The muscle car formula is simple: take a fairly pedestrian car, cram an overpowered motor inside, price it reasonably, and then hang on for dear life. It’s how Pontiac created the genre when it shoved a massive 6.4-litre V8 into the timid Tempest to create the GTO. And in more modern days, this winning formula has been used to create everything from the surprisingly fast Dodge Neon SRT-4 to the world-killing Nissan Skyline GT-R.
Surprisingly, though, it’s the luxury brands that have really fallen in love with this formula. High-end carmakers are cramming big brakes, bigger engines, and spine-punishing suspensions into everything from kid-hauling SUVs to full-sized executive sedans.
But it’s the old-school, rear-wheel drive, two-door coupes that really get our hearts racing. So here we’re looking at the cars that use this classic recipe —standard coupe as a base, big motor, and (relatively) affordable price — to create cars that are oh-so-tasty.
So with that, here are our favourite modern-day muscle cars, as built by our favourite luxury brands.
We’d be remiss if we built a list like this without including the car that started it all. In 1986, BMW released the original M3, an E30-chassis coupe with the heart, body, and soul of a race car — but built for the street. 30-plus years later, this legacy continues with BMW’s wide series of M-badged cars, including the M4.
Yes, the M3 still exists, but with BMW’s new naming conventions, it’s the M-badged 4-series claiming the mantle of BMW’s elite sports coupe. What we love about this latest version is the return to a twin-turbo inline-6, here producing 444 horsepower. We also love that BMW still offers a slick-shifting, 6-speed manual which, even though it may be a tick slower to 60, provides a more direct and engaging drive. We can go on about other nerdy things, like the extensive use of carbon fibre or direct-mounted subframe, but really, that M badge itself proves that this car is all it’s made out to be. It was — and likely forever will be — the benchmark against which all other cars are compared.
They say all good things must end, and so must Cadillac’s awesome ATS-V. Cadillac has already confirmed that the ATS sedan is done for; the ATS-V luckily gets to live until the 2019 model year. We would have loved to see the ATS-V line continue because, frankly, the ATS-V coupe is one of those rare cars that left us smitten from the moment we got behind the wheel.
With this being a GM product, you’d expect to find a Corvette-derived LSX engine under the hood. But no — Cadillac is the brand of art and science, so under that carbon fibre-vented bonnet lies a twin-turbo 464-horsepower V6. It may sound like it’s lacking cylinders on paper, but in practice, it delivers a V8-like knockout punch off the line — and everywhere in the powerband, for that matter. Aggressive looks, two-piece brake rotors, and a muscular stance ensure that the ATS-V looks like nothing else on the road. The hand-cut leather interior and body-hugging sports seats keep things feeling premium. And yes, it does come with a proper 6-speed manual. That said, the transmission lacks finesse, and this car does have the clunky CUE system — but as a muscle car, it offers everything we want and a whole lot more. Here’s hoping that GM doesn’t kill a potential successor in favour of yet another crossover.
Infiniti Q60 Red Sport
Some of the other cars on this list have more power, while others have more prestige. But no vehicle on this list has the presence of Infiniti’s Q60 Red Sport 400 coupe. It is, simply, one of the prettiest cars on the road, with curves in all the right places and a purposeful stance that shows it means business.
The Red Sport version of Infiniti’s sports coupe comes standard with a twin-turbo V6 rated at 400 horsepower, and thanks to its standard 7-speed auto transmission, it’s eager to send all those ponies out through the rear wheels. In terms of sheer aggression, though, the Infiniti delivers a milder drive compared to the other cars on this list. Its ride is softer, its steering not as immediate, and even the seats lack the body-hugging tightness found in other sports cars. So the Infiniti Red Sport won’t destroy Porsches on the Nurburgring, but it oozes so much style that we’ll settle for it simply being “just” a very fast sports coupe.
In a world that constantly screams for “new,” the Lexus RC-F is decidedly old. The car you can buy today is pretty much the same as the one that debuted all the way back in 2014. The engine and transmission are even older, having made their debut in the Lexus IS-F all the way back in 2007. But as the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There’s a lot to like about that powerplant: it’s an old-school 5-litre V8 that spits out 467 ponies and 389 lb-ft of twist through the rear wheels via a quick-shifting 8-speed auto. As for appearance? This thing looks mean as hell, with its infamous “predator” mouth, oversized fenders, orange brake calipers, and carbon fibre trim — all seeming to shout, “f*** you, get out of my way!” It’s got that cool V8 burble — with the shove to back it up — to keep you wishing that the future of cars wasn’t going to be electrified.
The cabin is old, but it doesn’t feel too dated. With cars going for full-glass displays these days, we love the RC-F’s tactile feel of real buttons and knobs. Buttons really do help us keep our eyes on the road, meaning we can enjoy every last bit of g-force that can be wrung out of this coupe in a (relatively) safe and sensible manner. And when things need to slow down a bit? It’s still a Lexus, meaning it will get you where you want to go — and in full, reliable comfort.
Mercedes-Benz AMG C63
BMW’s M3 may have been the first production luxury “muscle” car, but the lineage of all these cars can be traced to one common ancestor: a hand-built, V8-powered 1971 Mercedes-Benz SEL. It was known as the “Red Pig” and was hand-built by two Germans, Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, otherwise known as the “A” and “M” in AMG. These guys crammed a big V8 into a luxury coupe, did a whole bunch of lightweighting, took the thing racing, and won. The legacy of this car lives on today at AMG, now fully owned by Mercedes-Benz.
The C63 has always been Mercedes-Benz’ answer to BMW’s M3, and the current version brings the best of all the above cars into one awesome package. Do you want a big V8? How about one built by hand by just one master craftsman? How about putting turbos on it? AMG’s got you covered, fam. When driven in anger, the Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 exudes ferocity, shouting its way across the racetrack as it beats corners into submission. It’s one of those cars that brings a sledgehammer to a scalpel fight and wins, all while putting a huge smile on your face.
And when not on the track, it’s a Benz. It doesn’t shout “boy racer,” nor does it help your dentist buy another AMG by rattling out your fillings. Its cabin has that wondrous, “baby S-Class” vibe — only better, as it still has things like mechanical gauges and real buttons. And outside, it has the same flowing, simple design we’ve been raving about since we first drove the standard C-Class. It’s a car that shows just how far AMG has come, and it shows that the brand can do a lot more than just put lipstick on a pig.