the driver’s seat.

  • New and lighter chassis – The 2016 Camaro rides on the same platform that is used in the Cadillac ATS sedan and coupe. Using more aluminum components, the designers have trimmed about 200 lbs. compared to the last incarnation.
  • Easier to park (at least in theory) – The body is 2 inches shorter than before. The wheelbase also shrinks by about 2 inches.
  • Deep, deep seat gauges – Front and center for the driver, and a must-have in a classic muscle car. Plus, you’ll find a larger infotainment screen.
  • More gears – An 8-speed Hydra-Matic replaces the 6-speed automatic across the Camaro range, shortening 0-60 mph times, and contributing to improved fuel economy.
  • Amazing light show – If you like, choose the optional Interior Spectrum Lighting that allows you to choose from 24 colors of accent lighting on the dash, door panels, and foot-wells. There is also a mode that cycles through all the colors.
  • Turbo power – For the first time, there is a turbocharged Camaro. The entry-level model is motivated by a turbocharged 4-cylinder, which delivers 275-horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque from 3,500-4,000 rpm. This generation also represents the most powerful Camaro SS of all time, with a 455-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8, coupled to an 8-speed automatic or 6-speed manual.

If It Had Been Called “The Panther,” Would It Still Be a Favorite?

Originally the automotive press was full of stories about the new Chevrolet Panther. In fact, the Camaro was the Panther right up until the car’s debut. Chevrolet even had the molds made for the emblems.

GM (and the press) had called the new model a variety of names, including Nova, Panther, Chaparral, and Wildcat. It is also rumored that Chevy considered using the letters “GM” in the name, and came up with G-Mini, which evolved into GeMini, and finally Gemini. As the story goes, they killed that name because they didn’t want the letters “GM” to be used, in case the car was a flop.

When all was said and done, over 2,000 names were considered while the car was in development.

Chevy reps defined the name as “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs” since, of course, it was introduced to counter the success of Ford’s Mustang.

Many sources suggested the name comes from a French word meaning “friend.” Ford representatives found an alternate meaning in an old Spanish dictionary: “a small, shrimp-like creature,” and another journalist dug up a translation that meant “loose bowels.”

The Camaro’s questionable naming history was all but forgotten upon its impressive introduction on September 21, 1966. That introduction included a 30-minute movie detailing its development, a complete cutaway car replica, a women’s clothing line called the Camaro Collection, and even a Camaro road race game.

Camaro “Outpaced” Nearly All the Rest

Even though the Camaro came two-and-a-half years after the Mustang, it has a healthy lead in the Indianapolis 500. The Camaro has been the official pace car at Indy six times, versus just three for the Mustang. Only the Corvette (with twelve) has paced more 500’s than the Camaro.

Limited to Just 100…the Neiman Marcus Edition Camaro

Sold during the 2010 holiday season, the Neiman Marcus version of the Camaro convertible came with an exclusive tri-coat deep Bordeaux exterior paint with ghosted stripes. The exclusive automobile came loaded with all the performance, smart technology, and luxury you would expect, including:

  • 6.2-liter V8 engine 426-horsepower six-speed manual or 400-horsepower six-speed automatic transmission
  • 21-inch five-spoke wheels with brilliant red detailing
  • Bordeaux-hued convertible top
  • Silver painted windshield surround
  • Amber leather-appointed interior with brilliant red accents on the center console, steering wheel, and shift knob
  • Acoustics premium eight-speaker, 245-watt sound system

It sold for $75,000 and the 100 units were gone in less than three minutes.

The Camaro as Hero Starring in the Transformers Movies

A yellow version of the American muscle car, redesigned around the release of the first Transformers movie, plays the hero Bumblebee, first depicted as a 1977 Camaro and later as a fifth-generation model. Further cementing the Camaro’s place as a pop culture icon, Chevy gave director Michael Bay a new version of the fifth-gen Camaro to show off in each of the three movie sequels.

Bay has long directed the automaker’s commercials and Super Bowl spots.

After the 2007 film went on to earn nearly $710 million worldwide, GM saw interest in the Camaro skyrocket, including a 10% gain in sales for yellow Camaros. Yellow typically accounted for less than 5% of any model’s sales, prior to that first movie.

It Takes 18 Hours to Assemble a Camaro in the Plant

Or at least that’s how long it took to assemble fifth-generation Camaros in the Oshawa Assembly Plant in Ontario, Canada. The last one came off the line on November 20, 2015. When the assembly line was ramped up, it was common to see a new Camaro roll off at a pace of one per minute.

