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30 American Compacts That Were Debatable Muscle Cars

Vukasin HerbezJune 26, 2020

The compact muscle car class included performance models built on the smallest platforms from Detroit. All of them were produced when the original muscle era was ending. Compact muscle cars were the answer to the growing downsizing and emissions concerns. Unfortunately, drivers never recognized those compact muscle cars as full-fledged members of the muscle car Hall of Fame.

It was probably due to the fact they never were as fast or as attractive as their full-size cousins. Even still, those cars are interesting, valuable additions to the colorful world of Detroit power. Some drivers still wish you could find some of them among the obscure American cars you can still find today. Read on to learn more about 30 American compacts that were debatable muscle cars.

30. 1974 Pontiac GTO

Pontiac downsized the once-mighty GTO from a separate model to only a trim line option for the 1974 Ventura. The Ventura was the smallest and most affordable Pontiac at the moment. Basically, it was a Chevrolet Nova sister model. It was sad to watch Pontiac downgrade the once-glorious muscle car to just a trim level. All they did was slap some decals on an economy model and add a 5.7-liter V8 engine pumping out a measly 200 HP.

Pontiac experienced slow sales of the GTO line for a few years. Despite the relative success of the smaller Trans Am/Firebird line, the GTO just wasn’t popular enough to justify the investment into a separate model. It looked like the 1974 GTO was a pathetic attempt to recapture the former glory of the GTO, but the market didn’t fall for the trick.

This was also the final year for the classic GTO nameplate, so after producing 7,000 of them, the GTO quietly left the scene. Today, those last year GTOs generate some attention because they are the last of the breed. However, everybody agrees that the ’74 Ventura GTO is an ugly and slow muscle car with just a famous name.

29. AMC Spirit AMX

Debuting in 1978, the AMC Spirit AMX was a real compact muscle car because it had an optional 304 V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. Also, buyers could get it with a manual transmission. AMC designed it as the performance version of the Spirit compact car.

Available for just two years, the Spirit AMX had some success because it was inexpensive and cool-looking. The AMX package included a body kit, special livery, and wide wheels. Unfortunately, AMC decided to kill the model, and the Spirit AMX didn’t return for the 1980 model year.

28. Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442

Ever since the original muscle car era ended in the early ’70s, Oldsmobile has tried to recapture the magic of the original 442 muscle car. Behind that honored name lies a compact, front-wheel-drive Calais two-door with a highly tuned four-cylinder engine that developed 190 HP from 2.3 liters. Today, this doesn’t sound all that powerful, but when they presented this car almost 30 years ago, 190 HP was considered powerful.

Thanks to its low weight, race-tuned suspension, and gearbox, the little Cutlass Calais 442 W41 could accelerate rapidly. It could even beat much bigger and more expensive cars. Unfortunately, they limited production to only 204 cars. Despite great performance, most drivers forgot about the W41. However, it influenced other car manufacturers to present similar compact-but-powerful cars. Without this little obscure Oldsmobile, there would never have been the Chevrolet Cobalt SS or Dodge Neon SRT-4.

27. 1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra

The second generation of the Ford Mustang debuted in 1974. It was on the market for four years until 1978. Despite the fact it was the subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was an important model. Downsizing the whole Mustang range, introducing economical four-cylinder engines, and part-sharing with other Ford models helped it survive the recession of the ’70s and the death of the muscle car movement.

But all of that doesn’t mean there weren’t any interesting Mustangs between 1974 and 1978. They just were just slow compared to previous editions. There was one particularly interesting model, however, the special edition King Cobra. Ford knew their 5.0 V8 engine produced only 140 HP in the Mustang II and the performance was unimpressive. They also knew that by dressing up the car they could attract some buyers. They introduced the King Cobra with a flaming snake on the hood, front and rear spoilers, and a full body kit. The King Cobra was a typical ’70s factory custom car. They mated the 5.0 V8 to a four-speed manual transmission in an attempt to make a performance car. Needless to say, performance was terrible, but the outrageous body kit stole the show. Today, the Ford Mustang King Cobra is a vaunted collector’s item.

