"What better way to start the new decade with a bang," wrote the editors of Car Craft magazine in their December 1989 issue, "than with a dragstrip test and re-enactment of a 23-year-old shootout, Camaro versus Mustang?" And for "a little variety," they brought a Kawasaki Ninja to the test at Los Angeles County Raceway up in the desert.
For 1990, GM's Tuned Port Injection (TPI) engines were giving up their mass air sensors in exchange for a speed density air metering system. "Instead of actually measuring the amount of air entering the engine with the MAF sensor, speed density calculates air flow by sensing engine pressure and manifold air temperature," they explained. "This change, along with other calibration mods, has added 5 hp to V-8 Tuned Port engines across the board."
(Ford, on the other hand, was doing the exact opposite, phasing in a MAF system in favor of its speed density meters.)
The IROC-Z, with is 245hp 5.7L TPI engine, 700-R4 transmission, and 3.23 gears in the limited-slip rearend, went through the quarter-mile in 14.74 seconds at 93.7 mph (corrected for sea level). The 1990 Mustang LX, its 5.0L engine coupled to a manual trans and weighing about 100 pounds less than a GT model of Ford's pony, nipped the Camaro by two-hundredths of a second, turning in a 14.72-second pass.
"But the IROC is made for the road," the editors noted. "And compared to the Mustang, the F-body Camaro handles like a race car. Huge [Goodyear Gatorback] 245/50ZR16s keep a tenacious grip on the road. Full-throttle acceleration is utterly without wheelhop or other nasty habits."
On a high-speed test loop, the editors discovered the Camaro's ride and handling, "like a Corvette," got "better as road speed increases. At speeds up to 120 mph, the Camaro is sure-footed and stable."
On the other hand, the Mustang was "more like a nose-heavy musclecar from the '60s." While they found the engine response to be "phenomenal," and the quarter-mile blasts "one hell of a ride," once they took it to the high-speed handling course the Ford "reveals its ancient origins ('78 Fairmont), and composure disappears quickly. Handling can be downright scary at high speed, as the front end lifts, and suspension motions wig when they should wag."
So, in the end the Camaro won, right? Not so fast.
"Strictly as a performance car, the Camaro wins hands down," they wrote. "It is nearly as quick as the Mustang, looks great, and handles in a class by itself."
(And speaking of a class by itself, the Ninja ZX-10, a "pure 'works'-bred superbike tuned for the street," ran 11-second e.t. 's "for well under 10 grand. ")
The Mustang, by comparison, "is showing its age, but it comes up lacking only because the Camaro is that good in the handling department. Against mere mortals, the Mustang shines."
So the Camaro did win? Nope. In the end, it came down to money.
The test cars were in the editor's hands before either maker had established pricing of the new models. "An equivalent '89 Camaro would have listed for nearly $19,000," they wrote, and weren't far off from the 1990 version. A Motor Trend test of a 1990 IROC-Z listed an as-tested price of $19,086. An equivalent '89 Mustang LX 5.0L, on the other hand, was "around $13,800. On the CC Grins-Per-Buck (GPB) value scale, the Mustang looks like a winner."