Some assembly details:

  • 734 robots handled the nearly 5,000 spot welds needed to create the body shell for each Coupe.
  • The outer body side panel was transformed through strikes by four die sets, with the initial forming press generating nearly 1,400 tons of force, and creating seven body sides per minute.
  • The Oshawa paint shop was capable of delivering 150 painted vehicles per hour.
  • The Camaro engine was produced at a different plant, then shipped approximately two hours to the assembly line.
  • That last car off the line marked the end of an era of Canadian production that stretched back to 1992. Prior to that, Camaros were built in California, Ohio, and several foreign plants.
  • The 2016 models will be built in the Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant in Michigan.

 

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Crucial Cars: Mazda RX-7

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, Street Talk puts the spotlight on a sports car with a strong, well-deserved fan base – the Mazda RX-7

 

Back in the fall of 1978, Mazda put out a rather bold print ad in the car buff magazines. It pictured Mazda’s new, rotary-engined sports car, the 1979 RX-7 sitting proudly in front of sports car icons that had debuted before. The 1947 MG TC. The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. The 1970 Datsun 240-Z. “This year, it’s the Mazda RX-7.” A brash statement, certainly. And one that time would reveal to be more than justified.

1979 MazdaRX7 ad

Those car mags — Road and Track, Motor Trend and Car and Driver — had high hopes for the car. Expectations that were met, if not exceeded, once they laid their collective driving gloves on Mazda’s light, sleek and well-rounded sports car. Those basic tenets of light weight, a free-revving rotary engine and an athletic chassis carried the RX-7 through, essentially, four generations, as the last version was dubbed the RX-8. What has also carried on is the unabashed enthusiasm the RX-7s fans have for this very unique sports car.

 

Getting it right the first time
A sleek, pointy-nosed silhouette with flip-up headlights was what one first noticed upon seeing Mazda’s new 1979 sports car, dubbed RX-7. Yet under the handsome form was the big news. For there lay a powerplant and suspension that could put an ear-to-ear grin on the Grinch, were he a road test editor. And it started at under $6,500, though by the end of that first model year the still-crazy-bargain price had crept up to around $7,000.

It may have made just 100 horsepower, but the RX-7’s tiny 1.2-liter rotary engine, when looked upon as power per liter, was a monster. However, fuel mileage was also more like a larger engine, with 17 to 19 mpg being about average. More notably, it was a delight to drive, thanks to its ultra-smooth, eagerly revving nature that, coupled with the car’s light weight of just 2,400 pounds, provided sprightly for the day acceleration. Though 0-to-60 in about 9.3 seconds and a 17 second quarter mile time aren’t exactly scorching asphalt, consider that a 1979 Camaro Z28, with its 5.7-liter V8, took about 8 seconds and 16 seconds, respectively, for the same sprints.

But the RX-7 was designed more for unwinding curvy roads than juvenile stop light drags. Yes, it may have been somewhat unsophisticated with recirculating ball (rather than rack and pinion) steering and a solid rear axle (rather than independent suspension), but no matter. With its small, light engine set behind the front axle line, the RX-7 sported ideal 50:50 front to rear weigh balance, which, coupled with the car’s low center of gravity, relatively quick steering and firm suspension provided tons of fun on one’s favorite deserted stretch of twisting blacktop.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

1981 Mazda RX-7 S

Initially available in just base S (4-speed manual, steel wheels) and up-level GS (5-speed stick, fancier interior) trim levels, the first RX-7 lasted until 1985, by which time one could also choose plush GSL and top of the line GSL-SE versions. The latter in particular, available only in ’84 and ’85, is the one that first-gen RX-7 fans lust for, as it sports a larger (1.3-liters versus 1.2), more powerful, 135-horsepower engine, four-wheel disc brakes (versus front disc/rear drum) and larger (14-inch versus 13-inch) wheels along with all the luxury features of the GSL. A GSL-SE could dash to 60 mph in just about 8 seconds and fly through the quarter mile in around 16 flat.

1984 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE

1984 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE

Growing upmarket
For 1986, Mazda brought out the second-generation RX-7. A ground-up redesign seemingly inspired by the Porsche 944, the new RX-7’s styling featured flared out fenders that closely resembled those of the German sports car. The rear, wrap-around glass hatch was now one piece, rather than three as before, lending a cleaner look, as did the smoothly integrated bumpers. Inside, the design and materials were both improved, with thicker, well-shaped seats and large instruments and controls all within a wrap-around cockpit theme.

Under the sleek hood of all RX-7s, be they the base model or fancy GXL, was a 1.3-liter rotary with 146 horsepower, a sizeable boost over the previous base engine and still more than the previous, alphabet-soup RX-7 GSL-SE. The steering was now rack and pinion, all models had four-wheel disc brakes as well as a five-speed stick standard (automatic still optional) and the suspension was more refined, being all independent.

