In the movie The Bucket List, one of the more memorable scenes depicts actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, both playing terminally ill characters, engaging in some vehicular mayhem. They pair off against each other, trading paint and driving with abandon in a classic Shelby Mustang and a Dodge Challenger. (Hey, who cares how valuable the cars are, since you can't take them with you?)
Anyway, even if you're not a movie star, stomping the loud pedal in an American musclecar surely qualifies as one of those peak moments in life. All the more so if you get to kick it in several hot rides while touring through some spectacular desert scenery.
That's the compelling premise of World Class Driving's "American Muscle Car Experience." We've previously noted WCD's tempting offers to drive several European exotics, but we couldn't convince our Corvette-biased editor to let us attend until a C6 Z06 showed up in the fleet. Adding to the fun, this joy ride also includes a Shelby GT500, a Camaro ZL1, and a Dodge Challenger SRT8. (As of this writing, the company has no firm plans to add a C7 to the roster.)
What follows is not only a breezy account of high-speed cruising through Red Rock Canyon, located northwest of Las Vegas, but also an impromptu comparison between three different interpretations of American muscle. We won't pretend that this event was a well-documented road test, but we did come away with some distinct impressions of how the other cars stack up against a Corvette. (The Camaro wasn't available for driving the day we arrived, but we'll give you one guess as to which of the other three cars we preferred.)
For those not familiar with southern Nevada, a few miles away from the sensory overload of the Vegas Strip, there lies a spectacular range of crimson cliffs. This rugged hiking and conservation area features a meandering, 13-mile, one-way drive at the base of the towering geology, albeit only at First-gear speeds. But you can still take in the view on the main road at freeway velocities, as long as you keep an eye out for wild burros and roving highway-patrol officers. Two excursions are available, either 30 or 50 miles in length, and priced at $300 and $400, respectively.
The American Muscle Car Experience starts out at the suitably named Red Rock Casino Resort. Since we're hardly high rollers, we weren't offered any comped rooms in exchange for engaging in fiscally irresponsible behavior at the casino, so we don't have any comments on the quality of the accommodations.
Besides, we're more interested in the cockpit amenities of the gathered American muscle. For sheer size, we'll give the nod to the Challenger, which we'd characterize as the fastest living-room sofa we've ever driven. In contrast, the seat bolsters in the Mustang and the Corvette wrap more snugly around your body like a custom-tailored suit. As for stance, the Corvette is a ground-hugging cruise missile, while you sit higher in the saddle in the ponycars.
How do these brutes stack up? Well, they're all quick, with plenty of beans under the hood, so the differences come down to a matter of refinement and road feel, plus chassis reflexes. To provide a sense of each car's handling profile, the contours of the drive past Red Rock Canyon offer a variety of moderate curves and dips. (If you're seeking some hardcore track action behind the wheel of a Corvette, the Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, located on the western side of Red Rock Canyon in Pahrump, offers the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School.)
So consider the Experience a teaser of sorts for the general public, along with an opportunity to drive a select few choices of way-cool cars back-to-back, something you'd never be able to do at a new-car dealership. Not only that, the lead driver who escorts the group doesn't seem to mind if you blip the throttle in certain portions of the route in order to catch up. Just don't try any smoky burnouts when you depart from the scenic rest stops along the way, or you'll be promptly relieved of your keys.
Out of the three cars we drove, the 662hp Shelby GT500 has the most raw-boned, racy feel. Its exhaust note is guttural, its acceleration bone-jarring. The Challenger is game but feels a bit porky and is mushier in its manners. Nicely balanced between those two extremes is the Z06. Its engine sounds more like ripping silk, and it gets up to speed with sudden smoothness. In this setting in particular, it's easy to get caught by surprise by the triple-digit readings on the speedo.
While appearances don't matter all that much for an afternoon cruise (except for some vacation snapshots standing next to the cars), we nevertheless noted styling points as well, to delineate these rivals even further. The look of the Z06 is refined and precise, like a razor-sharp scimitar, while the Challenger is more of a blunt weapon. We'd characterize the Shelby as a Colt .45: deadly effective but kinda crude in overall execution.
So what's the bottom line of the American Muscle Car Experience? Like many a Vegas attraction—from gorging yourself at a gourmet buffet to firing off a machine-gun clip at the local target range—the titillation is exhilarating yet all too transitory. But maybe that's part of the appeal, since you don't have to keep up with the cost of ownership. Either way, it sure beats losing your shirt at the craps table.