The term “muscle car” usually conjures up images of speed, high performance and a fun time on the open road.
But according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), that may not be a totally accurate picture.
Recent calculations by the organization show these vehicles with high horsepower rank among the deadliest vehicles on the road, both for their own drivers and for people in other vehicles.
Of the 21 vehicles with the highest driver death rates for model year 2020, six are variants of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Dodge Charger and Ford Mustang. Eight others are small cars or minicars.
Conversely, 18 of the 23 vehicles with the lowest driver death rates are minivans or SUVs, and 12 are luxury vehicles.
“We typically find that smaller vehicles have high driver death rates because they don’t provide as much protection, especially in crashes with larger, heavier SUVs and pickups,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “The muscle cars on this list highlight that a vehicle’s image and how it is marketed can also contribute to crash risk.”
IIHS has been calculating driver death rates approximately every three years since 1989. For the first time, IIHS this year also calculated the best and worst models according to the number of drivers in other vehicles killed in crashes with them.
This turns the picture on its head, showing the danger that large vehicles pose to other road users.
Three Dodge muscle cars with excessively high driver death rates also rank among the worst performers when it comes to other-driver deaths, suggesting these vehicles are driven aggressively.
Seven of the 20 vehicles with the highest other-driver death rates are large or very large pickups, and four more are midsize SUVs — categories that aren’t represented among the models with the worst track record for protecting their own drivers.
Seven of the vehicles with the highest other-driver death rates also rank among the worst for driver death rates: The Dodge Challenger two-wheel-drive, Dodge Charger two-wheel-drive, Dodge Charger HEMI two-wheel-drive, Kia Forte, Kia Optima, Kia Rio sedan and Nissan Altima.
Vehicles with the lowest other-driver death rates include two small, two midsize and one large car, as well as six small and ten midsize SUVs. Ten models are luxury vehicles.
The rates include only driver deaths because all vehicles on the road have drivers, but they don't all have passengers or the same number of passengers.
Why some and not others
The explanation may lie in the image of the vehicles. Luxury cars are associated with ease and comfort, while muscle cars are associated with the early days of the drag strip, as illustrated by features like racing stripes, hood scoops and spoilers, and that seems to influence how they’re driven.
The Dodge Charger HEMI's marketing, for example, focuses on its “ground-shaking” power, its acceleration “bolting off the line” and its “racing-inspired” high-performance brakes.
The Chevrolet Camaro promises buyers the ability to “dominate on the daily” with an “extreme track performance package” and the Ford Mustang offers “adrenaline chasers” with the power to “keep ahead of the pack.”
“We can measure horsepower and weight and test for crashworthiness,” Harkey said, but adds, “the deadly record of these muscle cars suggests that their history and marketing may be encouraging more aggressive driving.”