Muscle Cars Vs. Import Cars


Car enthusiasts throughout the 1960s and '70s, were captivated by large, powerful American muscle cars. However, following the muscle car craze, import cars, including several sporty models, began to appear on American roads in large numbers. There are significant differences between muscle cars and their import counterparts, despite appealing to some of the same buyers.


  • Import cars are relatively easy to define,but what constitutes a muscle car is a subject of much debate. Import cars are vehicles made by a foreign automaker overseas and imported to the United States for sale. The term "import" extends to vehicles made or assembled in the U.S. at an international brand's domestic factory.

    There are several characteristics that define most, if not all, muscle cars. They are generally larger than traditional sports cars, often based on mid-size or full-size models. They also have two doors, a V8 engine and use a rear-wheel drive layout.


  • The history of muscle cars extends back to the late-1940s, when American automakers first recognized the market for performance-oriented versions of existing models. The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 is sometimes cited as the first muscle car. The segment expanded through the 1960s and '70s, largely due to the Baby Boomer generation entering adolescence and driving age. However, the energy crisis of the 1970s made muscle cars impractical for many drivers and opened the market for smaller, more fuel efficient imports, mostly from Asia and Europe.


  • Certain models typify both the muscle car segment and the imports that challenged them. The Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Challenger, Pontiac GTO, Buick Gran Sport, AMC Javelin and Ford Gran Torino are among the most well-known and sought after classic muscle cars. Ford radically redefined the muscle car segment in 1964 with the Mustang, which auto critics dubbed a "pony car." Chevrolet responded with the Camaro.

    Some significant early sporty import models include the Datsun Z-series (made by Japanese automaker Nissan) and the Volkswagen Beetle. More modern sporty imports that continue this legacy include the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Toyota Celica and Honda Prelude.


  • One of the key differences between muscle cars and imports is the fuel economy. Muscle cars tended to feature large V8 engines that produced high horsepower ratings, but also led to high emissions and fuel economy that was often well below 20 miles per gallon. Imports generally pollute less and use less fuel, making them less expensive to operate and more readily compliant with tightening emissions standards. Import cars are also smaller and, therefore, easier to handle and park.


  • Performance can only be compared on a car-by-car basis. Muscle cars were also heavy, despite higher output. Lighter imports might have a comparable top speed and better acceleration, despite a smaller 4- or 6-cylinder engine. Imports also helped to popularize turbochargers, which provide a smaller engine with added power while adding minimal weight or extra fuel consumption.

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