August 15, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Americans as hungry as ever for beefy muscle cars

Dream Cruise classics inspire popular modern versions

Mick and Cheryl Laucks of Metamora kiss Friday next to their classic Ford Mustang near 13 Mile and Woodward in Royal Oak. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)

America is flexing its muscle.

In Metro Detroit, the Woodward Dream Cruise celebrates all that thunders under the hood. But not all are vintage models: There are many modern-day muscle cars on the market, and sales are surprisingly strong despite gas price spikes and economic jitters that should have scared buyers away from performance cars and into subcompacts or hybrids.

The Ford Mustang has been on the market for 46 years; rivals such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Charger and Challenger have taken production breaks over the years.

The selection available to enthusiasts today is as robust as any time in history.

It includes the Mustang and its Shelby GT500 and 2012 Boss 302 versions; Camaro, which added a convertible this year and will be joined by the ZL1 in early 2012; Charger, including an SRT8 performance version; Challenger, which also offers the SRT8 and SRT 392; and the return of the Viper next year. And through it all, there's the Corvette, a classic over the years.

In short, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC continue to feed and dominate the segment known as "American muscle."

"Muscle cars never went away; the definition just changes," said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

Muscle cars generally are thought of as two-door, U.S.-built sports coupes with powerful engines. "Old muscle cars were midsize cars converted to killer cars with giant engines," Hall said. They had manual steering and were great going fast and straight, if you didn't melt the tires, he said.

Vince Muniga, 56, of Grosse Pointe Park, can verify that. He still has the '67 Mustang convertible he bought at 16 and also has restored a '68 Charger with a 383 four barrel, which he will cruise Woodward in this week. "It gets a lot of stares," he said.

Today's cars meaner, leaner

Engines in modern- muscle cars are much smaller, but more powerful: Makers of classic muscle cars from 1964-75 would never have imagined a base Camaro with 300+ horsepower.

Most still are two-door, but the Charger has morphed into a four-door performance vehicle.

And the storied Mustang vs. Camaro rivalry is as fierce as ever. Through July, Camaro led for the year, with 56,432 sales, compared with 45,850 Mustangs.

"Mustang and Camaro have always been competitors and always will be," said Chevrolet spokesman Mike Albano.

Automakers have found ways to improve fuel economy. Early sales of the current Camaro, a modern interpretation of the classic, had V-8s, but now buyers are opting for the V-6, he noted.

Chrysler is excited about this year's Dream Cruise because it coincides with the introduction of the 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT, Charger SRT8 and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 that go on sale in the next couple of months. The 2011 Challenger SRT8 392 already is on sale; it was the first to have the new 6.4-liter HEMI V-8.

And a new Dodge Viper returns to the market next year, after a short hiatus.

Chrysler also recently decided to make SRT (Street and Racing Technology) its own brand.

"People are rabid about them," said Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau. "SRT opens new avenues for people. It's always been good business for us."

To make them relevant today, the engines have cylinder displacement technology that improves fuel economy 25 percent.

Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation at Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif., said the value of used muscle cars has outperformed the market average for the past month. Classics such as the Camaro SS Coupe have retained 95 percent of their value.

Because muscle cars can be niche vehicles and tend to not be cross-shopped, automakers "can charge their target market more."

Classics of the future?

But will today's cars be the classics of the future? The automakers like to think so.

Jost Capito, Ford's director of Global Performance Vehicles and Motorsport Business Development, thinks the Shelby GT500 — especially the 2009 GT500KR — is a shoo-in. So too, he thinks, is the Boss 302: It took Ford 40 years to develop a Mustang deserving of the Boss name again.

"That's what I want to drive 50 years from now, if I'm still alive," said Capito.

Chrysler sees the modern Challenger being embraced as well as its predecessors. GM stands by the Corvette and Camaro.

"We think the Volt will be a classic of tomorrow," Albano said. About 50 Volts, GM's extended-range electric car, are scheduled to parade down Woodward on Thursday. "It'll be the quietest parade ever down Woodward," Albano said.

The bigger question is whether there will be as many enthusiasts in the future, Hall said.

"Every year, there are fewer enthusiasts, and there is not a new generation coming up, so there won't be as many cars saved and restored," Hall said.

Many of those in the Millennial generation aren't even interested in buying a car.

"Some don't want a car or want to know how to fix it," Albano said. "Maybe events like this will help ignite passion around the car."

Capito said social media are generating demand for a new breed of small cars they see in the X Games rallycross and drifting events. But Albano thinks there will always be a pocket of muscle car enthusiasts who want power — but also the ability to sync their cellphone and play their iPod.

"In 30 years, people might not care about retro," Hall said. "They might be more enamored by souped-up Volts."

apriddle@detnews.com

(313)222-2504

Vince Muniga of Grosse Pointe Park leans on his 1968 Dodge Charger, parked ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)