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Driver's Seat: Latter-day muscle cars face off in sit-tests

A Driver's Seat muscle-off: 2012 Camaro 2SS Coupe vs. 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 vs. 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302.

From top to bottom: 2012 Camaro 2SS, 2012 Challenger SRT8, 2012 Mustang Boss 302.
From top to bottom: 2012 Camaro 2SS, 2012 Challenger SRT8, 2012 Mustang Boss 302.Read more

A Driver's Seat muscle-off: 2012 Camaro 2SS Coupe vs. 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 vs. 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302.

Prices: Camaro - $37,725 ($35,450 base price). A $1,375 45th-anniversary package that adds accent stripes, HID headlamps, interior accent stitching, and more.

Challenger - $49,005 (base price $43,995). Options included premium sound group for $1,995; five-speed automatic for $995; and $1,000 gas-guzzler tax.

Mustang - $42,990 ($40,145 base price, and more about options later).

All I want for Christmas: With the holidays upon us, I thought I'd have myself a merry little Christmas and compare three ridiculously fast cars. Unfortunately, Mrs. Passenger Seat and Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0 won't know which one to get me until the new year. (As if my life were some Lexus commercial. Cue rolling eyes here.)

We'll get to know the contestants, and a follow-up column will talk about horsepower and driving excitement.

An uphill battle: Even before Sturgis Kids were added to the mix, this was really not my car segment. Growing up in the hinterlands of Schuylkill County, every tween and teenage boy except me wanted a muscle car to fix up.

And I confess from the moment I first saw one, I was less than thrilled with the new Camaro. It looks like a modern Hot Wheels car. It's too long, too wide, too low, and the tires are too big.

The Challenger SRT8, on the other hand, really recaptures the spirit of the original. I might even have a hard time telling a 1970 and a 2012 apart.

Ford, though, drew a winner when it made the 2012 Mustang. This takes the original design - which was a beauty - and pays beautiful homage.

Inside track: Once I sat down, it didn't get much better for the Camaro. Everything about the interior brought back memories, not of the sharp little Camaro that debuted in 1967, but the big tank from the mid-1970s that resembled TV detective Jim Rockford's Firebird.

The Challenger felt a whole lot like the Mopar experiences I'd had as a teen. Roomy and comfortable. Big without the overbearing fatness of the Camaro.

The Mustang was the leanest of the three, and the interior somehow has "the look." It's a nice classic look, with the beveled dash, round and square vents, a round speedometer and tachometer, and a round, stylish steering wheel with three spokes.

And the Recaro seats? Wow. Worth the $1,995 option package they came in.

Lowrider: The seats in the Camaro sit low and the hood is tall (to hold all those horses in). This makes navigation a tough proposition on narrow country lanes and city streets.

It's good they added a rearview camera for 2012. It's tough moving this baby around.

The Challenger feels like a large American car, but it's still less cumbersome.

The Mustang wins here as well. Visibility is not really a problem.

Friends and stuff: Of course, Camaro shoppers don't want to replicate a minivan, but this baby was tight even for this car segment, and especially in light of how tough it is to maneuver. Backseat passengers, meet your knees.

The Challenger does the best for your friends and family, with the most room and the most comfort for those who ride along.

The back of the Mustang is for short people and/or short trips. My head pressed firmly against the rear window.

Rear passengers get no cupholders in any of these, so now most of you considering one of these models has decided on a Caravan, I'm sure.

Locking it in place: Setting the parking brake in the Camaro means getting acquainted with the person riding shotgun. It sits directly across the console from the driver, and almost requires a friendly touch, or at least a warning.

One the other hand (or foot), the emergency brake in the Challenger could create its own emergency. Three times I caught my foot on the hood release while letting the brake off.

The Mustang emergency brake was unremarkable, as emergency brakes should be.

Tough to gauge: The gauges in the Camaro have white hash marks, and red lines at each end match the red needle. So a quick glance at the gauges is not possible, because at first I thought, "Oh, that tank is full," then, "Wait, no, it's empty," then, "Oh, now I see it."

The Challenger speedometer goes up to 180, as I'm sure the car does as well. But everything in between is hard to read, because the speedo is tiny.

Again, the Mustang is easy to read, and attractive as well.

Next Wednesday: How do these three muscular editions compare at the point where the big, slick rubber tires meet the road? Find out in the next Driver's Seat, which will appear in its usual spot in the Wednesday Business section.