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Muscle cars and ponies ride again


From the editor

At a time when global petrol prices are going through the roof, it seems ironic that the American new car industry is in the middle of a V8-fuelled high-performance drive. Ironic in that it was the oil shocks, higher prices and supply shortages that partly wrote the death warrant of the original crop of Detroit muscle cars in the 1970s.
The big three are all back in the high-performance business with pony cars; not mind you that Ford ever went away. Its pony, the Mustang has been galloping for nigh on 45 years. It’s faltered during that time but has been on an ascending roll since the introduction of the current retro-inspired model. And it was the phenomenal success of that car that saw Chevrolet and Dodge return to the fold with new versions of their old ponies – the Camaro and Challenger. They produced retro-look motor show concept cars that drew inspiration from their originals from the late 1960s.
Dodge is the first of the two to go to market with a sizzling SRT8 version of the Challenger that will hurtle to 100kph in around five seconds, run to around 270kph and cut out the standing quarter mile in 13.3 seconds, and generate nigh on 0.9g on the skidpan. US road testers while stopping short of calling the two-tonner nimble say the handling is tidy and comes with a suppleness of ride absent in the 1970 original with its rock-hard springing.
Chevy’s Camaro is based on a shortened version of the Holden VE Commodore platform and is going on sale this year as a 2009 model. It’s expected to run the 6.2-litre V8 (the Challenger has a 6.1) and will also be in the five-second bracket for the dash to 100kph. Like the Challenger it will have independent rear suspension while the Ford soldiers on with a solid rear axle – seen by some critics to be its greatest weakness.
With two red hot newcomers arriving in its patch, Ford isn’t sitting around. Blue Oval North American design director Peter Burbury says the next generation Mustang will look smaller which will give it a psychological advantage at a time when big cars are seen as gas guzzlers. “We have a car which I think is more suitable for the times than the Challenger and the Camaro,” he says. “Especially the Challenger. It’s a huge car when you see it on the road (it’s 275mm longer than the Mustang and 45mm wider).”
Horbury says the revamped 2010 Mustang will be the same size as the current car but “by cleverness in design, we’ve been able to make it look like the wheels are further out, further forward and further rearward.”
Till the 2010 car debuts next year, Ford will build a 2009 model that is little changed from the 2008 car, But it will build only 45,000.
Where’s the Pontiac Firebird in all of this? Well, Pontiac is focusing instead on its version of the HSV Commodore, with twin-aperture grille and G8 nameplate. The hottest version, the GXP, (bottom left) pumps out 402 horsepower, sells for less than $US40,000 (Dodge’s Challenger SRT8 sells for a shade under $US38,000) and will run to 100kph in around five seconds. So with a little help from our cousins across the Tasman, the Pontiac muscle car has been reborn in the USA.
At a time when people are crying out for greater fuel efficiency and a more responsible attitude to petrol use, isn’t this all rather irresponsible? Probably, but cars like the quartet mentioned above sure are a lot of fun, naughty but nice, and our desire for automotive fun will never wane.

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