Secondhand Gems: Big Horsepower

By Christopher Smith

December 20, 2011

When the 2013 Shelby GT500 goes on sale next year it will pack 650 horsepower, making it the most powerful V-8 production car in the world. It handily slams the door on the General’s new 580-horsepower Camaro ZL1 in terms of power, and even manages to nip Chevrolet’s other horsepower hero, the supercharged ZR1. The Dodge boys have nothing remotely close to the Shelby’s new power in V-8 trim, and even the forthcoming 2013 Viper (of which details are still shrouded in mystery) may not pack an equally powerful punch. The 2013 GT500 will have more than double the power of not one, but two Mustang GTs made just two years ago, and it would take five and a half of Ford’s popular Fiesta subcompact to equal the guts of just one 2013 Shelby. And don’t forget, it’ll still be a street-friendly car with a full factory warranty. If we’re on the brink of a major energy crisis spurred by diminishing oil reserves, at least we’re going out with a bang.

If you want to start talking about production machines with more ponies than Ford’s steroid-popping pony car, you have to look way above the Mustang’s pay grade, and we mean way above. Look past the likes of BMW’s M division or the Benz tuners at AMG. Keep moving past Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls Royce, or even Ferrari. Outside of tiny niche manufacturers or dedicated street-legal track machines, horsepower junkies wanting to trump the Mustang are basically left with two options: the $450,000, 670-horsepower Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 Super Veloce, or the granddaddy of them all, the million-dollar, 987-horsepower Bugatti Veyron. That’s some serious company for a blue-collar car from Detroit costing $60,000, or even $80,000 given the inevitable “market value adjustments” dealers will see fit to add once the Shelby goes on sale.

What those GT500 buyers may not realize is that, for roughly the same price, there are some secondhand alternatives that promise even greater levels of power. There is a bit of a catch here, however, in that these performance mongrels aren’t 100-percent factory-grown. To get the really big herds of ponies, we need to delve into the tuner world, but don’t for a moment think these machines are barely tamed backyard experiments with shelf lives shorter than a politician’s promise. Since we’re comparing to a factory-stock production car, our choices deliver similar levels of streetability and reliability with well-engineered performance packages that have a factory look and feel. Some of these machines are available as turnkey units ready to go, but in most cases purchasing a stock donor vehicle then sending it out for the upgrade will be the way to go. Whether you opt for one of the two V-8s or the screaming boosted six that follows, take comfort in knowing that, should your neighbor invest in the forthcoming 650-horsepower GT500, you’ll still retain bragging rights for the block.

2007-2009 Shelby GT500 Super Snake

We never said alternatives to the 2013 GT500 couldn’t include earlier versions of Ford’s bad-boy muscle car, and the Super Snake is about as muscular as they come. Of the three cars on our list, this one is arguably closest to being a pure factory hot rod, because most of the mechanical bits used to create the Super Snake are sourced directly from Ford Racing. It’s also the one you’re most likely to find already done and available in the used market if you’re not keen on waiting for a tuner to build you one—in fact, there was a rather sharp 2009 Super Snake on eBay Motors selling for $66,000 at the time of this writing.

Or, source out your own stock 2007-2009 GT500 to the tune of roughly $35,000 and dial up Shelby for their $34,500 750-horsepower Super Snake package. Send your car to Shelby’s HQ in Vegas and the staff will install a new supercharger, a cold-air kit, exhaust upgrades, and a performance tune to make it all work. Outside the engine bay you’ll also get six-piston calipers, a much needed suspension upgrade with a 3.73 differential, twenty-inch Shelby wheels. Also expect a broad assortment of interior and exterior enhancements: a new hood, fresh gauges, various scoops, plenty of striping, and enough Shelby badging to ensure there’s no possible way anyone could mistake where the car came from.

The result is one crazy-fast, traction-limited muscle car that addresses the GT500’s too-soft suspension tuning from the factory. Enjoy melting rubber trying to get a good launch, but once the meats hook up (usually towards the end of second or top of third if you’re careful with the go pedal) the Super Snake accelerates without mercy. 11-second quarter-mile times fail to convey the Super Shelby’s power, as it’s traction-limited for what amounts to half the track—a set of drag radials will definitely be required for those who enjoy such outings. The Super Snake seems to almost prefer attacking left- and right-handers more than punching its way down the strip, though, thanks to firmer underpinnings that take a large bite out of the stock GT500’s exaggerated motions. The car feels sharper and considerably more stable throughout cornering than a stock GT500, provided you’re extremely judicious with your right foot.

Should you give into temptation during anything but a straight line, however, the Super Snake will have you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as you wrestle with power-on oversteer that redefines excessive. Mastering this beast isn’t easy, but its handling limits are far above the original car; frankly we don’t understand why Ford didn’t build them like this in the first place.

As a day-to-day machine, the Super Snake is surprisingly manageable and comfortable. Learn to harness the power and it can be quite a satisfying track car as well, but make no mistake, this machine is first and foremost a straight-line pulverizer, harking back to the original muscle car era. The over-the-top Shelby scoops and badging can be a bit tacky, but there are few cars on the market that can match the delicious rumble, sheer muscle, and the presence of the Super Snake.