26. 1977 AMC Gremlin GT

AMC introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970, and everybody thought it was an April Fool’s day joke. It was a subcompact American-made car with off design and decent fuel economy for the standards of the day. Soon, the Gremlin became a popular and influential model, helping AMC survive the recession of the ’70s. AMC tried to extract all it could from the little Gremlin by constantly introducing different variants and versions, keeping that old platform alive for almost a decade.

In 1977, AMC decided to turn the Gremlin into a muscle car by installing a 304 V8 engine that produced 120 HP. The ridiculously low power output resulted in terrible performance numbers. However, the Gremlin GT was quite a looker with its fresh graphics package, sporty wheels, and interior equipment. Realizing the performance was painfully slow even for a wannabe muscle car, AMC installed a 4.2-liter inline-six engine.

Although it didn’t produce much more power, it produced more torque, which was enough for some improvement. However, the extra torque and heavy discounts from the AMC dealers didn’t help. That was because the production numbers were low at around 3,000 copies. Sadly, AMC discontinued the GT option for the 1978 model year.

25. Chevrolet Cobalt SS

Although it was discontinued, people will remember the Chevrolet Cobalt SS as one of the most powerful four-cylinder cars. Available as a supercharged, turbocharged, or naturally aspirated model, the best SS was the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder introduced in 2008.

The engine delivered 260 HP, which was astonishing by the standards of the day and more than any of its competitors. The Cobalt SS also has big tuning potential, so it was easy to get even more power from this engine.

24. 1977 Chevrolet Monza Mirage

Chevrolet unveiled the Monza in 1975 as the newest GM compact model. It came with a modern design, updated equipment and a wide arrange of versions and trim levels. The Monza succeeded the Vega and sold well on the U.S. market as well as abroad.

However, the lack of a performance version was evident since the compact, relatively-light platform could benefit from a powerful engine. But Chevrolet didn’t think a performance model or a muscle car version would have a big market, so they didn’t bother developing it.

Finally, Chevy contracted Michigan Auto Techniques, an outside company, to make a muscle car Monza for 1977. They called it the Monza Mirage. It was a one-year model produced in 4,000 examples featuring a 305 V8 producing just 145 HP. The design was quite striking with a white body, front and rear spoilers, and special wheels.

The paint scheme was patriotic with red, white, and blue stripes all over the body. Chevrolet realized there was still a market for sporty variants, so they decided to introduce the Monza Spyder for 1978. That left Michigan Auto Techniques without a contract for 1978, sending the Monza Mirage to the history books. Today, only a handful have survived, so if you find one, restore it since it is a rare and forgotten muscle car.

23. 1980 Mercury Capri RS

The introduction of the third-generation Mustang had a big influence on Mercury because the brand got its own version in the form of the Capri in 1979. From 1970 to 1977, Mercury sold the Capri, which they imported from Germany with four and six-cylinder engines. However, in 1979 thanks to the Mustang, the Capri was new and featured a unique front end design.

Since it was a Mercury product, it was more upscale than Ford. But other than a few aesthetical changes, it was identical to the Mustang. As the performance version, Mercury introduced the RS model featuring a 2.3-liter turbocharged engine with a whopping 135 HP. The performance was expectedly bad, but the car looked cool with its big air intake on the hood, RS badges, and rear spoiler. Today, those RS models are quite rare, although not valuable or sought-after by collectors.

22. 1981 Chevrolet Citation X-11

The Chevrolet Citation X-11 is an interesting car since most people can’t decide how they feel about this model. It’s a compact, front-wheel drive hatchback Chevrolet produced from 1980 to 1985 with a powerful V6 engine and muscle car look. Maybe it would be best to describe this car as a fine line between an American hot hatch and compact muscle car because it features the main aspects of both segments.

