One question Mustang drivers get frequently is what’s the difference between a muscle car and a pony car?
Pony cars tend to be more compact than muscle cars. Additionally, while a pony car might have an EcoBoost or V6 engine, a muscle car will always come with a V8. In order to be considered a true "muscle car," a vehicle needs to be a mid to full-size sedan and it needs to have a big block V8.
Pony cars have a little more variety.
What Is a Pony Car?
Pony cars can all trace their roots back to one car: The 1964.5 Mustang.
The ’64 Mustang wasn’t just popular. It was “got to have it, nothing else like it, need it now” popular. It was sporty, geared towards young people, and just a generally attractive car. The price point of $2,300 ($18,770 when adjusted for inflation) was just right for blue-collar workers who couldn’t afford a Thunderbird but who still wanted a great ride. Ford sold 400,000 Mustangs in the first year. Every other car manufacturer in the US needed to build something to compete with it, and they needed it fast. By 1967, every American car company had an answer for Ford’s Mustang.
The result was a veritable fleet of affordable, stylish, and fast American cars. They were sporty, focused on performance, and fun to drive. What they actually had under the hood varied—small block engines are just fine in pony cars, though some also boast big V8s. The Camaro, Barracuda, Challenger, and Firebird are all pony cars, though they often get lumped together with muscle cars. They’re all called pony cars because they all owe their creation to Ford’s Mustang (get it? Because it’s a horse?).
Pony car is now a class of car but is also a term of affection many Mustang owners use.
What Is a Muscle Car?
Muscle cars, on the other hand, don’t have a clear origin story. While all pony cars can draw a neat line from some aspect of their design to that first Ford Mustang, the rules of muscle cars are certainly messier.
Most people agree that the first muscle car was the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It was created for power—with a V8 engine shoved in a small light body. By today’s standards, it wasn’t a lot to look at. It could only reach 97 mph, and it was a solid 13 seconds from zero to sixty. In 1950, it was astounding. It didn’t have the same meteoric success as the Mustang, however, and subsequently was allowed to enjoy a brief period of almost no competition before it was outpaced in the mid-1950s.
Muscle cars are mostly all two-door coupes with rear wheel drive and way too much power. Muscle cars aren’t known for their good handling (quite the opposite, actually) but they excel in one area: Pure ridiculous speed in a straight line. This makes them the choice for drag racing. and since they have no clear definition, anytime an engine that is way too stupidly big and powerful goes into a light car body, you’re technically building a muscle car.
The only "true" muscle car still being manufactured is the Dodge Challenger, but the divide between muscle and pony cars is rapidly changing. The original Challenger was very much a pony car, while Shelby GT500s could really be called muscle cars despite the iconic pony logo.
What Is a Sports Car?
Now that you know how muscle and pony cars differ, you may be wondering how either differs from a sports car. After all, they’re certainly fast, but the defining characteristic of a sports car isn’t in its speed but in its handling.
Sports cars are designed to be aerodynamic, with a low center of gravity and geared towards precise steering. Most sports cars are front-wheel drive. This is where vehicles like the Lotus Elise fit in. These vehicles can turn a corner in a hurry and seem to predict what their drivers want them to do. For twisty roads, they’re the perfect choice.
Though all three of these categories are frequently lumped together, they have very different strengths and weaknesses. Muscle cars boast pure power with rough handling, while sports cars dominate handling but lack the bone-rattling power of a muscle engine. Pony cars exist at the midpoint, offering more refined handling than a muscle car, but a deeper rumble than a sports car. This could explain why pony cars have become one of the most popular classes of cars, and an enduring favorite of American motorists.