American muscle cars have a rebirth
Brad Ahlgren grew up idolizing muscle cars of the late 1960s and early '70s, a time many consider to be the peak of styling and performance.
"It was an amazing era of vehicles," said the Bloomfield Hills resident. "Those were the cool cars when I was younger."
Ahlgren, 50, now owns eight cars from that era, ranging from a 1966 Ford Mustang fastback to a 1972 Oldsmobile 442.
But in recent years, Ahlgren has found himself admiring a new generation of American muscle cars including the upcoming 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat rated at an unprecedented 707-horsepower.
Dodge's Hellcat models, including the 2015 Charger with a top speed of 204 mph, are the top performers for a new era of American muscle cars that many didn't think they'd ever see again because of fuel economy regulations and higher gas prices.
"For a while, I thought this whole segment was in jeopardy," said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds.com senior analyst.
"Everyone wanted to downsize and move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. It seems like the pendulum is kind of switching back."
During the unveiling of the 2015 Charger SRT Hellcat last month in Metro Detroit, Dodge CEO and President Tim Kuniskis warned, "If you missed the first muscle-car era, don't miss this one. I don't know how long this could last, so take advantage of it now."
It's not just Chrysler that's driving this movement.
General Motors Co. has its track-capable 505-horsepower 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 and the Camaro ZL1, rated at 580 horses.
Ford Motor Co. will soon release its 2015 Mustang with its three available engines all producing at least 300 horsepower, a first for the pony car.
Ford also has the Mustang GT500, which puts out 662 horsepower.
As dynamometer numbers have spiked, so has buyer interest.
Combined sales of the Detroit automakers' four muscle cars — the Dodge Challenger and Charger, Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang — have increased 45 percent from 2009-13, according to Edmunds.com. They're on pace to top 300,000 for a second straight year.
In 2013, the four vehicles combined for more than 303,000 sold. The four-door Charger, while not a traditional coupe, led the way with 98,336 sold, followed by the Camaro at 80,567; Mustang at 72,707; and Challenger at 51,462.
Challenger and Charger sales have been particularly impressive. Every year for the past five years they've become more popular, a rare occurrence as a vehicle's lifecycle ages. Combined, Chrysler has sold more than 1 million Chargers and Challengers with the current platform.
Chrysler Group LLC reports pre-orders for the $59,995 Hellcat Challenger topped 4,000 in its first four days. Pre-orders for the Charger, which Kuniskis has called a "four-door muscle car," are expected to open closer to its introduction early next year.
Automotive industry experts say that although muscle car sales remain a niche, they bring attention and excitement to the entire brand.
"There's a space for these vehicles in the market and a space for them to grow," Caldwell said.
While Ahlgren and other classic muscle car enthusiasts love their old cars, there's no arguing that muscle cars from 50 years ago can't compete with today's modern vehicles when it comes to performance and technology.
All of the V-6 base engines for today's muscle cars are close to, or exceed, performance specifications of many muscle cars from the early '70s.
For example, a 1971 Challenger started at less than 150 horsepower and topped out at more than 400 horsepower with a Hemi.
The 2015 Challenger, available now, starts at 305 horsepower with a base V-6 engine. It tops out with the Hellcat's 6.2-liter Hemi supercharged engine at more than 700 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque; the car eat up a quarter mile in 11 seconds.
"The best muscle cars from the original muscle car era wouldn't have a chance against the modern ones," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "There is no downside to the modern muscle car."
Brauer noted that while automakers are pumping power into their "modern muscle cars," they're also upping fuel economy and including modern features like adaptive cruise control and infotainment systems that appeal to present-day buyers.
Peter Gongol, 19, convinced his father to pre-order a Challenger Hellcat for him.
The Troy teenager is excited about a touchscreen that displays track times, 0-60 mph time, G-forces and one-eighth mile and quarter-mile times. A launch-control system maximizes straight-line acceleration.
"I've always liked muscle cars — and Dodge is the king of muscle cars and that's what drew me toward Dodge," he said, adding he's planning to go drag racing.
Dan Millen, a performance expert and co-owner of Livernois Motorsports in Dearborn Heights, also pre-ordered the Challenger Hellcat. He plans to take it to the track as soon as possible and test out the new technologies.
"It's really an amazing car," said the 38-year-old Dearborn resident. "For me, I'm more excited about a 2014-2015 car that has a backup camera, some really cool stuff and can go fast."
Chris Cowland, Chrysler director of advanced and SRT powertrains, said at a media event Monday, "The car looks like a modern version of a muscle car. That's what we wanted. We didn't want it to be a sports car. We wanted it to be that American-style muscle car."
Everything from exhaust roar to gear ratios were analyzed to meet that goal, he said.
There's no end in sight for the current muscle-car era, even as the government's 2017-25 fuel economy standards come into play, according to analysts.
Automakers are making today's muscle cars more fuel efficient — and other cars in the lineup that are less thirsty help balance out the overall fleet.
The Challenger Hellcat is rated at up to 22 miles per gallon, while the base V-6 Challenger engine is rated at up to 30 mpg.
The 2015 Mustang, with a new four-cylinder EcoBoost that produces more horsepower than a traditional V-6, is rated at more than 30 mpg highway.
Direct injection, turbocharging, lightweight materials, eight-speed transmissions and improved aerodynamics are ways automakers are boosting performance while keeping cars relatively fuel-efficient.
"They're trying to improve the fuel efficiency of these vehicles as much as they can," Caldwell said. "These cars create a lot of excitement in the auto industry. They're bringing emotion back to car buying."