By Paul A. Eisenstein
More than 1,000 people are expected to gather on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park this weekend for the official unveiling of the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, an event that will kick off with a parade of 350 classic versions of the muscle car.
The debut of the sporty coupe comes a year after the launch of an all-new Ford Mustang – Camaro’s biggest rival – and just short of the 50th anniversary of the original Camaro’s debut. It also marks one of the biggest turnarounds in recent automotive history. In 2002, Chevy abandoned the Camaro due to declining sales, but today it is one of the market’s hotter nameplates and part of a broader upsurge in demand for muscle and performance cars.
Not that many years ago, that would have seemed highly unlikely. With fuel prices soaring to record levels and tough new emissions and fuel economy standards falling into place, conventional wisdom suggested muscle was on the way out in favor of hybrids and battery cars. But automakers are discovering they need to bulk up even those alternative-power vehicles to meet consumer demand.
Automotive arms race
It’s nothing less than an automotive arms race. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles recently launched 707-horsepower Hellcat versions of the Dodge Challenger and Charger models. And there are customized versions of the Camaro and Mustang pushing up towards the 1,000-hp range. That’s a big change from a decade ago when the most powerful version of the Mustang, the Shelby Cobra, barely could deliver 390-hp, notes David Sullivan, senior analyst at consulting firm AutoPacific, Inc.
“There are constant updates and changes that keep people interested” in muscle cars.
“There are constant updates and changes that keep people interested” in muscle cars. Meanwhile, the latest versions of these machines are also delivering fuel economy that once would have been impressive on a pint-sized econocar, he says. The “base,” 300-hp version of the Mustang, for example, gets an EPA-rated 31 mpg on the highway.
“Even versions with smaller engines no longer are what the corporate types used to call a ‘secretary’s car,'” Sullivan says. “They’re seriously engaging to drive.
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And where the muscle cars of the 1960s and ’70s were pretty much straight-line monsters, capable of spinning tires in a race to the end of the quarter mile, today’s performance models are far more competent under all driving conditions. The new sixth-generation Camaro is migrating to a sophisticated chassis it will share with the much more expensive Cadillac ATS sedan. It will be able to handle and brake as well as some of its most sophisticated European competitors.
Expect even more changes in the years ahead, industry insiders hint, as they struggle to deliver better performance while also meeting federal mileage standards that will jump to 54.5 mpg in 2025.
“You will need new technology to achieve both of those goals,” says Dave Pericak, director of Ford’s performance operations and chief engineer on the 2015 Ford Mustang program.
Expect to see tomorrow’s muscle cars get even lighter. And don’t be surprised to see them adopt even more advanced powertrain technologies. For the 2015 Mustang, for example, Ford added a third, turbocharged EcoBoost engine. And several sources reveal the Detroit maker is looking at a possible hybrid version. That’s in line with what several exotic European makers already offer. The Porsche 918 Spyder, Ferrari La Ferrari and McLaren P1 all use hybrid drivetrains.
“Technology, especially the more exotic, will be needed for (tomorrow’s) performance cars, and they are not cheap,” says Pericak. “We have to figure out how to do these things, and do them affordably.”
First published May 16 2015, 2:11 PM