The Citation was a modern model that Chevrolet needed to fight the imports. It came in a wide range of flavors. The X-11 featured a 2.8-liter V6 engine and 135 HP. Despite the fact it doesn’t sound like much today, it was solid power for the time. The X-11 had a few more tricks up its sleeves, such as a sport-tuned suspension, sharper steering, and better brakes.

From the outside, drivers could differentiate the X-11 by its special bulged hood and trim details. The magazine testers of the day spoke highly of the X-11, saying it was much more than just a stronger engine and appearance package. Today, most people, especially millennials, consider the 1982 Citation X-11 a collector’s car, even though it doesn’t come at collector car prices. Be sure to grab this car fast before the prices soar.

21. Dodge Neon SRT-4

Nobody ever considered the Neon SRT-4 to be a high-speed car, but the little Neon can top 153 mph when you drive it flat out. Debuting in 2003, the Neon SRT4 was one of the best, most economical performance cars in America at the time.

They turned the compact, inexpensive, and boring Neon into a pocket rocket by giving it a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivering 230 HP. It propelled the Neon from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds. The top speed of 153 mph is more than high enough to put it on this list.

20. 1971 AMC Hornet 360

The early ’70s marked the beginning of the end for muscle cars with downsizing, tightening emission controls, and higher safety standards. AMC was one of the first companies to realize they needed a new breed of muscle cars to keep the power-hungry customers happy. So in 1971, they introduced the Hornet 360.

Even though the Hornet arrived just before the Malaise Era, it fits the profile. The Malaise Era was from 1973 to 1983 when most U.S. cars offered poor performance numbers. AMC based the Hornet 360 on the regular economy car they called the Hornet, equipping it with an improved suspension and sharper steering. To that, they added a graphics package and a 360 V8, transforming this hot Hornet from an ordinary compact to a proper muscle car. The power was not that big at 245 HP, but in a lightweight body, those horses could really make the Hornet fly.

The rest of the muscle car offerings in 1971 had problems with big sizes and weights, as well as engines that didn’t make power anymore. But the Hornet 360 was one of the fastest cars available. This is the only time that a Malaise or pre-Malaise Era car possessed some real performance.

Unfortunately, most buyers didn’t understand the forward-thinking of AMC, so they sold less than 800 Hornets in 1971. That made the Hornet 360 a rare and obscure muscle car. In an era when bigger was always better, the Hornet 360 was unusual for its compact size and strong engine. Unfortunately, people failed to realize how good the idea behind it really was.

19. 1983 Dodge Omni GLH

While Europe was embracing the hot hatch class and developing it further in the mid-’80s, America car manufacturers seemed quite uninterested. The Golf GTI sold well in the states. However, most domestic manufacturers didn’t produce any models that drivers could consider hot hatches. That was until the legendary Carroll Shelby teamed up with Dodge to introduce his version of the compact Omni.

Dodge decided to name it the Omni GLH. It was a proper hot hatch and one of the best affordable performance models money could buy in those days. Nobody expected that Dodge could produce a hot hatch that could beat its European competitors. But with Shelby’s help, Dodge did just that. Shelby took the 2.2-liter four-cylinder and added a turbocharger to produce a total output of 175 HP. The 0-to-60 mph acceleration time of fewer than seven seconds was impressive and highly competitive for the time.

Dodge gave the Omni GLH some suspension modifications and other upgrades to help it handle all that power. The best thing about this car is the name, “GLH,” which meant “Goes like Hell.” Shelby and Dodge produced an improved version they named the GLHS, which stood for “Goes Like Hell S’more,” producing just 500 of those models.

18. 1975 Chevrolet Vega Cosworth

After the debacle of the Chevrolet Corvair in the ’60s, the company was reluctant to enter the compact market again. But since the segment grew, Chevrolet didn’t have a choice. So they presented the new Chevrolet Vega as a 1971 model. The Vega was a compact modernly-styled model with three basic body styles, a two-door coupe, two-door sedan, and a practical three-door wagon.

