The 1960s are etched into many peoples' minds as the good old days of musclecar performance. Everyone has a favorite car from that era, when it seemed performance cars were at their quarter-mile peak. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler for their part, seemed in the mist of an epic contest to be top dog, with ever increasing displacements, and horsepower numbers that seemed to have no limit. It finally took the 1-2 punches of the insurance industry and environmental regulations kill off the muscle race.
Fast forward to 2003, and suddenly, it seems RWD is poised to make a comeback. All three big automakers are moving to RWD for volume, mainstream cars. Why? Driver's cars are back, and people are willing to spend to get them. Cars from Lexus, Infinity, BMW and Mercedes (all of which have starting prices in the $30k range) are getting the nod from discriminating buyers. Suddenly, paying $30k for that FWD V-6 Pontiac Bonneville or Chrysler 300M doesn't seem like such a great idea.
From a technical standpoint, there are very real limits to FWD. Even with traction control, torque management, and all-season tires, you can't break the laws of physics. Accelerate hard, and all the weight shifts rearward, whether your drive tires are back there or not. Take a corner hard enough to induce oversteer and you're going to have a rough go at trying to prevent a spinout. This goes for dry, wet, as well as snow-covered pavement. It seems that automakers have come to grips with this, especially since the buying public is voting with its pocketbook. FWD sports sedans just aren't taken seriously once the $30,000 barrier is passed.
The good news is American musclecars are returning. Within the next four years, each of the big three should have a RWD-based V-8 on the market. While work is progressing on new RWD cars, all three companies now also have performance divisions whose main job is to create some insanely quick versions of cars in their respective camps. Chrysler's PVO, GM's Performance Division, and the veteran, Ford's SVT, are hard at work tuning some of the fastest cars ever made in the US.
The following is a combination of facts and speculations, as well as some insider info from anonymous internal sources. So, lets start the tour.
Ford's SVT team was recently adsorbed into Ford Performance Group (FPG). In spite of a few negative naysayers claiming the ruination of performance at Ford, SVT is a very profitable organization that has created some very memorable cars, including the world's fastest pickup truck, the world's quickest car under $55,000, and the-soon-to-be-Viper-eating Ford GT 40.
We're told the 2003 Ford Mustang...
We're told the 2003 Ford Mustang concept car closely resembles the 2005 production version. A fusion of futuristic looks and heritage styling cues will guarantee it homerun status among musclecar fans. A potent V-8 and rearwheel drive will make it a hit with drag racers too. Best of all, look for it to be the only RWD V-8 performer under $30,000.
The purpose of SVT going under FPG is to create an even better organization geared towards providing performance cars, parts and services. This will include not only vehicles built with the SVT label (exclusive to only to the Ford brand), but also Ford Racing Technology (previously SVO), the vehicle personalization organization (the factory aftermarket to us), and Ford's special edition cars, such as the Mach 1 and Marauder for example. Rest assured, SVT is intact, and in the words of Ford's SVT boss, John Coletti, ready to "kick ass!"
Continuous improvement is SVT's mantra. Every new model will be better than the one it replaces. Even though there will be no new Camaro across the street, it seems the next Cobra will be an even better car than the current one. There is a hint the next Cobra will be a bit of a surprise, but we'll have to wait and see how big of a surprise it will be. Our money is on a 500hp, DOHC V-8 aided by Ford's new "Super Cooler" technology. This creative intercooling system--developed by Coletti--uses the car's own air conditioning system for short blasts (up to 30 seconds or so) to chill the intake charge for a boost of up to 50hp.
While the future of the Mercury...
While the future of the Mercury Messenger concept is tenuous, we do see Mercury becoming more active in the RWD performance market. As an entry-level luxury brand, the winged division will want to compete with the likes of Lexus, Infinity and BMW. Could a Cougar based on the 2005 Mustang be too far away from the Messenger's message?
A little Trivia note: When the current Mustang Cobra was under development, its code name was "Terminator." Though it looked tough as the central character of the movie of the same name, there is another reason why it was so named. It was to "terminate" all discussion as to which car was quicker, the LS1 F-body, or Ford Mustang Cobra. Had Camaro continued another year, it's no doubt this mission would have been accomplished.
The biggest news is the upcoming version of America's only remaining pony car. Though the common thread at Ford is that they are sorry to see it go, Mustang is by no means going to rest on its laurels. The next Mustang, displayed in concept form earlier this year, is still on schedule as of this writing. Initially, Mustang was to have been based completely on Lincoln's DEW chassis, but there have now been changes to the Mustang to ensure its affordability. The most newsworthy item is the rear axle (on certain models) will likely be solid rather than independently-suspended, both to lower production costs and as a nod to drag racing. Externally, Mustang will look much like the concept on display on the auto show circuit earlier this year.
