Last hurrah for the brawny American car?
updated 8:42 p.m. ET, Wed., March. 26, 2008
With its diverse blend of concept cars, luxury rides and economic
vehicles, New York’s auto show usually puts some zing into the auto show
circuit. This year’s show, with its focus on muscle and power, signified
nothing less than the end of an era for some who attended its preview
days last week.
“Everyone is talking about how this show is irrelevant because it’s all
about muscle cars," said John Wolkonowicz, senior markets analyst at
Global Insight’s Automotive Group. "But it’s not because we are
witnessing the end of an era that will be remembered fondly for years to
Chrysler’s 2009 Dodge Challenger was a centerpiece of the New York show,
a reinvention of Dodge’s iconic muscle car meant to appeal to baby
boomers with the cash to indulge their nostalgic fantasies. It goes up
against the recently reissued Ford Mustang and the new Chevrolet Camaro,
another redeveloped muscle car that’s due in dealer showrooms in early 2009.
There was even more retro brawn on show as Pontiac revealed a pickup
truck-muscle car combination that hearkens back to the classic El Camino
coupe utility vehicle that Chevy stopped building in 1987. The
as-yet-unnamed car — essentially an Australian Holden “Ute” — is
expected to make its U.S. debut next year.
These historic cars may make auto enthusiasts’ hearts flutter, but
they’re entering a dying market for muscle cars, according to Wolkonowicz.
The revived Challenger and Camaro are a “last hurrah” for
high-horsepower, brawny muscle cars, Wolkonowicz said. The industry is
moving toward compliance with an energy bill passed in December that
requires automakers to achieve a fleet fuel-economy standard of 35 miles
per gallon by 2020, he noted, and automakers are struggling to find ways
to squeeze more mileage out of their biggest, least fuel-efficient vehicles.
“In some ways the current situation reminds me of the early 1970s when
the industry reached its last peak in performance and the government
last got involved in regulating the industry," Wolkonowicz said. "Cars
became emasculated, and I don’t have fond memories of models made
between 1975 and 1995. I don’t think the industry will repeat that
period, but we have recently enjoyed a level of performance that we’re
never seen before, and that’s going to change.”
Automakers will continue to make high-performance cars, but they’ll be
powered by new propulsion systems or using new high-performance gas
engines, such as Ford’s “EcoBoost,” which uses 20 percent less fuel than
today’s similarly powerful engines. But these innovations will be costly
and take time to become widespread, he added.
“There’s no free lunch here,” he said. “The price of these vehicles will
go up and they’ll cost more to maintain. We can still have performance
cars, but we’ll have them with hybrid engines and smaller fuel-injection
motors, and they won’t have the same visceral impact of today’s muscle
cars. It will be different, but we’ll get used to it.”
Over the past decade even run-of-the mill sedans have become
increasingly powerful, Wolkonowicz said, noting that today’s humble
Honda Accord could outpace most of the famous muscle cars of the 1960s.
But Americans appear to be losing their appetite for sporty,
retro-styled cars, according to Tom Appel, editor of Consumer Guide
Automotive, which offers buying advice to car shoppers.
While the relaunch of the Ford Mustang in 2005 boosted sales to an
annual rate of 200,000 units, these days the Mustang would do well to
reach 100,000, he said. And the new Ford Thunderbird, Volkswagen Beetle
and Pontiac GTO have all failed to reach impressive sale numbers.
What’s more, 12 sport coupes have been killed off in the last six years,
including the Honda Prelude, the Toyota Celica and the Acura RSX. Toyota
is expected to kill off the Solara in the next few years, Appel added.
While the introduction of the Challenger and the Camaro may boost
interest in retro muscle cars, the novelty is likely to wear off soon,
“There will be some initial interest in the Challenger and the Camaro
because of the warm, fuzzy nostalgia associated with them and it will
probably bring the market to a new high, but it will be short-lived,”
Appel said. “I can’t see them reshaping or expanding what is already a