Yet despite the more generous features list and the more sophisticated underpinnings, the new RX-7’s curb weight only increased by about 150-200 pounds (depending on trim level). As such, the new RX-7’s performance was spirited, with the old 0-to-60 and quarter mile contests being done in around 8.5- and 16.5-seconds, respectively. As before, though, this car’s real appeal lay in the way in could confidently dispatch a series of S curves and switchbacks. Drivers in the know kept the rotary humming above 5,000 as they got their kicks slicing through and powering out of the turns.

More power is always good, so for 1987, the RX-7 Turbo debuted. Force-feeding the 1.3-liter rotary pumped output up to 182 horses, good enough for 6.5-second 0-to-60 and 15.0-second quarter-mile times, very impressive for the era. The Turbo also featured larger (16-inch) wheels and tires, firmer suspension tuning and plenty of luxury features including full power accessories, a sunroof and an upgraded audio system complete with cassette deck and graphic equalizer. It was the ‘80s, after all.

1988 Mazda RX-7 Convertible (with Turbo hood)

1988 Mazda RX-7 Convertible (with Turbo hood)

For 1988, a convertible joined the lineup. Sadly, the Turbo was not offered in drop-top form but could be had in a special 10th anniversary RX-7, the latter celebrating 10 years of RX-7 production via unique color scheme with white paint, white wheels and white bodyside moldings.

A mild, mid-cycle update for 1989 brought more power for the non-turbo RX-7s, now up to 160 hp, as well as more thrust for the Turbo, now rated at a full 200 hp. The increased muscle shaved a few tenths off the acceleration times, while color-keyed bodyside moldings and new wheels dressed things up a bit. That year also saw the GTU version debut, essentially a base model with some performance enhancements such as firmer suspension and larger, alloy wheels fitted with performance tires.

1990 Mazda RX-7 (with Turbo hood and custom wheels)

1990 Mazda RX-7 (with Turbo hood and custom wheels)

The next three years, 1990 through 1992, saw little change for Mazda’s exciting two-seater, apart from the GTUs version debuting. Essentially a Turbo model minus the turbo engine, it benefitted from the top dog RX-7’s top shelf underpinnings, such as the upgraded brakes and suspension components.

After seven model years, the second generation RX-7 had run its course. Those wondering how it could be topped would be stunned with what followed for 1993.

Look for Part Two in this series coming soon.

Crucial Cars: Dodge Challenger

2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat

2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, Gearhead’s Garage puts the spotlight on Dodge’s long-time rival to the Camaro and Mustang, the Challenger
Although Plymouth had slapped a huge fastback rear window onto its pedestrian Valiant and called it a Barracuda back in ’64, Ford is credited with starting the sporty four-passenger coupe/convertible segment a few weeks later with its much more unique Mustang, hence the “pony car” nickname for this then-new segment.

By 1970, the pony car segment was in full force. The Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird came onto the scene for 1967, as did a redesigned Barracuda that broke away from its humble Valiant roots. AMC debuted its Javelin for 1968. And then Dodge finally joined the party for 1970 with its Challenger.

Big Bruiser
With its bigger size compared to its rivals (it was about four inches longer and five inches wider than a Mustang), the Challenger, available in coupe and convertible body styles, was a boulevard bruiser. Curiously, its redesigned-for-’70 Barracuda platform mate was about five inches shorter in length, making it more of a true pony car in terms of size. Still, there was no denying the appeal of the Challenger no matter how you wanted to classify it.

Mild to Wild
As with its competitors, the Dodge Challenger could be equipped with anything from a lackluster six cylinder engine to any of a number of pavement rippling V8s. Trim levels included the base Challenger, luxury-themed Challenger SE, high-performance R/T and road race track-focused T/A.

Engine choices ran the spectrum from a 225-cubic-inch slant six with just 145-horsepower and on through 318-, 340-, 383-, 426- and 440-cubic-inch V8s. Of them all, the most highly respected were the high-winding 340 4-barrel and “Six-Pack” (three two-barrel carbs), stout 440 4-barrel and Six-Pack and brutal 426 Hemi, (which boasted two four-barrel carbs). Their seriously underrated outputs stood at 275 hp, 290 hp, 375 hp, 390 hp and 425 hp, respectively.

Performance figures of the day had the Challenger T/A (which came with the 340 Six-Pack) sprinting to 60 mph in around 7.0 seconds and running the quarter mile in around 15.0, with the 440 Six Pack about a second quicker in each contest. A Hemi Challenger was king of the strip with the 0-to-60 dash done in about 5.8 seconds and the quarter mile done in the high 13s.