The front end closely resembled the design of the 1971 Camaro with a similar grille, headlights, and bumper. In 1975, Chevrolet even introduced an interesting although not-so-successful Vega Cosworth model. It featured a high revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin-cam motor that delivered 110 HP.

Although it wasn’t particularly fast or strong, the Vega Cosworth was attractive with an interesting black and gold paint job and unique wheels. Chevrolet built this model in cooperation with Cosworth, the British engine engineering company famous for its Formula One engines.

17. AMC Pacer X

In a desperate attempt to draw a performance-oriented crowd, AMC introduced the Pacer X. It was a high-performance version of their legendary compact car. Equipped with the VAM package for 1979, the Pacer X featured a 4.6-liter straight-six engine with a raised compression ratio and lots more power.

The output was around 150 HP. Despite the fact it sounds sluggish today, this was a serious performing car by the late ’70s standards. With the added power, AMC provided customers with a special appearance package to make the X stand out from the regular Pacer.

16. Dodge Spirit R/T

The Spirit was a Dodge economy model introduced in the late ’80s. But when Dodge presented the R/T version, things got quite interesting. The base 2.2-liter four-cylinder developed only 90 HP, so it got a turbo upgrade to put out an impressive 224 HP and 218 lb-ft of torque.

For the 1991 model year, this was a hefty power level coming from an economy car. The newfound power raised the performance to a whole new level. The Spirit R/T could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, which was Corvette territory in 1991.

15. Plymouth Neon ACR

Everybody knows about the awesome, turbocharged Neon SRT4 from the early 2000s. However, that car wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the fantastic yet forgotten Neon ACR Plymouth produced for just two years in 1996 and 1997. Back in the ’90s, the Neon was one of the best compact cars America produced. Soon, the engineers at Dodge realized the chassis had the potential to be something more than just a grocery getter.

The Neon ACR was basically a race-prepared Neon with a twin-cam engine and four-wheel disc brakes. It also came with a different speedometer, a stiffer suspension, and a radio delete option. Plymouth derived the name, “ACR,” from the American Club Racer and soon, the Neon ACR was the favorite car for amateur racers on track weekends

14. Oldsmobile Achieva SCX

Despite the limited sales of the original W41 Cutlass in 1991, Oldsmobile knew the 2.3-liter four-cylinder had the potential to be more than just a footnote in Oldsmobile history. Since they discontinued the Cutlass Calais for 1992, replacing it with the all-new Achieva model, engineers decided to introduce another W41 model.

They wanted to develop the concept of a compact front-wheel-drive sports car further. So for the 1992 and 1993 model years, Oldsmobile offered the SCX W41 model. It was the last W-named performance version Oldsmobile ever built.

They heavily based the SCX W41 on the previous model featuring the same 190 HP, 2.3-liter engine that revved to 7,200 rpm. They improved the design as well as the interior equipment, making changes to the suspension and brakes. But the biggest improvement was the five-speed manual gearbox Oldsmobile developed especially for this model.

The SCX W41 was the quickest car in its segment. But sadly, regardless of its qualities, the SCX W41 still flew under the radar of most drivers, only selling 1,600 examples.

13. Chevrolet Cavalier Z24

Although the Cavalier Z24 performance stats are nothing compared to modern cars, back in the late ’80s, this was a hot car in the compact class. It was available as coupe or convertible. If you opted for the Z24 package, you would get a 2.8-liter V6 engine with a whopping 125 HP on tap.

This meant the Cavalier Z24 was one of the fastest compact cars ever. It could even challenge the mighty Camaro at a stoplight drag race. The design was also reminiscent of the Camaro of the same vintage. The Cavalier Z24 proved to be popular among high school kids who couldn’t afford the Camaro Z28 or similar performance machines.

