We put two of the wildest muscle cars from the west against each other because who doesn’t like a thumping ol’ V8 showdown?
I am not normally an envious man, but a photographer friend moved to the US several years ago, and when I see pictures of him flying his plane over vast Californian landscapes or down the Pacific coast, or working on his classic car in the sunshine outside his large garage, I do think ‘yeah, I fancy a bit of that’.
The chief designer of the Jeep Wrangler once told me that, in winter in Michigan, he pops his snowmobile on the back of his pick-up truck, unloads it a short drive away from home and then can cruise for hour after hour on hundreds of miles of deserted track.
I’m not convinced about the healthcare costs, the risk of being shot or the predilection for plastic cheese with every meal, but there are definitely things about America that I could bond with.
But incredibly, these two wild muscle cars which share over 1200kW of power between them are not actually in the wild west of the USA. The Ford Mustang we have here is the new CS850GT by Clive Sutton, the modified Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 by Gary Handa. Clive Sutton is not household name in Australia like Harrop because it actually comes from the UK where we can test these two machines, although they do have some Aussie parts in them.
We’ve driven a few of Sutton’s Mustangs before, most recently one with a mere 597kW. Yeah, I know: that’s barely worth getting up for. This one, then, has even more oomph – 632kW and 902Nm – far greater than Ford’s own Shelby GT500 with its paltry 567kW.
Highlights of the CS850’s 5.0-litre V8 include a Whipple supercharger, a vast intercooler, a dramatic-sounding active-valve exhaust system from Australian supplier XForce, and some new engine management to make it all hang together.
Sutton makes it easy for you to tick a few boxes and hand over the equivalent $215,000 Australian for this car, which is a lot of brand-new muscly Americana. But let me introduce you to Gary Handa and his rather different tack.
Gary wanted the latest Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 because it looks sensational and goes like stink. But unlike the local GMSV converted Camaros once sold in Australia, Gary bought a left-hooker and added the performance extras himself.
It has a 6.2-litre V8 to which Gary has ported the supercharger, changed the pulleys to make it boost harder and changed the exhaust so it now makes 574kW and more than 1000Nm.
Those don’t sound like world-shattering alterations, do they? Get more explosive gases in, get more spent gases out and tweak some electronics. No changes to internals or metal. But I guess these are big, not-very-stressed engines in the first instance. In obtaining 632kW from 5.0 litres, at around 125kW per litre, the CS850 still has a lower specific output than that of the Ferrari F8 Tributo (which has more than 135kW per litre), and it does rev to 7500rpm, after all.
We’ve got the muscle together not for a twin test in the conventional sense – metal versus metal – but merely to bask in the joy of what you can have if you look for it and, if pushed, to ponder how, if you would and you could, just how you should.
To the Mustang first, then, which I drive to our test track rendezvous. It feels wide because it is, but it also gets suspension tweaks (to the springs, dampers and anti-roll bars) so loses much of the float and looseness of the standard Mustang and instead is keyed in, tied down. It’s firm but never harsh, because it has a big body and there’s still a degree of bump absorption.
On the road, though, and especially on track, the Cliveness is really all about the drivetrain. It starts with a short-shifter for the six-speed manual gearbox, which tightens that up like the suspension changes tighten the chassis. Then at anything above idle, there’s the supercharger whine that dominates proceedings. It sings away at all revs and positively cackles if you’re hard on the throttle, as urge tries – and often succeeds – to overwhelm the rear tyres.
Nonetheless, the CS850 isn’t an entirely unrefined car in normal driving. It’s still a grand tourer for the very reasons that Ford badges Mustangs as GTs. The seats are broad and comfortable, the ergonomics are good and, while there’s always some engine drama happening, the lightly tickled interior, with its contrasting stitching, leather and Alcantara, is a chilled place from where to enjoy it.
On track, meanwhile, the CS850 is a total giggle. Compared with the standard Mustang, it in some ways feels not unlike the Aston Martin Vantage F1 Edition: much pointier at the front, owing to the fact that both the front and rear ends are better tied down, and then, with the right amount of power (you won’t need all of it), entirely capable of punting the tail wide for laughs. It generally adopts an easygoing stance – the steering is heavy but feelsome and the wheelbase is long – so can be slid and held with the rear tyres on fire.
I didn’t drive Gary’s Camaro on the road, but I can tell you that it’s equally a riot on a circuit.
The interior is probably more interesting than the Mustang’s while ergonomically its equal and comfortable, even without bespoke modifications. The ZL1 comes with a 10-speed automatic gearbox, rather than a stick shift, yet still the experience is dominated by a special-feeling drivetrain rather than the chassis. And while in the CS850 the noise is all supercharger whine, in the ZL1 it’s purely exhaust driven, despite more boost. It feels harder, louder and sharper – in short, old-school angrier. Ditto the chassis, which over ridges and edges rides with shorter, sharper body movements than the CS850. It steers more lightly but also more pointedly: you turn, it goes. There’s no slack like in a normal grand tourer or muscle car: it’s all sports.
There are two kinds of suspension available on the ZL1: standard magnetic dampers or fancy DSSV (dynamic suspensions spool valve) dampers from motorsport firm (and Ford GT manufacturer) Multimatic. Gary’s car has the magnetic dampers, which are said to be more chilled than the DSSV ones, so heaven knows how tightly controlled the ZL1 feels with those, because it’s already pretty solid and responsive even with these. It’s a hardcore car.
Likewise in terms of straight-line speed. With its automatic gearbox and a power output that starts with a mere seven, you might expect it to feel positively wimpish compared with the Mustang. Not a bit of it: they’re both sensationally, gigglingly, brilliantly fast, similar in thrills and pace but different in character.
They come to the same end from different starting points, and both are undeniably muscle. By doing things his own way, Gary has managed to save money compared with the more corporate route.
I’m not looking for a winner in this test. We don’t all have the time or energy that Gary does, but the method does appeal to me. It’s clear he has lavished a lot of time and love on his Camaro, getting it to look the way it does and feel the way it does. The CS850 feels less individual and it’s a very complete, very competent, well-rounded package: a proper product.
If it were my choice, I could more easily imagine my car’s bonnet open, outside a big garage on a warm summer’s evening, with a bunch of my own tools resting on the wing with the golden-hour sun warming my face, happy if envious of warmer winters and wider open spaces.