Carmakers flex their muscles with performance models

Ian Thibodeau, The Detroit News

Mean muscle cars and speedsters are announcing their presence loudly in showrooms.

For all the talk of the self-driving cars of the future, there’s a curious flip side. Look no further than the burn-out button on all upcoming Ford Mustangs, the fearsome 840-horsepower Dodge Demon dragster, even the trio of scrappy Honda Civics that debuted this year.

“Autonomous cars are (coming), but they’re still on the way,” said Stephanie Brinley, analyst with forecaster IHS Automotive. “We’re going to be driving our own cars for quite a while, and there’s still value in offering cars that people truly enjoy.”

Companies like Tesla Inc., Waymo and Uber may be disrupting the industry. But Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors Co. and other automakers are playing to their strengths by emphasizing horsepower and performance.


Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Dodge performance brand officially revealed the ferocious muscle car it's worked on for two years -- the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon -- on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

“The really great expression of what you can do tends to be done in a sporty car,” said Brinley. “That is a space where you can (show off).”

And it seems some features on the latest round of muscle is made for just that.

Ford recently announced its “line-lock” feature will be standard on all 2018 Mustangs. Here’s what’s behind that benign name: At the touch of a button, the car will lock the front brakes only. Stomp on the gas, and you can smoke the rear tires for 15 seconds.

Ford added that the feature to its entire Mustang lineup, because as Vaughn Gittin Jr., Ford’s Formula Drift Champion, puts it, “Burnouts just never get old.”


Keith Weston, vehicle integration supervisor, Ford Motor Co.Mustang Program, is seen burning out a 2018 Ford Mustang on the Ford's testing track in Dearborn, Mi. July 11, 2017.

Ford may be ditching its V-6 engine option on that car in favor of a turbocharged Ecoboost 2.3-liter inline-four. But the four-banger produces more horsepower than the old V-6. And to add an extra touch of menace, the new vehicles will have an electronically enhanced exhaust roar.

Mark Schaller, Mustang marketing manager, said, “We think there will always be a customer interested in the fun and thrill of driving vehicles like Mustang.”

Brinley and Dave Sullivan, analyst with marketing researcher AutoPacific Inc., said muscle-car efforts in all of the Big Three’s lineups are succeeding even under fuel-efficiency requirements that could have dampened the power put out by some of those vehicles.

“It’s nothing short of amazing,” Sullivan says, to see 2018 models being introduced with 500 to 800 horsepower when faced with the constraints of federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

“Twenty years ago, people were thinking we’d all be driving small cars and hybrids to meet CAFE,” he said. “In fact, quite the opposite thing has taken place, and I think that demonstrates a major leap in automotive engineering to increase fuel efficiency while size and mass have grown.”

Then there’s Honda, which, after introducing the 2016 all-new Civic, rolled out three sporty models in the Civic Si, Hatchback Sport or Type R, all more-athletic takes on the hatch staple with tighter suspension and track tuning.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet recently gave its Camaro lineup a little more punch with the ZL1 convertible, a 650-horsepower ragtop with a 10-speed automatic transmission. The car roars, and doesn’t skimp on speed with a 3.6-second 0-60 mph time.


You'll know the Camaro ZL1 by the carbon fiber hood insert over the supercharger. And the huge air intakes that feed 11 heat exchangers within.

At the very least, cars like the potent Camaro garner attention for automakers and generate excitement in between major model upgrades, Brinley said. The sportiest models generate bigger profits. The so-called “halo” models lend a glow to automakers’ less potent cars — including ones that couldn’t squeal the tires if they wanted to.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the Dodge SRT (short for Street and Racing Technology) lineup, which now borrows performance and styling from the rip-snorting 840-horsepower Challenger SRT Demon. Only 3,000 Demons will be built, but their influence goes well beyond that.

“The unveiling of the Demon was one of the most dramatic events we’ve seen at an auto show in years,” Sullivan said. “Although they will only make a few of them, this puts the Dodge brand in solid leading territory in the horsepower race... All of these things like line-lock and the Demon aren’t driving profits, but they do generate buzz and get people talking.

“Even if someone comes in to see a Mustang, they might leave in a Fusion Sport. I don’t think any automaker would complain about that.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau