Three unconventional entries into an age-old vehicle segment duke it out on the track.
"Muscle car." These two words invoke the memory of carbureted V8s, side-exit exhausts, four-speed manuals, and smoking Goodyear Polyglas GT tires. Remove the rose-colored glass, though, and you’re left with big, heavy cars that exhibited body roll at drive-thru speeds and big, heavy engines that guzzled fuel and puked toxic emissions at an alarming rate.
Don’t get us wrong – muscle cars have their place in the pantheon of vehicular greatness. But history notwithstanding, what place does a muscle car have in an era when fuel economy, vehicle emissions, on-road comfort, and track-day fun have to coexist in the same package? As we learned over a week with three incredible machines, the muscle car might actually have a bright future. Between the BMW M8 Competition, Ford Shelby GT500, and Polestar 1, which best brings the burly two-door coupe segment into the next generation, packing comfort, speed, and at least a small dose of sensibility?
The Who's Who Of Muscle
Each of these sporty coupes represents the heart and soul of its respective manufacturer. The BMW M8 Competition, for example, benefits from the automaker’s heavy investments in suspension and all-wheel-drive technology to help the driver achieve speed and comfort. The Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, meanwhile, starts with a big supercharged V8, then tosses in active dampers and a thoroughly modern gearbox. Our most controversial entrant is likely the Polestar 1, an all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid powered by a humble 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (albeit one strengthened via a supercharger and a turbocharger, along with two electric motors).
In our crusade to pick the best contemporary take on a decidedly nostalgic segment, we would evaluate the BMW, Shelby, and Polestar over a 2,000-mile road trip, culminating in a full day of track testing at the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research (NCCAR). In that time, we’d critique each vehicle’s comfort and tractability in heavy traffic, nimbleness in mountain passes and country roads, fuel economy, and outright speed in a controlled environment. Heading out on this journey were Video Editor Clint Simone, Senior Editor Jeff Perez, and your humble author.
Each of these three offers its own take on the modern muscle car formula, so we set out to decide which one does it best.
The BMW M8 Competition showed up to this little soiree with all the trappings of wretched excess, courtesy of a BMW Individual Java Green paint job with carbon-fiber exterior accents and gorgeous 20-inch star-spoke wheels. Throughout our mostly rural drive route, the M8 drew more curious onlookers than the all-American Mustang, due partly to its deep and lustrous paint and partly to the throaty whack of its twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8. Of course, with an as-tested price of $175,745 (the most expensive in this bunch by 20 grand), the BMW had damn well better draw a crowd.
Luckily, it has the goods to back up the bold details. The brutish engine produces 617 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque, its turbos serving up thrust with barely any lag, though it still can’t compete with the instant response of either the Shelby’s supercharger or the Polestar’s electric motors. A conventional torque-converter eight-speed automatic is an odd choice on paper, but in the real world, the gearbox fires off shifts that are somehow both smooth and lightning-quick. The M8 Comp does have an M-specific all-wheel-drive system, but hoonery is still possible thanks to a rear-drive mode that’s tailor-made for old-school burnouts.
An adaptive suspension comes standard, and it gives the M8 the best ride of the bunch. In their most comfortable setting, the dampers absorb bumps like a jumbo jet smothers turbulence – indeed, for as fast as the M8 is, it might as well be a roadgoing Boeing 747. And like the Queen of the Skies, the BMW gets an impeccably finished interior, its dashboard and door panels draped in leather and trimmed with carbon fiber. Meanwhile, the seats boast exceptionally soft Merino hides, distinctive Midrand Beige accents, and small Alcantara inserts. Wireless charging, Bowers and Wilkins audio, and excellent driver-assistance tech complete the package.
Of course, those frivolities melt away when it’s time to mat the throttle or pin the brakes, because in either measure, the M8 might as well be a supercar. All that power goes to the wheels via an active rear differential and a complex set of electronic nannies that ensure plenty of grip and practically no wheelspin, even from a dead stop. Meanwhile, optional carbon ceramic brakes keep things under control, with zero fade even after lots of hard track lapping.
|2020 BMW M8 Competition|
|ENGINE||Twin-Turbo 4.4-Liter V8|
|OUTPUT||617 Horsepower / 553 Pound-Feet|
|0-60 MPH||3.0 Seconds|
|MAXIMUM SPEED||189 MPH|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$175,745|
In contrast to the modern Bimmer, the Mustang appears to be a fiercely retro throwback. Like its 1960s-era forebear, it packs a big V8 and routes power to the rear wheels alone, passing through a limited-slip differential before hitting the road through fat, sticky tires (Michelin Pilot Sport 4S, in this case). Dressed up in Twister Orange with dual white tape stripes and featuring the Mustang’s modern pony car styling, the GT500 wouldn’t look completely out of place at the 1969 NHRA Winternationals.