The following year, 1971, saw the T/A version and its 340 Six-Pack engine dropped from the lineup, but the 440 Six-Pack and the 426 Hemi were still available. This would be the last year for those big brutes. A split grille insert and separated rear taillights (versus the single unbroken strip of ’70) marked the minor styling update for that year’s Challenger.

As most muscle cars fans know, 1972 signaled the downfall of this performance era, and the Challenger was a victim as well. In addition to the convertible body style going away, so too did the big engine options, leaving just the slant six, 318 V8 and 340 V8. Furthermore, a drop in compression ratios as well as a change from SAE Gross to Net (engine running a full exhaust and accessories) ratings dropped output numbers.

Trim levels were also reduced that year to just two: the base Challenger and the sportier Rallye. As such, the hot ticket for ’72 was a Challenger Rallye with the 340 V8 and a four-speed stick. The 0-to-60 and quarter mile times for that version were still respectable at around 7.5- and 15.5-seconds, respectively. Styling changes included a much larger grille that continued below the bumper and a change to four semi-rectangular taillights.

For 1973 and 1974 (which would be this generation’s last year) the Challenger continued pretty much unchanged with the exception of a 360 cubic-inch V8 replacing the 340 for 1974 and the car receiving larger bumper guards to meet federal standards.

In Name Only
For 1978, the Challenger returned. No, actually just the name returned as that classic moniker was affixed to a Dodge-badged version of a Mitsubishi built sport coupe powered by – perish the thought — a four cylinder engine. Actually, one could choose between a 2.0-liter, 77 hp mill or a 2.6-liter 105 hp four banger. Electronic features and a plush velour interior highlighted this rival to the Toyota Celica and Datsun (Nissan) 200SX. For 1980, the big four became the standard engine while 1981 brought a more upright roofline. 1983 was the last year for this misnamed but pleasant enough small sport coupe.

The Real Challenger Returns
More than three decades after the original Challenger left the factory, its true successor returned. Specifically, 2008 saw the return of the Dodge Challenger, complete with a tribute to the 1970’s styling as well as a rip-roaring V8 engine. Though it may look very similar to a ’70-’74 Challenger, the new-age one is considerably larger. At around 4,150 pounds it tips the scales about 500 pounds heavier, and both wheelbase and overall length are around six inches greater. The positives are that the new Challenger has a lot more safety and luxury features, as well as considerably greater rear seat passenger room.

Indeed, only the ultra-high-performance “SRT8” version was available for 2008, complete with a 425-horsepower, 6.1-liter Hemi V8 engine matched to a five-speed automatic. Performance was stunning, as the Challenger SRT8 could leap to 60 in just 5.1 seconds and dismiss the quarter mile in 13.2 seconds, handily beating the legendary 426 Hemi Challenger of 1970. And unlike the old car, this one boasted fairly athletic handling around corners and could stop from 60 mph in just 115 feet.

The following year, a six-speed manual became available for the SRT8 and a base, V6-powered SE debuted, along with the return of the R/T, this time as a mid-level performance version packing a 5.7-liter, 370 hp Hemi V8.

For 2011, a new V6 engine sporting 305 hp debuted, meaning no apologies need be made for driving a “base” Challenger. Also, the SRT8 became the SRT8 392, the numbers signifying in cubic inches a larger V8 with 470 eager horses that can catapult this beast to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Upgrades in suspension, steering and brakes across the lineup make this a very good year to consider if you’re in the market for a Challenger.

Essentially Unchallenged
Apart from minor equipment shuffling and some new trim levels, the Challenger continued through 2014 mostly unchanged. But 2015 brought some really big news. New styling paid tribute to, what else, the 1971 Challenger with its split grille (on all but the Hellcat version) and separated taillights. A new interior was a leap forward in terms of style and materials quality, while an eight-speed automatic joins the six-speed manual for transmission choices.

And now, forget 500, or even 600 horsepower. With the 2015 Challenger SRT Hellcat, an incredible 707 horsepower could be had under the scooped hood of a Challenger. Performance of this road burner was simply mind bending, with the dash to 60 mph a traction-dictated 4.1 second effort (with drag radials a 3-second time would likely be cake) and the quarter mile unreeled in just 11.9 seconds, making this one of the quickest street legal cars ever offered for sale to the general public.

Join the Club
If you’re a Challenger owner or even just an enthusiast, there are a few web sites you can check out for specs, classifieds and car show information. There are the Challenger Club of America, Dodge Challenger Forumz, and West Coast Challengers, to name a few.