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Today's muscle cars put the oldies to shame

Modern technology makes it possible to blend high performance, fuel economy

Welcome to the new Golden Age of Detroit Muscle. The cars the city's automakers build now are faster, more powerful and vastly more reliable and fuel-efficient than the golden oldies celebrated in the Woodward Dream Cruise.

These are the good old days, and they're getting better.

"As wonderful as we thought the original muscle cars were, they couldn't hold a candle to today's vehicles," said Bob Casey, senior curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum.

The largest collection of classic cars in the world, the Woodward Dream Cruise, lets auto owners showcase their prized classics in official and unofficial ways, cruising each evening and organizing for rallies to celebrate what they love and what they drive.

The official Dream Cruise commemorates the days from the '50s to the '70s, when car lovers and car company engineers took Detroit's latest out on the avenue to show off.

On Saturday, more than a million people lined the avenue from Pontiac, Michigan, to Ferndale to see at least 20,000 vehicles - everything from Bel Airs to Bentleys, Lincolns to Lamborghinis.

The exciting new Detroit muscle on the horizon includes the 640-horsepower 2013 SRT Viper, slated to race out of Chrysler's Conner Avenue assembly plant in Detroit later this year.

"We're not just chasing horsepower," said Ralph Gilles, who runs Chrysler's SRT performance group. "Today's cars put all the pieces together for a total package."

For high-level modern muscle, there's also the 662-horsepower 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 and 580-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

Not to rain on anybody's memory parade, but these beasts would run rings around the muscle cars and street rods that ruled Woodward during the first great age of Detroit performance.

"The Woodward Dream Cruise is a celebration of the first flowering of America's romance with the automobile in the 1950s and '60s," automotive writer Tony Swan of Hearst Magazines said. "Cars today are much more capable. Someday we'll celebrate them."

Bragging rights among American performance cars used to be determined by 0-100 km/h times and straight-line speed. That's just the beginning today. Ford promises the Shelby can exceed 320 kilometre per hour.

The Camaro ZL1 hits 100 km/h in four seconds. A dizzying video shows one lapping Germany's legendary Nürburgring road course in 7: 41.27. That's 3.2 seconds quicker than a $189,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS managed in Auto Bild magazine's 2010 comparison test of supercars.

Both cars feature accelerometers to measure G forces, a yardstick of cornering ability more akin to Formula One racers than old-time street rods.

These are not your father's or grandfather's go-fast, go-straight muscle cars.

"The cars of the '60 and '70s were very fast in a straight line, but they wouldn't stop or turn very well. They had tires like linoleum," Swan said.

Today's performance cars combine brains and brawn.

"This is a golden age of technology and reliability," said Russ Clark, Chevrolet marketing director of performance cars. "The ZL1's 580-horsepower engine has a [160,000-kilometre] powertrain warranty."

Technology that was developed to reduce fuel consumption and emissions also improved performance.

"We're going to see hybrid systems used to boost power as well as save fuel," Chrysler's Gilles said. "We're car guys. We're always thinking of ways to go fast."

The first heyday of Detroit muscle cars ended when soaring fuel prices coincided with new emissions and fuel-economy regulations. The pessimists say that sounds a lot like today, but there are key differences.

In the '70s and '80s, Chrysler, Ford and GM couldn't tell a high-performance, high-efficiency engine from a unicorn. As far as most Detroit executives knew or cared, they were both mythical creatures.

The Shelby and ZL1's big V-8s are only the beginning of the new performance story.

Detroit's automakers are turning to smaller engines and new technologies to combine high performance and good fuel economy. The 2013 Ford Focus ST's 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine checks in at 252 horsepower and 7.35 L/100 km.

With cars like that on the road today, and new versions of performance heroes such as the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette coming over the next couple of years, the new Golden Age of Detroit muscle could last a while.