Welcome to the greatest muscle car era

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If you've ever lusted after a 1960's or '70's muscle car, but missed the chance to buy when these now-classics were new, don't fret. Today's modern muscle cars are better in every way.

You can argue styling pros and cons to the end of time. But from a pure driving dynamic, safety, and fuel economy perspectives, the new muscle positively trounces the originals. (Read: "2011 Ford Mustang V6 vs 1970 Mustang Boss 302: Who's the real boss?")

Looking to capture some of that America muscle this summer? Here's a run down of what's available now for V8 singing, roll-down-the-windows cruising:

Chevrolet Camaro

I had the chance to sample a Hot Wheels Special Edition Camaro recently; it was a bigger-than-life time capsule. With a large collection little metal cars and a bright orange track, Hot Wheels were a huge part of my childhood. So, I was jazzed to see that this one actually came complete with red outline-striped wheels. The various flaming "Hot Wheels" badges were a bit much, but what stuck with me the most was the sound. The righteous exhaust note thrilled me every time I backed off the pipes in a lower gear. It's almost as if there are exhaust experts toiling away at GM whose only job is to make small-block V8s sing. They are maestros worthy of Grammy awards.

For more power-hungry bowtie fans, there's also the Camaro ZL1. It's even beefier than the SS version-steering, shifter, and especially the clutch are much stiffer and heavier. But what a sound! The exhaust baffle is enough for me to forget and/or forgive how big it is or the unreadable gauges. With a 580-hp, 6.2-liter supercharged V8 and active suspension, the ZL1 is the highest-performance factory Camaro ever.

Tamer 323-hp V6 models are also available, ranging from $24,245 to $56,550. And, of course, convertibles are offered across the range.

For 2014, the Camaro is treated to styling upgrades and the return of the legendary Z/28, complete with a 500-hp small-block V8 engine dressed with "427" logos. (Check out: "500-hp 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 declares horsepower war.")

Dodge Challenger
I've had a long and well-documented love affair with this large-and-in-charge cruiser. One of the reasons it remains appealing, despite its below-average reliability, is that since it sells in fewer numbers than competing models, you don't see them every day. But this car is all throw-back: long hood, big engine, and available "Plumb Crazy" (purple) paint.

Selling points include a surprisingly roomy interior, lovely-sounding V8, a satisfying pistol-grip shifter for the manual transmission, and a fairly comfortable highway ride. But a light-on-its-feet sports car? Not a chance. In fact, looking at the performance figures, most other muscle machines can run away from our R/T. The steroid monster Challenger SRT8 (470 hp), however, is another story.

Pricing: $25,995-$44,995. No drop-top for open-air fans, however.

And for those who'd like to stay within the Mopar family but need four doors, there's the Dodge Charger-ranging from the mild 292-hp V6 SE model to the wild 470-hp SRT8. And further along the whole "practicality" road is the full-bore Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, with all of its 470 hp seducing you into convincing your significant other that this is a "sensible family vehicle."

Ford Mustang
It was, indeed, a sad day when the last limited-edition Boss 302 exited the production line. For me, it was absolutely the best Mustang I've ever driven and impossible to forget. CR's last tested GT wowed us with its superb balance of performance and day-to-day livability. The 2014 version ushers in the 50th consecutive year of Mustang production-Ford says more than 8.5 million have been built-but the basic formula remains: rear-wheel drive, wonderful V8 power, and an available manual transmission. New features include a mild exterior freshening, a few new colors, and "new cleaner, easier-to-read instrument cluster graphics," according to Ford.

The good news is the renowned Shelby nameplate still lives on. Power-hungry fans of the modern GT500 get a 5.8-liter supercharged V8 producing 662 hp. This engine, says the company, is the most powerful production V8 in the world. I love the big, bold stripes, and available glass roof and Recaro seats. And while I've driven a number of Shelby models in the past (great sounding and wicked powerful), none have captured my enthusiasm more than the lighter and more nimble Boss. Much of that magic is still available with a GT fitted with the GT Track Package.

As far as what one of these modern pony cars would do to your bank account, the least expensive Mustang is the V6 coupe ($22,995) and skyrockets up to the chart-topping Shelby GT500 convertible ($60,595).

Camaro SS Mustang GT Challenger R/T
Tested engine 6.2-liter V8 426 hp 5.0-liter V8, 402 hp ** 5.7-liter V8, 375 hp
0-60 mph, sec. 5.1 5.1 5.1
1/4 mile, sec. @ mph 13.6@108 mph 13.7@107 mph 14.9@97 mph
60-0 mph braking dry, ft. 129 129 129
Cruising range, mi. 340 345 365
Curb weight, lbs. 3,900 3,720 4,195
Price, nicely equipped $43,425* $41,415 $38,460
* = Hot Wheels edition ** = now makes 420 hp

All three muscle cars are vast improvements over their storied predecessors offer better performance, safety, amenities, and even fuel economy. Any one of them can deliver nostalgia in a bold package, certain to transform a routine drive into an adventure.

—Mike Quincy

More from Consumer Reports:
2013 New Car Preview
Best and worst used cars
Complete Ratings for 200 cars and trucks

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