2009-2010 Hennessey Performance V700 Cadillac CTS-V

Visit Hennessey’s website and you’ll find a YouTube video in which the OnStar system in their V700 Caddy triggered an alert during quarter-mile testing. According to Hennessey, the CTS-V pulled .99g at launch, triggering the event. That might not seem like such a big deal to those who regularly drag race; even mild home-built racers can jump hard off the line with some gearing and a set of slicks. But we’re talking about a fully optioned, road- and emissions-legal, 4300-pound Cadillac. A car fully decked out with a bazillion options and comfy heated/cooled leather-trimmed seats to relax in, which happens to boast 700 horsepower under its hood. A 700-horsepower Cadillac? You heard right, and it even comes with a limited one-year warranty.

Through the 1990s, Hennessey Performance was synonymous with turning already potent Dodge Vipers into raging horsepower monsters. Today, the company offers performance packages on everything from sports cars to sport utility vehicles, though Hennessey Performance has recently taken a particular interest in the goings on at General Motors.

Though Hennessey offers a 750-horsepower ZR1 and a whopping 1000-horsepower biturbo Camaro, we choose the V700 CTS-V for its combination of brutal power, excellent ride and handling quality, and killer Q-ship factor. It’s very much the anti-Shelby in that respect, with some subtle badging being the only clue that something is very, very different about this car.

That difference comes in the V700’s LSA supercharged V-8, which retains the stock supercharger but gets a new pulley for more boost. Hennessey also installs new high-flow heads, a slightly lumpier camshaft, a new cold-air induction, an upgraded intercooler, a completely redesigned exhaust system, and a custom performance tune to ensure all the bits work in harmony.

The results elevate the V700 to 707 horsepower, up from 556 in the stock CTS-V. That power is pretty much available in any gear whenever you want it, and you’ll want it a lot. Master the launch, and the V700 will eat a standing quarter-mile in a shade over 11 seconds on street tires, or a shade under that mark on slicks. The suspension and brakes remain standard CTS-V equipment, meaning the car still bites corners with calculated aggression that’s made only a bit dicier with the extra horsepower at the rear wheels. As with the Shelby, biblical tire-smoking oversteer is just a foot spasm away, but keep it in check and the car will turn with the same reassuring crispness found in the normal CTS-V. It also retains much of the civility despite packing a rail cannon underhood; it’s comfortable and capable off the racetrack, and even with the exhaust upgrade the interior noise is only a little louder than stock. And it’s not like that deliciously nasty V-8 snarl is something that bothers us.

Hennessey offers up the V700 package for about $20,000 and backs it with a 1-year warranty. Current pricing on stock 2009 and 2010 CTS-Vs are in the neighborhood of $50,000, delivering a 707-horsepower, four-door Cadillac for $70,000 that will run with the fastest exotic hypercars currently available. Sleeper? You bet.

2009-2010 Switzer P700 Nissan GT-R

It’s unlikely that 2013 Shelby GT500 enthusiasts will cross-shop the Japanese supercar known far and wide as Godzilla. That’s unfortunate, because even the stock GT-R with a measly 485 (underrated) horsepower is a worthy competitor to the pair of tuned American V-8s we’ve already discussed. Consider, then, the performance ramifications of the 700-horsepower Switzer Performance P700 Nissan GT-R. This car runs on pump gas, is emissions compliant, and, should your presence be immediately required on the other side of town, will blitz to 60 in a click over three seconds without Nissan’s vaunted launch control engaged. In a battle of big, blown V-8s, the GT-R’s 3.8-liter biturbo six doesn’t give an inch.

That’s because Switzer Performance replaces the GT-R’s stock hair dryers with a pair of upgraded units, backed with a new intercooler kit, new fuel injectors, a higher-flow intake and MAF assembly, and a new performance tune that was extensively developed in-house. That doesn’t sound like much hardware for such a significant horsepower bump over stock, but company founder Tym Switzer spent the last 15 years learning how to get the most from European and Japanese road rockets. Indeed, the P700 retains the stock GT-R brakes, exhaust, and running gear, the latter of which Switzer says doesn’t receive “undue stress” from the considerable increase in forward thrust. We’re not totally sold on that last part, but the fact that Switzer offers a two-year warranty on its components tells us it has a lot of confidence in the work done. We like confidence.

Whereas the Super Snake and CTS-V are hairy-chested animals with a penchant for chain-smoking $600 worth of tires in a weekend, the P700 is just as surgical as the stock GT-R. There’s still something of a nonchalant manner in how the car furiously dispenses with corners, reminding you that the GT-R has more behind-the-scenes computer wizardry in place than the Millennium Falcon. It’s by no means a mindless performance machine—700 horsepower will bite a misbehaving right foot, but the learning curve with the P700 isn’t quite as extreme as the other cars on this list. While your neighbors are still taming drift angles in the Shelby or the Hennessey, you’ll be setting record lap times in the P700 GT-R.

Switzer’s P700 package will set you back about $20,000, and with secondhand GT-Rs running in the low-to-mid $60,000 range, it does stretch our budget to roughly $80,000. However, should you happen to, say, encounter a million-dollar Bugatti Veyron in your travels, engage launch control and give it hell. Godzilla just might win.

Should your horsepower craving turn into an addiction, the companies on this list offer performance packages up to and beyond 1000 horsepower. 700 ponies in these rides, however, deliver a combination of reliability, ease-of-operation, and flat-out scary acceleration that’s tough to beat. So, if you just can’t wait for the new GT500, take heart in knowing you have options.