Secondhand Gems: 400 Horsepower For $20,000

By Christopher Smith

September 20, 2012

From the November 2012 Issue of Winding Road
 
Speed costs money; how fast do you want to go? Barring the infinitely customizable (and infinitely explosive) world of aftermarket power-adders, we offered an answer just over a year ago, in the Secondhand Gems pages of Winding Road Issue 72. Our conclusion was that 400 horsepower and $35,000 offered a good combination of factory-stock bang-for-buck without dipping too far back in time, and we were even able to offer something from each American manufacturer so as not to bruise too many egos. That is, if your ego is affected by such things.
 
And then came Ford’s latest 5.0 Mustang, debuting for the 2011 model year with 412 horsepower and a $30,000 price tag, brand spanking new. Suddenly, our bang-for-buck comparison didn’t seem quite so much for the buck. Our egos (which are affected by such things) were sufficiently bruised. We knew it was time to do better.
 
So how much better are we talking? Mega horsepower might be good for bragging rights, but realistically speaking, 400 horsepower is the ideal jump-off point for those who want a modern, exciting performance machine that isn’t an axe murderer beyond half-throttle. As long as the wrapper doesn’t weigh more than 2.5 tons, that kind of under-hood powerplant should get you low 13s in the quarter-mile, with 0-60 taking less than five seconds. The real question, then, is how much cheaper can we go to experience that kind of kick in the pants? New Mustangs already lower the bar to $30,000, so how about $27,000? $25,000? $23,000?
 
Bollocks that. We’re going to find late-model, factory-true 400 horsepower machines for the same cash as a new Volkswagen Beetle. In case you’re wondering (and we suspect that you are), a base Bug goes for $20,000, and if you don’t think that’s doable without revisiting the 1990s, think again. The average age of used cars in America is roughly 10 years, and our three choices easily best that figure. In fact, two of our three choices easily best some of the other criteria for this comparison as well. We suspect you might be surprised at what follows, so sit back and crack open your checkbook. We’ve never been so tempted to drop our own coin on a used machine as we are with this group. More on that to come.
 
Secondhand Gems: 400 Horsepower For $20,000
 
2004 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra
 
There’s a very good reason that, at almost nine years old these Mustangs still command over half of their original $35,000-plus sticker price. Actually, there are a few reasons, the first being their underrated 390-horsepower 4.6-liter supercharged V-8. Underrated you say? Back in the day, Cobra owners were somewhat surprised by the high horsepower figures they were getting from stock dyno pulls. Ford stuck with its official rating of 390 horsepower at the crank, but as more Cobras were hooked up for testing, an average of 425 crankshaft horsepower became the unofficial normal.
 
That would help explain the high 12-second quarter-mile passes these cars are capable of in stock trim. To keep that power from destroying the engine, the bottom-end of the 4.6 was strengthened significantly, making it a very popular platform for serious horsepower-adders. The 2004 Cobra was also the last year for the breed’s independent rear suspension, which actually wasn’t very popular among drag racing enthusiasts because of serious wheel hop, but it definitely helped to make the most of the 25-year old Fox underpinnings on a road course.
 
The Cobra’s first, best mission is still that of a classic Motown muscle car, but equipped with the T56 six-speed manual (the only transmission offered) it’s still plenty fun--and capable--as a track day machine. The loud supercharger whine is either love-it or hate-it, and the odd interior proportions remind front seat occupants that the platform harkens from the disco era, before airbags and astronomical amounts of in-dash wiring were an issue. Yes, it’s functional, but driving the Cobra is best described as an acquired taste. Fortunately, there’s a horsepower monster under the hood to keep you properly entertained until that taste is properly acquired.
 
As a new car in 2004, these flaws might have led shoppers to consider other options. But as a secondhand gem a few years down the road, it’s a superb performance machine with unique character that can satisfy virtually any type of automotive enthusiast--from muscle car lovers to road racers, tuners, and even investors. Cobra prices aren’t likely to drop much further (if at all) so now might be the ideal time to score a machine that’s already something of a classic.
 
Secondhand Gems: 400 Horsepower For $20,000
 
2006 Pontiac GTO
 
This car deserves much more than the near-universal thrashing it got when Pontiac debuted it back in 2004. The criticism was based almost exclusively around conservative styling that had no retro-cues to the original GTO, and that just set muscle car purists aflame with rage. Of course, retro was a huge trend at the time, but of all the machines hitting the market with retro looks, we'll defy the naysayers by claiming that no other mainstream retro performer of the time captured the essence of their original nameplate as well as the GTO. After all, it’s easy to just recast an original shape to make something old look new again. Instead, the new GTO used the same formula as the old one--a high-horsepower engine wrapped into an innocuous-looking, mid-sized car.
 
