Anyone who likes to drive fast wants a car with a lot of muscle. But when it comes to defining what a muscle car actually is, things get a bit more complicated. 

[See The Best Muscle Car Deals]

To understand muscle cars, you need to go back to the era of hot rodders, says Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands – Dodge, SRT, Chrysler and FIAT, FCA – North America. He says they built hot rods almost at the grassroots level in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Hot rodders took basic cars and dropped big engines in them. Manufacturers began to notice what was being done and wanted in on the action, Kuniskis says, adding, “That was the birth of the muscle car.”

Kuniskis’ company has the distinction of selling the fastest, mass-produced muscle car on the market: the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. It has a 707-horsepower V8 that is capable of going from zero to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, according to Kuniskis.

The 2016 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang (Ford Motor Company)

The Ford Mustang might just be the iconic muscle car, even though it wasn’t seen as one when it debuted for the 1965 model year. In fact, the Mustang wasn’t perceived as a mass-market muscle car until the 1967 version with its 6.4-liter (390 cubic inch) V8 with a Holley four-barrel carburetor became available.

Henry Ford III is the marketing manager for Ford’s Performance division, and has grown up in the car business. He says muscle cars are as relevant today as they have ever been. “We’ve had the Mustang around for 50 years now. It is such an iconic car. It is so key to Ford’s DNA and such a big part of our history and legacy. I love the Mustang because it so embodies what we do at Ford and how we’ve evolved that car,” he says. 

Ford made its classic 1967 high-power Mustang in response to cars like the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, and the Plymouth Barracuda. The power flowed for years until muscle cars were dealt a near deathblow by higher fuel prices and stricter insurance regulations.

Monte Doran, a Chevrolet spokesman, is passionate about muscle cars. He says they are 2+2 coupes. In effect, they have seating for two in front and back and are two-door cars. They are also front engine, rear-wheel-drive cars.

In his view, 1965 to 1973 were the golden years of classic muscle cars: cars that had lots of horsepower but little in the way of handling or braking. The modern muscle cars, he says, “can turn and they can stop. They are much better cars.”

Something else making the modern muscle car better is technology. Doran cites the 2016 Camaro as an example. “The V6 and V8 will have active fuel management, direct injection and variable valve timing. It is significantly lighter. All that technology helps us improve the fuel economy but also deliver higher levels of performance,” he says.

Ken Lingenfelter examines muscle cars as a collector of classic and modern era examples. The owner of Lingenfelter Performance Engineering in Decatur, Indiana, he has a collection of 150 vehicles: 30 percent muscle cars, 30 percent exotics and the rest Corvettes.

“I’m excited to see the manufacturers building cars that are fun to drive. That’s important to a lot of people. The idea of going to plug in your car and drive it every day is so boring,” Lingenfelter says.

“It’s interesting to look at their progression over time,” Ford says of muscle cars while sitting in the passenger seat of a 2015 Mustang GT350 at Lime Rock Park, a motorsports facility in Salisbury, Connecticut. “As a manufacturer of muscle cars we have to be more concerned with overall track capability and not just straight-line speed.”

Ford continues, “In the past you could get away with just a big block engine that gave a lot of horsepower. Customers are looking for a more track-capable car. We have to spend a lot of time and energy in developing suspensions, aerodynamics to provide maximum down force and better handling. Customers do take these cars out to the track.”

Kuniskis says it is technology that has brought back the muscle car. “We can bring [them] back without the penalties [they] used to have,” he says, adding that the brakes and suspensions of the old muscle cars couldn’t handle today’s high-power engines. “I can give you that performance and the safety and the fuel economy,” he adds.

Fuel efficiency has been an important step in the evolution of muscle cars. In some cases it’s a byproduct of lighter weight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber. In others it’s new transmissions with more gears. Ford says, “Customers want vehicles that perform at all levels and are efficient as possible.”

Kuniskis says you can see efficiency with his Dodge Challenger Hellcat. “You can buy it off the showroom floor with 707 horsepower and its gets 22 mpg on the highway.”

Lingenfelter adds, “[Modern] muscle cars are so much better. The muscle car of today you can get in it and drive and use as a daily driver. They are comfortable, fast and don’t smell like gasoline. You can heat your seat in the morning. They have things like heads up displays. We are so spoiled today at every level of car.”

When all is said and done, muscle cars come down to attitude, says FCA’s Kuniskis. “What we’re trying to do is if you go back in time … one thing that is consistent all the way back to the ‘60s through the ‘80s. The attitude is always consistent.” It’s not so much about the most horsepower or even zero to 60 times, it’s about being first. Kuniskis says that’s an important element of muscle cars, regardless of era. “The second guy who does it, doesn’t work,” he says.

Ready to buy a muscle car? Check out our muscle and sports car rankings, then use the U.S. News Best Price Program for guaranteed savings on a new car, truck or SUV. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.