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The all-American muscle car will outlive the doomed sedan
THE list of passenger cars sent to the scrap heap keeps getting longer. The Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 are goners, Ford models including the Fusion and Fiesta are going to be finished, and last month General Motors Co announced plans to cull the Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala and others. But as Detroit kills off slow-selling sedans, there is one niche that has hung on: retro-styled, testosterone-fuelled reincarnations of muscle cars introduced in the 1960s and 1970s.
"What's dying is the commoditised, four-door nothingburger, no-personality cars," said Tim Kuniskis, who ran the Dodge brand at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV from 2013 to early 2018, before taking over Jeep North America. Muscle cars "have a really well-defined personality and positioning".
They also command respectable revenue. Fiat Chrysler, which kicked off the sedan-slashing trend in early 2016, commands an average transaction price of around US$36,000 for its muscular Dodge Challenger. It might not be enough to match the fat margins on the trucks and SUVs that have become the focus for Detroit, but these powerful throwbacks can be still be moneymakers. And that can help big carmakers finance their shift to a more electric future - especially since the initial investment on developing a Challenger (on the same platform since 2008) or a Dodge Charger (2011) has long since been paid off.
Looking for growth in muscle cars still might be a bit of a stretch. Fiat Chrysler expects to sell roughly 65,000 Challengers this year, about the same as last year and just below the record 66,000 reached in 2015. Sales of the four-door Charger dropped 11 per cent this year till November.
Still, compared with the death spiral that has consumed sedans, the Dodge muscle cars are doing all right. Retail sales of large passenger cars, a segment that includes the Nissan Maxima and Chevy Impala, is down 21 per cent in 2018, according to JD Power. The Ford Mustang, the top-selling muscle car in America, was down a modest 3.6 per cent till last month.
Fiat Chrysler, with less cash to plough into new models than its Detroit rivals, revitalised the Dodge brand by appealing to core drag-racing enthusiasts and regularly one-ups itself with more powerful engine variants with sinister names - Hellcat, Demon, Redeye - that boost horsepower.
"There's almost been a resurgence with some of the younger (people), even kids that aren't of driving age that are interested in those products," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice-president of forecasting for LMC Automotive. "Those kind of special additions and add-ons have really put some life into the vehicles."
David Kelleher, a Philadelphia-area Jeep, Ram and Chrysler dealer who has a marketing agreement with several basketball and football players from the Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Eagles, finds that 20-something athletes often opt for Challengers and Chargers over higher-volume models. "The kids think it's the coolest thing going," he said. "Those are cars that say something about who you are."
Josh Towbin, co-owner of Towbin Automotive in Las Vegas, has sold Dodge Hellcats and Demons - with 707 and 808 horsepower, respectively - to collectors who find his business on social media. His dealership's Instagram feed features videos, some with thousands of views, of people doing burnouts in their Challengers.
Manufacturers of more mass-market sedans are trying some of the same tricks - though to a lesser degree - as a way to revive flagging sales. Even Fiat Chrysler is to stanch the bleeding from Americans' disinterest in compacts by packing more power into their engines. Every Fiat model starting in 2019 will be turbocharged, said Steve Beahm, head of Fiat Chrysler's passenger brands. US sales for the Fiat brand were down 41 per cent till November. "What we have to do is no different from what we've tried to do on Dodge," Mr Beahm said. "How do we cut against the grain? How do we be different?"
Of course, it is worth considering that drag racers in Challengers, Camaros and Mustangs are already being bested by Tesla drivers on the track, a portent of the electric future awaiting the muscle-car world.
Mr Kuniskis said that he expects performance cars to become more electrified over time, with plug-in hybrid versions taking off in the future. Both he and Mr Beahm declined to go into detail on Fiat Chrysler's product plans, and the carmaker so far has not invested heavily thus far to bring in electric vehicles to market. BLOOMBERG