Powering the fast Mustang is a 5.2-liter Predator V8 engine, fitted with a cross-plane crankshaft and a 2.7-liter supercharger. That gives this car more low-end torque compared to the shrieking flat-plane engine in the GT350. The blown V8 produces 760 mustangs of its own, along with 625 lb-ft of torque – that first number is Ford’s best-ever result for a street product, eclipsing even the mighty GT supercar. It’s also the most powerful vehicle in this test, and by a big margin.
Although the Mustang appears to be a vintage lump of brute force, it’s remarkably modern under the skin. While the lesser Shelby uses a six-speed manual, the GT500 gets a standard seven-speed dual-clutch transmission – the last word in quick-shifting, track-ready gearbox technology. A rotary shifter on the console underscores the transmission’s contemporary roots, and control freaks will love the well-placed shift paddles mounted to the back of the steering wheel.
A MagneRide adaptive suspension provides a reasonably smooth ride on broken pavement while still allowing the Mustang to claw through corners with excellent body control (and we didn't even have the optional Carbon Fiber Handling Package). Meanwhile, Brembo brakes with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers provide the repeatable, fade-free stopping power that an old Shelby couldn’t even dream of, while still being easy to modulate around town. The Mustang isn’t quite as cosseting on rough roads as either of its competitors, but it’s closer than its relatively inexpensive price and retro looks would have you believe.
Of course, getting all that power and technology for less than $100,000 means giving up something. Rigid plastics appear everywhere, and there’s not enough sound deadening to drown out road noise or throbbing exhaust. The Mustang’s optional Recaro seats are supportive and comfortable, but otherwise, the interior isn’t a great place to commute, fatiguing the driver pretty rapidly on the interstate. Furthering the issue is a lack of adaptive cruise control. That said, $81,890 as tested undercuts the other cars here by anywhere from 70 to 90 grand, meaning you could buy an entire Lexus LS for when you want some freeway comfort.
|2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500|
|ENGINE||Supercharged 5.2-Liter V8|
|OUTPUT||760 Horsepower / 625 Pound-Feet|
|0-60 MPH||3.3 Seconds|
|MAXIMUM SPEED||180 MPH|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$81,980|
Ignore the pundits – this isn’t merely a two-door version of the Volvo S90 sedan. Instead, the $155,000 Polestar 1 is a turbocharged, supercharged, and electrified all-wheel-drive grand tourer with a slinky shape that takes direct inspiration from the gorgeous 1960s-era P1800 coupe.
That said, it’s hard to deny the deep Volvo roots found in the Polestar. “Thor’s hammer” headlights, a vertical Sensus infotainment screen, and a knurled toggle-switch starter are direct riffs off the parent company’s luxury cars and SUVs. The same is true of the plug-in Polestar’s underpinnings – Volvo’s SPA architecture and a transverse four-cylinder engine don’t fit the conventional definition of a sports car at first blush. But we’ll forgive any number of faults when there’s 737 lb-ft of torque to play with.
That’s right. Seven. Hundred. Thirty. Seven. That outrageous torque number puts the Polestar 1 at the top of our modern muscle car trio, and a power output of 619 horses isn’t anything to sneeze at either. That power comes courtesy of a twincharged 2.0-liter engine that drives the front wheels, along with an individual electric motor that powers each rear wheel. A power-adding integrated starter-generator fills in any gaps in the gas engine’s torque curve, smoothing out shifts from the eight-speed automatic transmission.
Helping exotify the Polestar further is a carbon fiber–intensive body structure – the doors, front fenders, hood, trunk lid, and roof structure are made from a carbon-reinforced polymer, saving more than 500 pounds compared to traditional steel. That’s a good thing since the vehicle weighs a staggering 5,170 pounds as it sits. In spite of that mass, the Polestar handles corners nimbly, thanks to manually adjustable Ohlins dampers and electric torque vectoring on the rear axle. Akebono six-piston front and four-piston rear brake calipers bite down hard on discs that measure 15.7 inches up front and 15.4 inches in back.