12. Dodge Shelby Charger

With front-wheel drive, the Dodge Omni platform, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Shelby Charger was not a typical muscle car by any means. However, it did provide a vivid performance, decent power, and good acceleration time. But most of all, it combined two of the greatest names in the American performance portfolio: Shelby and Charger. Dodge based it on the Omni GHL so the Shelby Charger shared the drivetrain and the 2.2-liter turbo engine that produced 175 HP.

For such a small and light car, it had loads of power. The Shelby Charger could accelerate to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, making it one of the fastest accelerating American production cars for 1987. Despite the famous name and good performance, Shelby Chargers aren’t all that collectible.

However, most car fans feel it deserves more recognition and respect since the Dodge Shelby Charger is a part of the American performance portfolio from the ’80s. Even today, it’s the most affordable way to obtain a genuine Shelby car.

11. Shelby Dakota

The Dakota wasn’t a compact car, but rather a compact pickup truck from Dodge sold between 1987 and 1996. It was dependable, tough-looking, and came with a wide range of engines and trim levels. But Dodge wanted more, so in the late ’80s, the company envisioned a performance version. They wanted the legendary Carroll Shelby, who was working with the Chrysler Corporation at the moment, to create it.

Shelby took a regular production Dakota and installed a 5.2-liter V8 engine that produced 175 HP. Despite the fact that the power output was relatively small, the Dakota was light and had lots of torque. That meant this compact truck delivered some convincing performance. Shelby also dressed up the Dakota with special paint, trim, a roll bar, and wheels, making this compact truck stand out on the streets.

10. Pontiac Fiero

In the 1980s, everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac. However, they got a small sports car that was something Italians would build. It was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact rear-wheel-drive car with the engine positioned in the center and pair it up with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox.

For the standards of the day, this was the most advanced American production model. Car customers were hyped by the appearance of the Fiero with its cool, modern design and advanced technology. The initial response was more than they expected, as in 1983, sales figures were over 130,000 cars.

Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, and early models were badly put together. The engine power was not that great and the interior was cramped. GM responded by upgrading the car, and by the end of the ’80s, the Fiero was a sports car with 150 HP from a 2.8-liter V6 engine.

9. 1979 Oldsmobile 442

The lowest point in the 442’s evolution came in 1978 when they offered it as an option on a smaller Oldsmobile model, the compact Cutlass. The tragedy is that the 442 option was available on a V6 and 305 V8 model with a four-barrel carburetor. The max power was 160 HP for 1978 and 170 HP for 1979.

That was only about a third of what a true Oldsmobile 442 would generate back in the day. The other shocking fact is that the 442 option came in a hatchback body style, which was absurd. Fortunately, in the early ’80s, the 442 returned as a more serious performance machine. However, those 1978 to 1979 models were the lowest point in the history of this legendary muscle car.

8. Pontiac Sunbird Formula

The Sunbird was the typical hatchback-type GM compact of the ’70s and was almost identical to Buick Skylark or Chevrolet Monza. However, in the Pontiac version, the Sunbird had an interesting muscle model they called the Formula with an optional V8 under the hood.

Pontiac borrowed the name, “Formula,” from the Firebird lineup, which marked the model they equipped with a V8 engine. If you chose the Formula, you could get a 305 V8 engine with 165 HP and a hint of performance. Since the Sunbird was relatively light, you could call this Pontiac somewhat of a muscle car.

7. Mercury Capri 1991

Over the years, Mercury sold numerous models under the Capri name. First, it was just a trim level on a regular Mercury sedan and then it was a re-badged Ford Capri from Europe. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was the Mercury version of a Fox-bodied Mustang. However, in 1991, it was a new and separate model.

Mercury wanted a compact convertible/roadster, and this little car was exactly that. They assembled the 1991 to 1994 Mercury Capri in Australia on the Mazda 323 base and sold it in the U.S. The cool-looking two-seater roadster had a 1.6-liter engine and front-wheel drive. Despite being a decent car in all aspects, it failed to gain significant popularity, so they withdrew it from the market in 1994.

