3 Hot Muscle Cars

DETROIT (TheStreet) -- The focus today may be on small cars and green cars and saving energy, but the muscle car niche has found new life.

Moreover, the muscle car segment had a dramatic development during 2010, when the Chevrolet Camaro passed Ford's Mustang (above) in sales for the first time since 1986. During 2010, Chevy sold 81,299 Camaros while Ford ( F) sold 73,716 Mustangs.

GM ( GM) took Camaro off the market in 2002, then brought it back in 2009.

Another classic muscle car, the Dodge Challenger, returned to the market in 2008. It sold 36,791 units in 2010.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Edmunds.com, said both classic muscle cars seem to have benefitted from their absence.

"The average muscle car buyer out there is a passionate guy," Brauer said. "It's an absence makes the heart grow fonder kind of thing. Without the option to buy a Camaro for seven years, a lot of people came streaming back into the market."

Read on for photos, updates and history on the three best-known, U.S.-made muscle cars.

Dodge Challenger

The Dodge Challenger went away for 37 years.

The first Dodge Challenger was around from 1970 to 1974, and shared components with the Plymouth Barracuda, a member of the most memorable automobile names hall of fame. (A version that existed between 1978 and 1983 is not considered a true Dodge Challenger, aficionados tell us.)

Said Brauer, "The Challenger is the least iconic of the three cars, since it was only made from 1970 to 1974 and doesn't have decades of loyalty built up."

However, Brauer said Chrysler got it right by making few changes in the early 70s car. "Trying to update it is like trying to fix the Mona Lisa," he said.

By the way, Brauer has a 1970 model, pictured above. He bought it in 2005 from the original owner for about $40,000. "It was originally a dealer demo car at Percival Dodge in Iowa," he said. "The dealer loaded it with options and the purple color to drive showroom traffic and hopefully inspire customers to load up their own cars." The original cost was $3,200 including tax in May 1971. Yes, Brauer has the original sales documents.

The car was designated as a Dodge Challenger R/T SE. R/T stood for "road and track" and included performance features, while SE stood for "special edition" and was luxury oriented. Few models were built with both trims. The features include a 440 engine (7.2-liters), air conditioning, rear defroster, hood pins, "plum crazy" paint and AM/FM radio. FM was still a rarity at the time. Brauer has put on new wheels, but says he has safely stored the original wheels.

Pictured below is a 2010 Challenger RT.

Ford Mustang

The Ford Mustang dominates the segment, if for no other reason because it is the only truly consistent entry. Introduced in 1964, It is Ford's third-oldest nameplate and is now in its fifth generation, and it created the "pony car" class of sports cars.

That's a one-of-one 2012 Ford Mustang Boss pictured above, and was auctioned off for charity last month.

Brauer called the Mustang "a fabulous car overall. It handles shockingly well," he said. "It has a solid rear axle, which Mustang fans like and which makes the car more adaptable. It feels the lightest and nimblest in terms of response when you turn the wheel. And one thing Ford has got down better than the other manufacturers is the exhaust noise. Ford has known this for years. There is a trick to making a great-sounding exhaust. "

The Shelby Mustang, below, is a high-performance Mustang.

Like other entries in the segment, the Shelby Mustang has returned to the market after a long absence -- in this case 27 years.

The 2012 Shelby GT350 was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show. Only 350 will be built. "I love the styling, the stripes, the colors," Brauer said. "It's a beautiful car." The 550-horsepower is also an attraction.

Chevy Camaro ZL

Another limited edition car introduced at the Chicago Auto Show was the 2012 Chevy Camaro ZL.

Almost 10 years in the making, the Camaro ZL1 features an estimated 550-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 (the same engine that powers the Cadillac CTS-V lineup), six-speed manual transmission and a speed that makes it the "fastest Camaro ever offered by Chevrolet," GM said in a prepared statement.

According to Automobile Magazine, "the car is also equipped with a dual-mode exhaust for a signature sound unique to the ZL1." In other words, this ride is loud.

The ZL1, which will be available in all current Camaro colors and will reportedly sell for nearly $50,000, is still undergoing testing. Additional performance details will be released later in 2011, and the car will hit dealers in early 2012.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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