And although the Polestar’s interior styling borrows heavily from Volvo’s 60- and 90-series models, there’s no denying the rich detailing. Finer perforated leather covers the reasonably supportive seats (with bespoke piping and accents), and a broad swath of matte carbon fiber spans the width of the dash. An Orrefors crystal gear selector boasts an etched Polestar logo and provides more flash for the discerning plug-in coupe owner.
Speaking of, the 1 can go 52 miles on a full charge before the gas engine steps in, giving it the longest range of any plug-in hybrid you can buy today. After that, it achieves a combined EPA rating of 26 miles per gallon, which our other two testers could never hope to touch.
|2020 Polestar 1|
|ENGINE||Twincharged 2.0-Liter Inline-Four|
|OUTPUT||619 Horsepower / 737 Pound-Feet|
|0-60 MPH||4.1 Seconds|
|MAXIMUM SPEED||155 MPH|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$155,000|
Taking The Long Way Around
The most direct route from our starting point in New York City to our destination in North Carolina had us on the interstate for about 7 hours, with most of that time spent in speed-averse and traffic-clogged Virginia. That simply wouldn’t do. Instead, we charted a decidedly out-of-the-way path through Maryland and West Virginia, including some stellar twisty-road driving through the Monongahela National Forest. Our path took more than 13 traffic-free hours, so you know it had to be more fun.
Once on the open road, each vehicle’s unique personality made itself apparent. The BMW was a favorite on the interstate, where its suspension’s comfort setting, highly adjustable seats, Bowers & Wilkins audio, and comprehensive semi-autonomous driving assist made it a great place to absorb miles. Then again, once the country lanes turned into mountain roads, the green monster again shone bright – one press of either configurable M button on the steering wheel turned it into a flat-handling, downshift-happy canyon coupe.
The Shelby was less forgiving on the freeway, though it delivered far less spinal trauma than expected. Even in its quietest setting, the multi-mode exhaust droned away on long cruises, the B&O Play audio system struggling to drown it out. The optional Recaro sport seats were comfortable and supportive, and even though they weren’t as adjustable as the seats in either the Polestar or the BMW, it was still easy for each of us to find a comfortable driving position. Of course, the exciting exhaust and aggressive seats made it far more enjoyable on tight roads, delivering a visceral experience that neither rival could match.
Unlike the digitally enhanced BMW or the all-analog GT500, the Polestar’s greatest deficit in enthusiastic driving is its exhaust note – or lack thereof. Although it should theoretically offer supercharger whine and turbo whooshes, it sounds more like a Hoover than a muscle car. That’s really the only complaint we had about the fast coupe over our road trip to North Carolina – flat cornering, a smooth ride, and prodigious thrust made it a solid all-rounder. Of course, a tiny back seat and just 4.3 cubic feet of luggage space (blame the handsome battery display in the trunk) are considerations for cross-continental tours in the Polestar.
Right On Track
The spiritual home of this test would be the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research, a twisting ribbon of track with plenty of elevation change, several decreasing-radius corners, and a hairpin at one end of its long front straight and a wide-open sweeper at the other. With no traffic, pedestrians, weather complications, or potholes to contend with, the track became the ideal place to switch off stability controls and put the M8, Mustang, and Polestar into their most aggressive drive modes. After several parade laps to acquaint ourselves with the layout, we cycled through each vehicle to acquire some crucial driving impressions.
Within about 15 seconds, the BMW M8 Competition distinguished itself as a maximally effective go-fast tool. The manufacturer-quoted 0-60 time of 3.0 seconds is utterly believable as we hammered the M8 down the front straight, with all-wheel drive and 553 lb-ft available from 1,800 to 5,860 rpm. And when the straightaway relented to a broad sweeper, the BMW’s stout brakes and tires (M8-specific Pirelli P-Zero rubber, natch) provided endless grip. With every passing lap, the fast German encouraged the driver to trail-brake through corners and get on the throttle earlier, its sophisticated M all-wheel-drive system handling traction and balance.
Unfortunately, on the closed course (as on the open road), the M8 felt like playing a video game more than driving a car, right down to the synthesized engine noise. Although it produces lateral and longitudinal G-forces like a NASA centrifuge, it lacks driver engagement. Each turn of the steering wheel or prod of the throttle pedal felt like an input that would result in speed and cornering, without any sense of connection between driver, machine, and road.
The antidote to German Novocain is a heavy dose of American hydrocarbon. Although it features sophisticated traction management, a dual-clutch automated gearbox, and magnetorheological dampers, the Mustang is still delightfully old-fashioned, right from the first press of the starter button. All of a sudden, the tires strain at those 760 ponies, each of them whinnying in a cacophony of supercharger shriek and exhaust grumble. Although the GT500’s 0-60 hustle is less ferocious than the BMW’s – blame wheelspin – there’s a heaping helping of mid-range acceleration to close the gap a bit.
