Muscle cars may meet demise
Damn this didn't take too long.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Muscle cars may meet demise
Powerful machines still excite, but fewer drivers willing to buy rubber burners
I love the new Challenger. Love it. Love it. Love it.
I love its Hemi growl, its long, low silhouette. It's the car that perfectly melds nostalgia with modern times. And since Dodge debuted the performance version of the 2008 Challenger SRT8 at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday, I haven't been able to stop looking at more pictures of it, thinking, 'It will be mine. Oh, yes, it will be mine.'
I'm not alone. More than 10,000 people have ordered this 425-horsepower beast, snapping up all of the 2008 models and some of the 2009 version, said Mike Accavitti, Dodge's director of marketing. While he didn't offer a breakdown of buyer demographics, the customer seems obvious: baby boomers cashing out 401(k)s, hoping to rekindle those days from the early '70s when life was coupes, convertibles and flat stomachs.
But the Challenger's Phoenix-like rise won't bring back the '70s. It may push some Dodge iron, but not much. It's like hitting a homerun during a Red Wings game -- nice, but doesn't put anything on the board. Somewhere between $3-a-gallon gas and eco-nuts protecting me from my horsepower-hungry self, the age of cramming V-8s into coupes is ending.
These rubber-burning monsters will become footnotes to man's fuel-gobbling excess, coming out once a year to parade along Woodward Avenue and perhaps the occasional Sunday drive. They will remain in people's garages as collector items, enthusiasts' hobbies or foolish investments for those hoping to turn a profit during the 2030 Barrett-Jackson auction.
"This could be the last hurrah for the Challenger," Trevor Creed, the very man responsible for the Challenger's resurrection, told me during the Detroit auto show last month.
Creed, Chrysler LLC's senior vice president of design, is just reading the soot-stained writing on the catalytic converter.
Detroit's automakers may be winning the horsepower war, which has gone from crazy to insane, but they're still losing the hearts and minds of consumers around the country.
Boomers may look fondly at the Challenger, the Ford Mustang and the upcoming Chevy Camaro, but they keep buying Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords and Nissan Altimas.
The current Mustang opened the window to the latest pony car craze. The retro-styled, redesigned 2005 Mustang arrived at precisely the right time. Sales jumped 24 percent the first year and topped 166,000 units in 2006.
But how expectations have changed. Forty years ago, Ford sold 425,000 1968 Mustangs, and that wasn't even one of the good models. Last year Mustang sales dropped to 134,000 units. By comparison, Toyota Motor Corp. sold more than 180,000 Priuses in 2007.
Automakers will kill muscle
Sexy, powerful machines may make the covers of buff books, but fewer find their way into people's driveways.
The window is closing and the full lineups for the Camaro and Challenger are still a year away. No one could have predicted the dramatic change in consumer tastes, high fuel prices and eco-politics when designers started penning those car's revivals. And the politicians have made sure to leave their fingerprints on the V-8 pulling engine hoists, passing inane fuel-economy standards that address America's dependency on foreign oil about as well as Congress exemplifies bipartisanship.
The laws won't kill our beloved beefy road warriors, car companies will.
As every automaker attempts to find more ways to make a car go another mile on the same gallon of gas, they'll be forced to move more people off of high-powered projects and onto economical ones, said Tadge Juechter, GM's vehicle chief engineer for the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR.
"There's going to be a lot of internal pressure to move engineering resources to these other products; that's going to really impact future muscle cars," he said.
Even GM's Troy Clarke, GM's president of North America, accepts the pony car progression.
"The definition of muscle car changes," Clarke said at the Chicago Auto Show. "I think that the most popular version of the Camaro will in fact be the V-6 version and that the concept of the muscle car will probably evolve into a really fun-to-drive, stylish vehicle as opposed to something that just breathes fire and has more cubic inches than the next guy."
But I want the fire-breather -- or at least the option of buying one.
Man's need for speed will long outlive any new fuel-economy standards, it will endure high gas prices, and it will continue after current environmental concerns are eased.
"Performance vehicles are not going away," said Juechter, who helped create the 620-horsepower Corvette ZR1.
Ford Motor Co. is perfecting its EcoBoost direct injection turbo-charged gasoline engine that provides V-8 power in a V-6. When the new Mustang rolls out in the coming years, it will, no doubt, have that powerplant under its hood. GM can push more than 300 horses with its V-6 direct injection engine on the Cadillac CTS. Dodge can nearly match that power pony for pony with its 2.4-liter turbo charged four-cylinder engine in the Caliber SRT4. It will only get better in the future.
Right now, I hope, some kid in a garage is tinkering with an electric motor that runs on two Duracell AAs and can rocket a street legal cruiser from zero to 60 miles per hour in under 3 seconds.
The Go-Fast gene in men and women will never disappear. Just those big beautiful V-8s that once roamed the highways in coupes that everyone could afford.