Choosing between them for a cross-country trip would be an interesting exercise. The Charger SRT8 definitely suits the long cruise. It’s got room, it’s comfortable, it’s got power to spare, it has presence, and it’s a bit cheaper than the Shelby to operate (although the 6.1L version of the Hemi doesn’t feature cylinder deactivation, like the 5.7L in standard trim). The Charger also handles much better than you’d think a big car would. Even on a racetrack, you can throw a Charger SRT8 around corners with confidence; on public roads, it’s just fine. Passing, obviously, is not a problem.

The Shelby GT500, in contrast, is a more challenging car. It’s not as comfortable as the Charger, and is more tiring—meaning more work—on a long drive. In stop and go traffic with its heavy clutch, the GT500 is a bear. You really don’t want to get stuck in slow traffic for a couple of hours like I did, as both you and the car will find your temperatures rising. An automatic transmission would help (it’s not available), but then you’d lose the thrill of dropping the clutch in first, and banging the Tremec racing gearbox into second, third, and fourth when the traffic clears (fifth and sixth are largely cruising gears). You’d also miss that glorious engine shamelessly announcing its presence, especially when you’re driving with the convertible top down. Satellite radio notwithstanding, that’s all the music you really need in a GT500.

On the open road, however, the firm suspension of the GT500 can be distracting at times, especially when the pavement is broken and the car bump steers you into a state of heightened awareness. Woah, Nelly—two hands on the wheel at all times in this car. Basically, the Shelby GT500 accelerates, steers, rides and brakes like what it is: a muscle car. The heaviness of the vehicle and the lightness of the steering seem somewhat out of synch’ to me, and it feels characteristically rough around the edges. If you want a more civilized ride, and you like the GT500 looks, get yourself a V6 Mustang, I guess, and put stripes on it. The GT500 is what it is.

One From the Vault: Route 66 in a Shelby GT500 and Charger SRT8 travel motoring memories classic cars
One From the Vault: Route 66 in a Shelby GT500 and Charger SRT8 travel motoring memories classic cars
Dodge Charger SRT8. Click image to enlarge

Fuel consumption has to be mentioned, because it became something of an issue on our drive from Kingman to Barstow. The Shelby GT500 has a small, 60 L tank, compared with the 70 L tank fitted to the Charger SRT8. Furthermore, the GT500 returned 14.0L/100km on our trip, and the Charger SRT8 managed 12.2L/100km. So, the Charger uses less fuel and has a bigger tank, giving it a much longer range on one tank. We were continually filling up the GT500, and ended up at one point trying to conserve fuel in it by drafting behind the Charger SRT8 at 90 km/h, with the GT500′s on-board computer predicting 35 km left to empty. Not amusing, especially when we were in the middle of nowhere, at night, and the navigation system in the Charger showed the closest gas station 100 km away!

Fortunately, it was wrong (although, so much for the nav system…). We found a gas station 20 km down the highway (at Ragtown, which wasn’t on my hand-held Garmin navigation device either). But the fact is, there’s hardly any range in the GT500, and it was a noticeable deficiency compared with the Charger SRT8.

It turned out that the Route 66 portion of our drive was well maintained, and virtually devoid of traffic. We did get to visit the Rusty Bolt, and managed a photo shoot at the Roadkill Café in the late afternoon. We also saw some of the celebrated old garages and motels, the neon lights from their cheerful fifties’ signs having flickered out long ago. At one point on the open road, we ran neck-and-neck with a Burlington North Santa-Fe freight train (where the track was only metres away from the road), our headlights jointly illuminating the way, as the sun set ahead.
It was worth the drive.

Which brings us to the final observation about our cars, and this may be what it all boils down to. The original Shelby GT500 and its siblings from the late 1960s, like the GT350 and Hertz Mustang, along with the other Mustang variants, are special vehicles. They’re imprinted in North American cultural consciousness. Young people know of them, older people remember them and lovingly restore them; and for many people they have great meaning and desirability. Even though a Mustang and a Charger were featured in the movie, Bullitt, let’s face it: Steve McQueen was driving the Mustang.

If you’re going to do a cross-country trip, driving an updated version of the Shelby GT500 gets you lots of attention at the gas stations, diners, and motels you’ll visit along the way, and attracts thumbs-up and wistful looks from just about everybody you meet. Many people stop and stare, one person we met thought our GT500 was a restored vehicle from 1969. He sighed audibly.

So in my view, if you were going to explore US highways and byways, you’d want to be in a Shelby GT500, preferably a convertible.

But (there’s always a but) I believe the new Dodge Charger SRT8 is a valid modern interpretation of its 70s’ namesake. Granted, it’s not a coupe, not a convertible, but as an everyday hot rod for the 21st Century, it’s an intriguing and compelling package. Conclusion? Charger SRT8 for the week; Shelby GT500 for the weekend.

But either way, as Bobby Troup suggested when concluding his famous song:
Won’t you get hip to this timely tip:
When you make that California trip,
Get your kicks on Route 66.

(“Route 66”: written by Bobby Troup, available on CD.)
More information on Route 66: Route 66 on Wikipedia; Historic66.com.
Read the first two instalments of “The Dash for Nash:” Part 1 and Part 2.

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