Grip from a standing start is an issue, but the Mustang handles corners beautifully even with the power on tap. Of course, throttle-on oversteer is a simple process, but it’s also just as easy to modulate the accelerator through corners to ensure traction (and fast lap times). And those Brembo brakes shrug off speed with zero complaints, making the most of NCCAR’s two straights. Even on smooth pavement, the Shelby beats up its driver more than the other two, but that’s the price one pays for such a hard-wired experience.
Speaking of wires, the track’s straightaway became the Polestar’s fun zone. The company says to expect a 0-60 time of about 4.2 seconds, 0.7-second off from the Mustang and 1.2 behind the BMW, but you’d never know it with the way this thing throws itself off the starting line. In contrast to the Mustang, the Polestar 1 launches with gut-wrenching severity, though velocity acquisition slows somewhat once the speedometer reaches 50 mph.
The Polestar handled the track’s first big sweeper as adroitly as the BMW thanks to those exotic Ohlins dampers, with all-wheel drive making it easier to apply power on corner exit than the Mustang. Lap after lap, its off-the-rack P-Zero tires did their best to combat understeer and the huge brakes dispatched an SUV-rivaling curb weight with zero drama. It’s far less point-and-shoot than the Mustang, but with more emotion and soul than the BMW. We knew the luxurious, electrified Volvo-on-steriods would be a comfortable grand tourer, but the Polestar 1 also proved surprisingly capable on the circuit.
Jury, Your Verdict
Even after nearly 2,000 miles of spirited driving, track testing, and highway slogs, naming a winner in this test of modern muscle was a seemingly impossible task. We argued ad nauseam about the merits of the BMW M8 Competition’s number-crushing overall capability versus the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500’s adrenaline-fueled experience. Then, from a dark corner came a timid voice: What about the Polestar 1?
After all, our primary objective from the outset was to find the best modern muscle car, requiring the winner to provide a balance of sensibility, comfort, and outrageous grunt. Although it was the slowest in our drag race, the Polestar 1’s combination of effortless torque, emissions-friendly EV capability, and long-haul comfort made the sweet Swede hard to ignore.
We’ll be the first to admit that no vehicle here is perfect, nor are any of them bad. The BMW M8 Competition offers incredible performance, a premium cabin, and surprising user-friendliness on the track, hamstrung by an insulated driving experience in sporty situations. The Shelby Mustang GT500 is a big slice of old Detroit, its gas-guzzling V8 rumble modernized with excellent suspension and transmission technology – it was the cheapest by nearly half, too.
But indeed, it was the Polestar that ultimately took the crown. It felt special, its stellar design and lovely detailing bringing small joys to every drive. And when it came time to hustle, it kicked some serious ass. Though it wasn’t the fastest nor the loudest, it proved wholeheartedly that power, poise, and prudence can coexist in the same package. We can only imagine, though, what each of these automakers will drum up next. The future is bright indeed.
|2020 BMW M8 Competition||2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500||2020 Polestar 1|
|ENGINE||Twin-Turbo 4.4-Liter V8||Supercharged 5.2-Liter V8||Twincharged 2.0-Liter I4|
|N/A||N/A||Two Individual 85-Kilowatt Motors, Integrated Starter-Generator|
|BATTERY CAPACITY||N/A||N/A||34 Kilowatt-Hours|
|OUTPUT||617 HP / 553 LB-FT||760 HP / 625 LB-FT||619 HP / 737 LB-FT|
|TRANSMISSION||8-Speed Automatic||7-Speed Dual-Clutch||8-Speed Automatic|
|DRIVE TYPE||All-Wheel Drive||Rear-Wheel Drive||All-Wheel Drive|
|0-60 MPH||3.0 Seconds||3.3 Seconds||4.2 Seconds|
|MAXIMUM SPEED||189 MPH||180 MPH||155 MPH|
|EFFICIENCY||15 City / 21 Highway / 17 Combined||12 City /18 Highway / 14 Combined||52 Miles EV Range, 58 MPGe (w/Full Charge), 26 Combined|
|WEIGHT||4,251 Pounds||4,171 Pounds||5,170 Pounds|
|CARGO VOLUME||14.8 Cubic Feet||13.5 Cubic Feet||4.3 Cubic Feet|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$175,745||$81,980||$155,000|