Okay, so perhaps we're giving too much credit to GM management. The GTO was, of course, the Australian-built Holden Monaro wearing a familiar Pontiac front fascia and GM badges. But it still fit the original GTO concept, and once the 400-horsepower LS2 V-8 showed up in 2005, it gained enough punch to be a serious straight-line performer. Experienced hands could coax a low-13-second pass from the new Goat, using either a four-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. Neither box was particularly inspiring, but the six-speed is obviously our preferred method of piloting this car.
 
It all sounds like a traditional muscle car experience, but in fact, its four-wheel independent suspension offers a reasonable compromise between comfort and dynamic handling. While not as stiff as the Cobra's legs, GTO drivers still have the ability to savor more than just stoplight-to-stoplight sprints, with a reasonable amount of driver feedback making its way through the wheel and floor without being overpowering. Comfortable seats with a smooth, handsome interior layout further separated this car from other GM vehicles, doing away with gimmicky plastic in favor of a simple, functional interface. Sitting inside the GTO, it’s pretty easy to see this car wasn’t born in Detroit, but that’s also why the GTO is such a refreshing performance machine. Yes, its exterior styling might not be as wickedly drool-worthy as that of contemporary Mustangs, but the GTO also became something few other muscle cars could ever claim to be--an outstanding grand touring machine.
 
And the best part? These cars easily fall within the $20,000 price bracket. In fact, they often go for considerably less--there's a low-mile 2006 model currently on eBay Motors selling for just $16,500. We won't necessarily call it the bargain of the decade, but by the time this issue goes live, there's a chance that car could be in the possession of a particular Secondhand Gems author at Winding Road. What can we say? Around here, we practice what we preach.
 
Secondhand Gems: 400 Horsepower For $20,000
 
2006 Dodge Ram SRT-10
 
We transition, then, to the anti-grand-touring machine, the Viper-powered Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup truck with not just 400, but 500 insane horsepower. Can this limited production, V-10 behemoth that just a few years ago had an MSRP of $50,000 really be available for $20,000? The answer is yes, and as far as we can tell, here are the two major reasons why. It averages 10 miles per gallon, and it averages 10 miles per gallon.
 
Now, we’ll be the first to admit that shoppers of vehicles like this generally aren’t too interested in MPG figures, but this time it matters because the big Ram falls into a perfect storm of ambiguity. It doesn’t have supercar performance to accompany its supercar thirst--0-60 times around five seconds flat are the norm for the single cab versions (Quad Cabs are available but run a few tenths slower), nor does it offer the full hauling and towing capabilities of more traditional pickup trucks. And with fuel prices for premium currently north of four bucks a gallon, tanking up the Ram SRT-10’s 26-gallon fuel capacity at the end of its 250-mile range costs $110. All we can say to that is “ouch.
 
So, what does the SRT-10 do well? Regardless of fuel mileage, there’s no denying the big performance for a low price-of-entry. And it does offer enthusiasts a chance to row their own gears with a T56 six-speed manual, something Ford never offered on its SVT F-150 Lightning. There’s also an amusing absurdity driving the Ram SRT-10 that honestly gives it a very unique, endearing character. This thing weighs more than 5000 pounds and it’s by no means a corner-carver, yet its stiffly sprung suspension goads you into testing the laws of physics at every opportunity. And there’s a surprising amount of poise and confidence that comes with such activity, enough to where pushing the truck harder than the average pseudo-performance sedan or hatchback through a set of switchbacks isn’t out of the question.
 
Does that mean the Ram is more capable in the corners than a Volkswagen GTI? Not hardly, but it just might be more fun. And if that corner leads to a red light, well, that’s just a bonus. Admittedly, launching from a stop will probably lead to a gigantic smoke show from the rear hides, but we never said the bonus was from gut wrenching acceleration. That comes with practice.
 
Beyond the bodacious power and surprisingly capable handling, the Ram does still offer some pickup practicality. There are no official stats from Dodge on single-cab capabilities; the T56 six-speed is not a gearbox built with towing in mind, but many people have reported pulling 4000-5000 pounds without an issue. The Quad Cab SRT models do offer additional seating and a 7500-pound tow rating, but the added weight lowers fuel mileage even further, and the performance penalty takes the SRT to a level that’s not too far from other trucks that offer much better economy with even more traditional utility. Still, for 20 grand, we’d put the SRT-10 in our garage just for the bragging rights alone. It’s just that it might have to stay there a few extra days each week so we could afford to drive it.
 
At this rate, we could be talking about 400 horsepower for $10,000 some time next year. Whether that’s a commentary on fuel prices, or overall increases in vehicle performance, or just great cars slipping under the performance radar, we’ll be very happy to revisit the field when the time comes. We’re always up for a new round of 400-horsepower tomfoolery.