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New York Auto Show 2008: Last Hurrah for the Traditional American “Muscle Car”?

Published: 3/24/2008
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V-8 “muscle cars” introduced by Pontiac and Dodge at the New York Auto Show are something of a throwback at a time when smaller, lighter, turbocharged alternatives are beginning to dominate.

Global Insight Perspective

 

Significance

General Motors and Chrysler have introduced new models to flesh out the Pontiac G8 line-up and Dodge Challenger roster, respectively, featuring big V-8 engines and a lot of horsepower to appeal to motoring enthusiasts. By contrast, a new Pontiac Solstice Coupé and Hyundai's Genesis Coupé present an alternative option, one that does not sacrifice fuel economy for fun.

Implications

Given the tightening emissions and fuel economy standards in the United States, many see this as the last hurrah for the American V-8 “muscle car”. The arrival of lighter, smaller, 4-cylinder and high-output V-6 coupés may herald the next big thing in terms of performance cars.

Outlook

The performance car is not dead, as there will always be enthusiasts who want to enjoy their driving experience while at the same time minimising their environmental impact. Unless miraculous improvements can be made in V-8 fuel economy, we expect the use of smaller, boosted engines in performance cars to continue.

The 2008 New York International Auto Show media preview began last week, the last of the big U.S. auto expositions until the Los Angeles show kicks off the next season in the fourth quarter of 2008. Despite the claims of the show’s organisers that it is the biggest and best of the North American quartet of major shows (the others being Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles), there has been a distinct lack of news at this year’s show, although on closer examination a bigger trend emerges. In short: this may be the last hurrah for the traditional rear-wheel-drive (RWD), V-8 American “muscle car”.

The Last of the V-8 Interceptors?

General Motors (GM) was first out of the starting blocks with the introduction of two more variants of the Pontiac G8 RWD sedan. The super-high-performance 2009 G8 GXP variant was introduced, featuring a more powerful 6.2-litre LS3 V-8 engine delivering over 400 hp, a 6-speed manual transmission, larger wheels and tyres, more aggressive suspension, and new bodywork. The brand also unveiled a production version of the Holden Ute, dubbed the 2010 Pontiac G8 Sport Truck, which features the front half of the G8 sedan from the B-pillars forward, and the rear of a pick-up truck. It will be exclusively powered by the 6.0-litre V-8 engine featured in the G8 GT, delivering 361 hp and 385 lb./ft. of torque. The Sport Truck's wheelbase has been stretched by 4 inches, and the overall length has increased 7 inches in order to accommodate a full pick-up bed. Suspension changes include enhancements to the rear independent suspension to handle heavier payloads. Pontiac also announced an online competition to name the truck. The winning entrant will christen the truck when it enters production in 2009, with the winner actually receiving one of the new Utes as a prize.

Over at Chrysler, the Dodge brand unveiled the full line-up of the Challenger sports car, the production version of which was unveiled at the 2008 Chicago Auto Show in February. The company has fleshed out the offerings with two additional trim levels slotting below the potent SRT-8 version. At the lower end is the Challenger SE, which features a 3.5-litre V-6 engine delivering 250 hp, a 4-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch steel wheels with bolt-on covers, and power amenities. The fuel economy and price leader of the group, it stands up well against the V-6 Mustang, its most direct competitor. Up a level from the SE is the R/T trim level, featuring the famed 5.7-litre HEMI V-8 engine and 370 hp (375 hp for manual-transmission vehicles). It also includes a 5-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission, and will also come with Chrysler's cylinder deactivation feature for improved fuel economy. Chrysler Vice-Chairman Jim Press expects the R/T to comprise the bulk of sales for the Challenger.

A Glimpse of the Future?

Also on the Pontiac stand was the new 2009 Pontiac Solstice Coupé, a hard-top version of the popular Kappa-platform roadster. The coupé will offer the same trim levels as the roadster, with a choice of a 2.4-litre, 4-cylinder engine or a 2.0-litre turbocharged mill. The coupé features a fixed B-pillar and glass liftgate, but also a removable roof panel similar to the targa option in the Chevrolet Corvette. The company will offer a special home storage case for the roof panel, which cannot be stored in the vehicle's cargo area. The rest of the coupé remains unchanged from the roadster versions.

However, even more significant was the official production launch of South Korean automaker Hyundai's new Genesis coupé. Unlike the current production Tiburon coupé, the new Genesis is based on Hyundai's first RWD passenger car platform, the same one that underpins the Genesis sedan introduced earlier this year. The coupé will feature a choice of two powertrains: a 212-hp turbocharged 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder engine or a 306-hp 3.8-litre, V-6 engine in the top-trim model. "We think our entry-level Genesis Coupe 2.0t, with its unique combination of rear-wheel drive and four-cylinder turbo power, offers an intriguing alternative to existing front-wheel-drive sport coupes", said John Krafcik, vice-president for product development and strategic planning at Hyundai Motor America, in a statement. "The 3.8-litre version of the Genesis Coupe takes driving to an even higher level, rivaling the capability of premium-performance coupes like the Infiniti G37." A full complement of sport suspensions are available on the high-end Genesis Coupé SE, with wheel options up to 19 inches also available. Big 13.4-inch front brakes and 13-inch rears also come with the SE, as well as a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. With pricing expected to start at roughly US$23,000, Hyundai is hoping to make a big impact with the Genesis Coupé, with sales targeted at nearly 30,000 units a year.

Outlook and Implications

The first introductions, the big Pontiacs and the new Challenger models, seem to represent the last hurrah for the traditional American “muscle car”. Drastically changing fuel economy regulations in the United States are set to make this particular performance formula—RWD, V-8 gasoline (petrol) power, curb weights over 4,000 lbs—much more difficult to accomplish in an environment of 35-mpg fleet requirements. GM’s vice-chairman and product development guru, Bob Lutz, was quoted at the show as stating that he calculates that nearly 80% of General Motors' vehicle line-up will have to be some form of hybrid by 2020 in order to meet that year's 35-mpg requirements. Although that figure may be slightly on the extreme side, it places the future of vehicles such as the just-introduced Pontiacs into serious doubt, and indeed raises questions over Pontiac's entire "performance brand" strategy.

However, GM is pursuing performance options in other ways. The future may take the form of the other two big announcements of the day: the Pontiac Solstice coupé and the Hyundai Genesis Coupé. In the Pontiac's case, a lighter two-seat, turbocharged, 4-cylinder coupé with a removable roof panel and 6-speed transmission brings to mind images of a three-quarter-sized Chevrolet Corvette. The base Solstice coupé comes in at just over 2,900 lbs, a full 1,000 lbs less than the G8 GXP (in an admittedly much smaller vehicle) but a significant 600 lbs less than the Hyundai Genesis coupé. Hyundai's vision for a sports coupé is also in keeping with the future direction of performance vehicles in the United States and abroad—they are being downsized and their engines boosted, but the RWD configuration preferred by performance enthusiasts is retained. By achieving better fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions, these vehicles can fit into global product plans while remaining products that consumers want to buy.

An increased emphasis on responsible vehicles and “green” technologies has been a common theme at the world's major motor shows in the past several years, as public pressure to produce such products continues to increase in global markets. However, a significant part of the decision when purchasing a new vehicle is purely emotional; a vehicle must rationally appeal and make sense to a new car buyer, but in many cases what seals the deal is how excited the buyer is by a vehicle. As a result, there will always be a global market for performance cars. Ensuring that cars can still be driven at fast speeds but in a more environmentally friendly way will be critical to future performance car sales. The performance car is not a dying breed; but its genetic make-up is definitely changing.
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