The surprise of the 2003 Detroit...
The surprise of the 2003 Detroit Auto Show was Ford's 427 concept. Taking command of the road with a tall visual mass, plenty of power and rear-wheel drive, the 427 possesses all the subtlety of a 16-pound sledgehammer. We'll take two of 'em. The 427 could be built off a redesigned Panther platform as early as 2006.
Ford is evaluating the Australian Falcon for sale here in the US. However, squashing rumors from the start, Ford will not likely be importing the Falcon from Australia. Australia's car market makes up just over a half a percent of the world's car market. With the first three months of Falcons sold before production even started, and the Falcon line quickly becoming a success on the market, Ford's plant will be operating at capacity just to keep the Australian market supplied. But don't think that Ford isn't interested in making a version of the Falcon or Fairmont here. Ford commissioned a study late last year, and this past spring was examining a business case for US production. Everyone from J. Mays to CEO Bill Ford himself spent quality time with an Australian Fairmont Ghia V-8 brought over for evaluation, and possibly other versions of the newly released "BA" chassis as well. Ford is interested in developing a common car for both here and the land down under, and it's possible the Mustang's modified DEW chassis will be underneath them.
With the Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis due for a remake in the next few years, it's possible one or both may be replaced by a derivative of the Fairlane. It's possible, however, the Town Car version of the "panther" chassis may continue with yet another reskining. Though the 427 was primarily a styling exercise, many of its themes are likely to end up on a future Ford, most likely the replacement to the Crown Victoria.
One thing's for sure, the Ford 427's styling cues are right on time with its upright, powerful visual mass. Other manufacturers are in lockstep with this design philosophy as many concepts these days are moving away from soft, melted candy designs and towards themes of mass and power.
The Mercury Messenger is yet another hint at the possible direction Ford might take. There's a lot of discussion these days about the future performance role Mercury might play, if any. With the Marauder on the outs, the winged division may be looking for another direction and the Messenger just might be a sign of things to come. We think the Messenger is the perfect start for a new Cougar, however, not much is known about the future of the two-seat sports coupe. Based on the Mustang chassis and possessing classic fastback styling, J. Mays said earlier this year that the design still needed "a lot of work." One could translate that to mean "don't expect to see it for a few years." Remember, on a fully developed chassis, it would have little difficulty making it to market.
There's nothing conceptual...
There's nothing conceptual at all about the 2004 GTO. A 350-hp Corvette LS1 powers the rear wheels via a road-hugging IR suspension. Look for sticker price to be between $33,000 and $35,000. Dealer gouging will bump the price up to around $40,000 for the first year at least, but how much is it worth to you to be young again?
You can't talk about the future of affordable rear-drive performance without mentioning Australia's Holden division of GM. There is a very real reason for saying this, which we'll mention in a moment. GM is an extremely active place of late. They are busy reengineering pretty much everything they make, from improving quality and dependability, to creating entirely new powertrains, and even moving ahead quickly with fuel cell technology. It may not sound like GM has much left over for affordable performance cars, and since modestly priced RWD performance cars aren't exactly high volume profit generators it doesn't help matters.
This is where Holden comes in. By now you may have heard some variation of a story that says Holden is designing the RWD chassis that future GM cars will use worldwide. However, there's more to the story.
Holden is designing the chassis and structure, and will likely invest in an existing US GM factory and refurbish it to be flexible enough to make a variety of vehicles on the same line (much like its own factory in Australia). The plan is to produce a number of variations of cars, which will be marketed under Buick, Pontiac, and Chevrolet nameplates. In short, it will be the same concept as the new GTO, but will instead be made here at a single plant in greater numbers and variations.
The granddaddy of all musclecars:...
The granddaddy of all musclecars: The SS. In the past, the "SS" moniker was liberally applied to everything from big-block Chevelles and Camaros to puny front-wheel drive boxes with decal packages. Most folks will relate to the former, and thankfully the 2003 SS concept hearkens back to them as well. The best sign SS could make production is its four-door layout. A concession to practicality, extra doors may well be the purchase justification needed for brow-beaten husbands everywhere.
Our sources tell us there is a combined GM-North America and GM-Holden team charged with creating business cases for individual models Holden hopes to produce. GM has already announced plans to produce new transmissions and powerplants for large and performance RWD cars by the 2007 model year. Talk about subtle hints!
In light of the fact GM hasn't produced the Camaro and Firebird in a year, it may seem laughable to some people that GM claims to be in the affordable performance car biz, but performance isn't actually dead at GM. In many ways, GM just might actually end up with the widest range of hot performance cars of all the big three.
