MUSCLE CARS RULE AT THE AUTO SHOW
NEW YORK CITY -- Here at the New York International Auto Show, nothing
is slowing down the parade of muscle cars taking the stage. Chrysler
is showing off its reborn Dodge Challenger, with a screaming V-8 hemi
engine. GM rolled out three hot-rod Pontiacs, including a pickup truck
inspired by the El Camino from the 1970s. Nissan rolled out a new
version of its smoking hot Maxima sport sedan, with a 290-horsepower
Every other auto show this year has been overrun with futuristic
plug-in electric Chevys and switchgrass burning Biofuel Ferraris. But
here, it's green be damned. Like an infamous Yankees pitcher, the New
York Auto Show is all about the juice. The only difference:
performance enhancement isn't denied, it's celebrated and glorified.
What are these guys thinking? Well, let's give them the benefit of the
doubt and say they planned these new model intros long before they
knew about bank failures, $100 a barrel oil and federal bailouts. But
shouldn't the car business, of all industries, be able to switch gears?
"We have both" green and mean, says GM vice chairman Bob Lutz,
standing near a Corvette and a hybrid Chevy Tahoe SUV. "Just because
vegetarianism is on the rise doesn't mean you shut down the meat counter."
The meat counter, though, is not getting a lot of business these days.
Sales for GM's ultimate muscle car, the Corvette, are down 18.6
percent to-date. And Detroit's meatiest models, pickup trucks and big
SUVs are tanking. Fold in the consumers' crisis of confidence and
you've got a guy sitting at an office desk that gets 100 Mpg.
J.D. Power and Associates this week forecast U.S. auto sales will
reach their lowest level since 1994, falling below 15 million vehicles
for the first time this decade. Just three years ago, Americans
purchased 17 million cars and trucks. "Autos have been a leading
indicator of what is happening in the rest of the economy now," says
Nissan executive Dominique Thormann. "Our industry has been in
recession for the last three years."
What models are those brave few buyers laying down deposits on? Small,
fuel-efficient cars. Just ask Honda. It introduced a new version of
its Honda Fit subcompact at the New York show Wednesday. Sales of that
little runabout, which gets 34 miles per gallon on the highway are up
87 percent so far this year. And the new version coming this fall
manages to be just a little bigger and yet improve its mileage by a
mile or two per gallon, says Honda senior vice president Dick
Colliver. Asked why Honda didn't flex a little muscle in New York like
the Detroit automakers, Colliver said, "We wanted to show a car that
people actually want to buy."
Don't try telling that to the folks at Pontiac, who provided the most
steroidal and surreal moment of the show when 50 Cent joined
76-year-old Bob Lutz on stage to introduce three new hot rods. "Hi 50,
how are you doing?" the white-haired senior statesman of the industry
said as he shook hands with Fiddy, dapper in red Harvard hat and track
jacket. The rapper is an automotive tastemaker who made a star out of
the Chrysler 300C by casting it in one of his videos. But he's working
for Pontiac now and by the looks of things on stage, he's earning his
money. "This Solstice if faster than a Boxster," 50 said, patting the
fender of Pontiac's little duce coupe.
Like two rock stars from alternative universes, Lutz and 50 stood back
to back on stage fielding questions from the media horde that
descended upon them after their press conference. And 50 sounded less
like his expletive-laced songs and more like an M.B.A. from that
school on his hat. "Where I come from, people equate quality with how
much you pay," said 50, a huge diamond-and-gold-encrusted cross
swinging from his neck.
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