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30 American Compacts That Were Debatable Muscle Cars

Vukasin HerbezJune 26, 2020

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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