6. Mercury Comet

Mercury has used the name, “Comet,” in their history a few times. First, it was Mercury’s version of the compact Ford Falcon. Next, it was on an intermediate model and finally, they produced the Comet based on the compact Ford Maverick. Mercury presented the Comet in 1971, originally selling it as a two-door semi-fastback on a smaller chassis shared with the Maverick, Pinto and later, the Mustang II.

The base engine was a 100 HP 170 straight-six. But demanding customers could get a 302 V8, turning the compact Comet into a ’70s muscle car. Although practically the same as the Maverick, the Comet had a bit more options, a higher price and a more upscale appearance.

5. Plymouth TC3

The Plymouth TC3 and its twin brother, the Dodge Omni 024 are forgotten Mopars. And they came from the time when American performance was a pale shadow of its former self in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The idea behind this car was to offer a compact, modern-looking sports model with a small engine and cool features. Unfortunately, the engine displaced only 1.7-liters. And it had the diminutive power of just 63 HP. This meant the TC3 was a slow, forgettable model.

4. Ford Mustang Cobra

The 1979 model year brought several major improvements to the Mustang range. First, they presented a new model featuring a modern design, updated chassis and wider track. Second, they introduced an interesting performance version they called the Cobra.

Although not as powerful or crazy as those Cobra Jets of before, the 1979 Cobra featured a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with 140 HP. And although this was pathetic even by the standards of the day, it was a step in the right direction. In fact, it helped the American performance market finally start to recover.

3. Plymouth Volare Roadrunner

Back in 1976, Plymouth introduced the Volare. It was a successful mid-size model they produced in many variants and exported worldwide. Also, it was the twin to the Dodge Aspen featuring a rear-wheel-drive platform. And it came with a wide arrangement of engines and sleek designs. Both Dodge and Plymouth had successful muscle models in the past.

So, the heritage was still strong when they introduced the Volare. This was the perfect platform for a muscle car if it weren’t for the grueling emissions and safety regulations killing the performance. But, Plymouth tried and presented the Volare Road Runner that featured a 316 V8 engine delivering a measly 160 HP.

However, what it lacked in the performance department the Volare Road Runner compensated in looks. And it had a full body kit with rear window louvers and a spoiler. It even came with a cool graphics package and sports wheels.

2. Dodge Aspen R/T

Like the Plymouth Volare Road Runner, the Aspen R/T was Dodge’s effort to present a muscle car when they were almost impossible to construct and sell. However, the Dodge Aspen R/T looked like the real deal. In fact, it even possessed some power to distance itself from similar attempts from other brands with disgraceful power outputs.

So, under the ram air hood of the Aspen R/T was a 360 V8 engine with 170 HP. But the selling point of this car was the looks. It came fully equipped with all the bells and whistles of the late muscle car era. In fact, it came with a body kit and stripes.

Also, it had white letter tires with wide wheels, spoilers and even a T-top option. It is just too bad the Aspen R/T lacked the power of its ancestors. It could have easily earned a top spot in muscle car history.

1. Oldsmobile Starfire GT

The mid-70s weren’t an especially good period for Olds performance. So when they introduced the new compact Starfire model, their engineers decided to present a performance version. They called it the Starfire GT, and it was basically an appearance package on a regular Starfire hatchback.

With special body stripes, color, details, wheels and a stabilizer bar, the Starfire GT was more dynamic than the regular model. Also, it was the closest thing Oldsmobile had to a sports or muscle car in 1976.

These are the 30 American performance cars that come in a compact package. Which one of these junior muscle cars did you like the best? Although some are rare and obscure nowadays, others are still available at a decent price like the Shelby Charger. But you should make a move fast. These cars will not go down in price and will become even rarer with time.

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