The new GTO is a great example. Although derided by some purists on its styling, the 2004 GTO will without a doubt be the quickest ever, and by no small margin. With 0-60 times well under 5.9 seconds and a top speed of at least 160, it's no doubt this Holden-based GTO has the spirit (if not the looks) of past GTOs. In 2005, it will be even quicker with a new V-8 that will push over 400hp. The GTO project was handed to Holden with a simple mandate, meet US regulations, and be ready by the 2004 model year. The deadline left no time to do more cosmetically than design a new nose. In 2005, in addition to more power, expect hood scoops and other tasty cosmetic additions. However, in 2006/2007 the GTO will in fact sport a new skin and a new chassis, and is likely be assembled in what could be called GM-Holden's US factory.
One of chairman Bob Lutz's...
One of chairman Bob Lutz's first missions was to come out of the box with a strong performance statement--namely, the Pontiac Solstice concept. While not entirely in the vein of a musclecar (it has I4 power versus V-8 power), it will have the requisite power-to-weight ratio to go toe-to-toe with musclecars of yore. PHR received confirmation of Solstice's future production status while this story was prepared.
On a related note, the Australian Holden Ute is rumored to be a favorite of GM product boss Bob Lutz. Were it not for a federally-imposed 25 percent tariff on imported trucks, a Ute-based El Camino may have been available in the US even before the GTO, due to its different fuel tank location and separate US regulations as a truck. Nevertheless, El Camino is extremely likely to return to Chevrolet as a locally-made vehicle within a few years.
Mid-sized GM passenger cars may not be so lucky. About 10 years ago, GM-North America conducted an evaluation on a Holden sedan with the intent to market it here as a Buick. The Holden Statesman is a lengthened luxury version of what is internally a Commodore, and in upcoming reengineered form, is also a contender to become GM's new line of full-sized RWD cars. Rumor had been rampant about Impala and Grand Prix going to RWD, however, the recent sales surge of Impala, the redesign of the Grand Prix, and the next FWD "mid-lux" Regal seems to make those cars unlikely RWD candidates in 2007. Instead, Buick, Chevrolet, and Pontiac may create an entirely new RWD sedan line with entirely different names and identities from existing models. The mid-lux cars may eventually also move to RWD, but not till late decade at the earliest.
Even this scenario is subject to change. With the recent introduction (and subsequent widespread praise) of the Chevy SS concept, the spotlight is once again on practical performance. While it's unlikely that such a car would be built off a Corvette chassis (especially with prior generation Corvette suspension pieces), a longer wheelbase variant built off the aforementioned Holden/GM venture is plausible. In any event, many design elements of the SS will likely show up on an upcoming Chevrolet sedan, coupe, or sportscar.
The future of smaller RWD performance cars is somewhat more certain. GM has given the go-ahead to develop a low-cost sportscar chassis, principally to support the Pontiac Solstice, but it must also share architecture with Buick and Saturn to justify the investment. This car will have independent rear suspension and a stiff performance-oriented chassis that's relatively lightweight and low-cost. It's speculated that if Camaro does return, by sharing it's chassis and components with another carline (such as Solstice), its financial case is significantly improved.
As for Camaro, the only thing that's known is that it will be back. Most guesses expect Camaro to return in time for it's 40th anniversary (much like the GTO) for the 2007 model year. How about the chassis? That may be the easy part. GM will have three available. The new Holden VE, the Cadillac sigma, and the Solstice all qualify. Since it would be extremely expensive to develop a Camaro-specific chassis (which would likely end its affordability), a safe bet would be one of these three choices.
When Chrysler rolled out this...
When Chrysler rolled out this 300 Hemi C concept car three years ago, there was plenty of buzz surrounding it. For one thing, there was a lot of production-ready equipment stuffed between the fenders, namely a 346 cubic-inch V8 Hemi. This jewel powered the rear wheels and had all the ingredients of a musclecar. Since then, the production intent 300C sedan has been revealed and it rides on the new LX platform. (We're not showing it because this 300 Hemi C looks nicer.) The 300C's doudy styling notwithstanding, the 300C has the very same ingredients as the 300 Hemi C, including the V8 Hemi, a five-speed auto-stick trans, and IRS.
Chrysler seems to have a lot going for it on the RWD and performance fronts. They will be--by at least two years--the first American carmaker to return to volume RWD production. Daimler Chrysler recently assembled the Performance Vehicle Organization (PVO), which will handle the development of Chrysler's High performance line, and the new Magnum Hemi engine will power at least two versions of Chrysler's new rear-drive LX cars.
