Can Detroit save itself with muscle cars?

Can Detroit save itself with muscle cars?

Can American automakers save themselves by sticking with what has worked for them since the 1960s: big power and brash looks? If the Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang, and Chevrolet Camaro are any indication, Detroit is out to spark a muscle-car resurgence.

by Rayhane S. Sanders

Nostalgia for bygone eras is one of American drivers” favorite obsessions. How many great cars there used to be: The 1963 Corvette Stingray. The “˜64 Pontiac GTO. The “˜67 Chevy Camaro.

Steve McQueen”s Mustang in the 1968 movie “Bullitt” still has passionate fans. Even the 1969 Dodge Charger became a star retroactively, when a bright orange one known as the General Lee appeared on TV”s “The Dukes of Hazzard.” And let”s not forget one of the best-named vehicles of the muscle-car age, the Plymouth Barracuda, which, incidentally, was originally set to be called the “Panda.”

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Many of those beloved models have come back in recent years, and now we can add another: Dodge has just unveiled its revamped, long-hyped Challenger. First introduced as a concept more than two years ago, the new Challenger aims to provide all of the raw power of the 1970 model with all the comfort and convenience of today”s cars.

It is already eliciting a heady exuberance.

“When I first saw it, my pulse started to quicken and the hairs on my neck stood straight up,” said Erich Merkle, vice president of forecasting at IRN in Grand Rapids, Mich. “You feel giddy as a kid, and that”s what it”s all about. You get drunk on the car, and pricing becomes less of an issue.”

But what may become an issue for cars like the Challenger is fuel economy. The original muscle cars, and America”s automotive hegemony, faded out when the oil embargo and stricter pollution laws hit in the early ’70s. With gas prices currently at a record high, the Clean Energy Act signed into federal law last December, and lawsuits filed by 16 state governments and environmental groups pushing for tougher emissions laws, gasoline-gulping high-horsepower cars could be extinct before long.

Still, many find themselves wondering if a new crop of gas-guzzling muscle cars might be the best way for American automakers to get their mojo back.

“Never compete with Toyota on logic; you will lose,” Merkle said. “If the Big Three [Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors] are going to get back on their feet again, they need to move away from the idea of a car as transportation. It”s like Rolexes. Rolex is not in the time-keeping business; they wouldn”t be around if they were. People wear a watch, a suit, and they wear a car, too.”

The Challenger does what America’s most-loved cars are best known for: it packs a whole lot of power in an unmistakably aggressive-looking package. No fuel economy numbers have been released, but it is unlikely that they will be particularly high. For a domestic auto industry pounded by European and Asian competitors, particularly when it comes to selling more fuel-efficient vehicles, the unashamedly high-performance Challenger stands out as being audacious and seemingly aloof to the latest trends.

“New Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards create a disconnect between what the automakers can produce and what the American consumer wants,” Merkle said. “The truth is, not everyone wants more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

And Americans in particular may be reluctant to let go of their muscle-car roots. “There”s a push to be greener, yet American consumers, be they old or young, still have an interest in performance cars,” said J.D. Power & Associates analyst Josh Schuster.

The uncertain future of fuel regulations may even help muscle car sales in the immediate future. “It may be the last gasp to buy an SRT-engine vehicle,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for Boston-based Global Insight.

In other words: Get them before they’re gone for good.

The Dodge Challenger will be available only in SRT8 trim initially, packing a 6.1-liter V8 engine (Dodge calls it a “Hemi” as a throwback to its original muscle-car engines from the “˜60s that had hemispherical combustion chambers) good for 425 horsepower. For now, the Challenger will be sold in a limited run of 6,400 cars, with a starting price of $37,995. Later, more affordable Challengers will include smaller engines, a standard 3.5-liter V6 with a four-speed automatic transmission and a mid-range 5.7-liter V8 with either a five-speed auto or six-speed manual transmission.

Muscle cars originated in the ’60s as radical sedan alternatives for young buyers with some discretionary income. But with today”s youth busy paying back college loans and an increasingly unstable economy making splurge purchases seem insensible, Dodge”s latest baby may be more for the moneyed middle-ager who wants to relive his glory days while he still can. “The Challenger is not meant for the young consumer,” Merkle said. “Really a third car, it”s for Boomers.”

Dodge disagrees. Kathy Graham, spokeswoman for the company, said that the market for the Challenger is far less limited than analysts believe. “It”s for people who had the original”¦but it”s also for 30-35 year-olds who really want an all-American car,” she said.

The Challenger also benefits from a strong visual personality. “Cars have become very generic-looking,” said Schuster. “If you look at crossover vehicles, for example, it”s hard to tell whose product [a car] is. There is a movement to bring back distinctive styling.” Joining the Challenger in the resurgence of distinctively styled American muscle cars are the Ford Mustang, which is about to be redesigned, and the Chevrolet Camaro, set to go on sale in 2009.

Take a look at the Challenger SRT8 and it”s no wonder why people have been placing orders since early December. Available in black, silver, or “Hemi orange,” carbon-fiber racing stripes on all three, the Challenger stays true to its iconic forbear. With modern taillights and larger side mirrors for safety purposes and a simplified grille, there are small differences, but the overall look of the original Challenger is well preserved. The interior, with its leather, high-back seats and molded armrests, also maintains the racecar attitude of the old Challenger.

Though the original Dodge Challenger’s interior was mostly trimmed in wood grain, the new model”s insides are adorned with brushed metal. The original “Tuff Wheel” “” a leather-wrapped steering wheel and horn button connected by three aluminum spokes “” is back, too, but with an enlarged Dodge logo.

No one knows how long high-horsepower cars, especially those from American companies, will be around with the impending stricter regulations. For now, the market supports both environmental and performance vehicles and most companies are offering some of each. As for the Challenger, the right brain seems to trump the left as fond memories of the past are evoked. “There”s an emotional connection to buying a car,” Graham said. “It doesn”t get better than a muscle car. The look, the sound, the feel of it; it”s a sensory experience.”


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