They've never had much practical use for anything besides bragging rights, but they were as American as a quarter pounder with cheese. Now they ought to be listed with other endangered species like the Eastern cougar and Kemp's Ridley turtle.
I'm talking about fast high-horsepower cars. Really fast cars, like in three times the legal speed limit. The kind you loved in Smokey and the Bandit and Two-Lane Blacktop. Traditional Detroit iron.
The handwriting is on the wall for these V-8-powered monsters. Gas prices are getting scarily high, the climate is getting scarily warm, and the nanny state wants to take all our fun away. Truck owners are already making the switch. Ford is selling more F-150s with sixes than V-8s.
Any day now, you expect to hear rumblings about bringing back the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. Signed into law in 1974, the so-called "Double Nickel" was widely reviled and widely ignored before it was finally repealed in 1993. As Homer Simpson observed about the 55 mph limit: "Sure, it'll save a few lives, but millions will be late." It helped make the 1970s perhaps the worst decade ever for cars. Remember those speedometers with the big "55" that maxed out at 85 mph?
Herewith, America's fastest cars and a few sensible alternatives. R.I.P.
0 to 60: 3.3 seconds
Top speed: 205 mph
Flagship of the Corvette line, the ZR1 is powered by a supercharged V-8 that puts out 638 horsepower. Reviewing it in 2008, Jeremy Clarkson of Britain's Top Gear said "Oh, it's not built very well. After just three days in my care, the boot lock disintegrated, and the keyless go system refused to acknowledge the keys were in the car, but I didn't mind because there is simply no other car that looks this good, goes this fast -- in a straight line and around corners." 2011 price: $110,300.
For those who like a less-rich confection, there are the Z06 Corvette (198 mph; $74,375); GS (190 mph; $55,045) and Coupe (190 mph; $49,045). GM is engineering an all-new Corvette, but the chances of it building any more 200-mph models are between slim and none.
0 to 60: 3.3 seconds
Top speed: 205 mph
This is a bit of a cheat because the Ford GT hasn't been in production for five years. It's included because Ford has opted out of the go-fast sweepstakes by limiting its cars to a maximum speed of 155 mph.
The production run of 4,038 GTs ended in September, 2006 with buyers paying $149,995 each. The GT is similar in outward appearance to the original GT40, winner of the 24 hours of Le Mans four times in a row in the 1960s. That guarantees it will be cop bait.
0 to 60: 3.7 seconds
Top speed: 202 mph
Another dinosaur, the Dodge Viper is on hiatus until the 2012 model year. Given its primitive engineering (the original was already a throwback when it was introduced back in 1991) and minimalist creature comforts, it is amazing the Viper has survived this long. Its iconic 510 cubic inch V-10 engine, which produced 600 horsepower, would clearly seem to be a thing of the past. Dodge says the new Viper will have a shorter hood, be accessible to more people, and be more forgiving on the road. Call it Viper Lite.
Price of the old snake: $92,885.
0 to 60: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 190 mph
The Cadillac CTS-V is a rarity in the supercar ranks for two reasons: Cadillac brags about its top speed in TV commercials, and you might actually want to own one. Cadillac's line of V-series high-performance models come in three flavors -- sedan, coupe, and sport wagon -- any one of which you could use to pick the kids up at school or go to the grocery store. All three have the same base price -- $63,600 -- but my favorite for looks and utility is the sportwagon. Just to prove the CTS can go around corners, GM ran one at Germany's famed Nurburgring and set a record for a production sedan on factory tires.
0 to 60: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 182 mph
The third generation of the muscle car first built in 1970, the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 (for Street and Racing Technology) arrives with a new 392 cubic inch, 470-horsepower version of Chrysler' famous Hemi engine. Look for the 1,492 Inaugural Edition models in one of two exterior color packages: Deep Water Blue or Bright White Clear Coat. At $44,380 and 4,200 pounds, the Challenger costs about the same per pound as a good steak and goes much faster. At 14 mpg city/23 mpg highway, though, it sure won't win any fuel economy prizes.
0 to 60: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 155 mph
A speedy SUV, if that isn't an oxymoron, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is on hiatus until it returns this fall for the 2012 model year with the new Hemi. At 4.8 seconds to 60 miles per hour, Jeep calls it the fastest Grand Cherokee, although our data has it 0.3 seconds slower. The fuel economy improvement is incontestable: Jeep claims the new SRT8 gets 13% better fuel economy than its predecessor. That's setting a low bar: The 2010 model was rated at 12 mpg city/ 16 mpg. highway. With that kind of mileage, Chrysler won't be selling very many of the new ones in Europe, even with Fiat's help. Last year's MSRP was $44,105.
0 to 60: 4.3 seconds
Top speed: Limited to 155 mph
After an interval of 37 years, the Shelby nameplate returned to Ford on some specially-equipped Mustangs in 2007. This year, the GT500 gets an engine update with an all-new 5.4 liter aluminum motor that is 102 pounds lighter than the previous cast-iron engine and produces 550 horsepower. Is this a muscle car for environmentalists? With an EPA rating of 15 mpg city, 23 mph highway, the Shelby avoids the gas-guzzler tax. At $48,310, the Shelby is $8,500 more than the 2012 Boss 302 Mustang, which takes three-tenths of a second longer to get to 60 mph.
0 to 60: 5 seconds/5.2 seconds
Top speed: Limited to 134 mph/131 mph
In the sensible-shoes category are these two mechanically-similar sedans: the Ford Taurus SHO and the Lincoln MKS EcoBoost. Instead of thirsty V-8s, they are both powered by twin-turbo V-6s, part of Ford's Eco Boost family.
As the numbers show, they provide perfectly adequate performance and better than adequate fuel economy. Both cars are rated at 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway.
The 2011 Taurus starts at $38,155; the 2011 Lincoln at $41,500.
0 to 60: 3.7 seconds
Top speed: 125 mph
The only battery powered car on the list, the Tesla Roadster theoretically represents the future. It offers the performance of a supercar without a drop of gasoline. The future is not all champagne and roses, however. According to the EPA, the Roadster can travel 244 miles on a single charge, but real world motoring (using accessories like headlights; driving with a heavy foot) results in much less range. Remember too that the roadster is based on a lightweight Lotus Elise sports car made of pricey carbon fiber, and an uncomfortable one at that. Price: $128,500.
But that acceleration! Under four seconds is fast enough for even the most hardened performance junkie, and with an electric car, it gets delivered smoothly and effortlessly. The V-8 may be dying but we have something better coming along to replace it.
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