The opening LX salvo in this profusion of Mopar muscle comes in the form of the Chrysler 300C, revealed recently at the 2003 New York International Auto Show. This will be the first significant car engineered since the Daimler-Chrysler merger. It will also stand as the first new high-volume RWD car from any of the big three in years, and the only one not primarily marketed to police departments, taxi companies, or retirees. Dodge's variant of the LX will be to market a little late due to last minute design changes. The muscular Magnum SRT-8 concept seems to be still on schedule, and rumors persist of a new LX-based coupe to be introduced within a few years.
The SUV-wanna-be Pacifica notwithstanding, the Magnum SRT-8 and Chrysler 300C are only the first RWD cars to be built off the LX platform. The biggest hint of what Mopar enthusiasts can expect came four years ago when Daimler Chrysler execs coyly hinted that its entrance into NASCAR signaled a move to "build what they race," meaning RWD passenger cars. Industry experts saw this as more than a sideways jab at Ford and GM, coming nearly simultaneous with the revelation of a jaw-dropping V-8-powered RWD Dodge Charger concept car.
The Chrysler Airflite continues...
The Chrysler Airflite continues on Daimler Chrysler's Hemi/RWD theme, bringing heritage cues forward all the way from Chrysler's 1934 V8 Airflow. Once again, we see a concession to family motoring, but it's the price that must be paid. If built, the Airflite would also be based on the LX platform.
Ever since the '99 Charger concept, rumor has persisted that the Charger--or something like it--would eventually make production. The likelihood of this seems even better now, as four years have passed and the buzz surrounding the concept absolutely refuses to die. (Mattel continues to build the briskly-selling Charger concept Hotwheel model as fast as it can, and by all accounts Malaysian factory workers are tiring of it.)
Will a V-8-powered Charger sedan get the nod? That's an interesting proposition. With traditional Pontiac enthusiasts irrationally assailing the new GTO, it's entirely possible that a Charger-inspired production car may actually carry the Intrepid banner, the current version itself a beautiful (if not powerful) sedan. This lesson will not likely be lost on Chrysler execs and brand types. It seems enthusiast consumers are acutely sensitive to a model's adherence to heritage cues, meaning in this case the number of doors. It's a coin toss. If Charger is lucky enough to end up a coupe, it will likely be called Charger. If not, our money's on the Intrepid label.
As Daimler Chrysler begins...
As Daimler Chrysler begins rolling out its line of RWD Hemi-powered LX cars, true enthusiasts will be holding their breath to see if the gorgeous Charger concept makes the show. Arguably the most talked about concept in the last five years, the Charger is decidedly forward-looking in its styling cues. One question asked by many: Will the Charger name remain with four doors? Probably not, but does it really matter when it looks as good as this?
A better question might be, "does anyone care what Chrysler calls it?" We say, sell the car without a badge and let the owners name it.
Overall, there are lots of good things coming out of GM, Ford and Chrysler. It's nearly certain that in four year's time, all three will offer hot RWD V-8-powered uber-musclecars. By most indications, cover charge for the more potent of this new breed of rear-drive, high-performance hardware will be above $30,000. (The new Mustang GT will be the possible exception.) Pontiac's Solstice and its platform-mates will come in around the mid-20s, but performance will be a tad off the big dog musclecars, largely due to a lack of V-8 power and the inability of such a Miata-sized platform to handle large amounts of torque.
All speculation aside, we are living in perhaps the most prolific of performance times. The recent loss of the Camaro and Firebird notwithstanding, there is an abundance of Detroit iron already out there--or shortly to be--pounding the streets. On the high end we have the Z06 Corvette, Cadillac CTSv and XLR, the Dodge Viper and Magnum SRT-10 Ram, and the top dog of them all, the Ford GT 40. The middle ground is held solidly by Pontiac's GTO, Chrysler's 300C Hemi, Ford's Mustang GT, Cobra Mustang, and the Lightning pick-up.
For argument's sake, if you throw the affordable (under $20k) FWD performers into the scrap, you can even count the hot little Dodge SRT-4, the Ford Focus SVT and Saturn's Redline Ion tuner coupe. Certainly, the fastest of the group--the $19,995 SRT-4--can hold itself against the likes of the Mustang GT. (Which begs the question, when it comes to making copious quantities of tire smoke, does it really matter which end of the car it comes from?)
Take a good look at the list above. Any one of them could spank all but the most hyperactive Hemis or big-blocks from the '60s. When you consider the added handling, safety, economy, reliability and inflation-adjusted cost to the mix, there is simply no comparison. Are Detroit musclecars dead? Not by a long shot, pal. Things are just getting started...