The Battle of Detroit’s Dinosaurs

At the upcoming Detroit Auto Show, America’s automobile manufacturers will continue their old arms race as if there were no economic crisis. New muscle cars stand opposed to everything that is ecologically correct – but their image is indispensable to American customers.

Every carmaker needs a drawing card, a special model that carries the maker’s banner and incorporates its values. For over 40 years at Ford, that model has been the Mustang– and it represents mainly one thing: pure, unadulterated power.

When the traditional auto show opens in America’s car capital two weeks from now, Ford will present its new Mustang powered by a 4.6 liter, 8 cylinder engine putting out 412 horsepower. A real warhorse for the eternal battle against General Motors.

“This is the next salvo in Mustang’s war against the Camaro which began 42 years ago,” said auto expert John Wolkonowicz of the HIS Global Insight analysis company. Like the Mustang, the Camaro has eight cylinders and even tops Ford’s output with 426 horsepower.

Long forgotten is the economic crisis that drove Ford and General Motors to the brink of bankruptcy. Forgotten are the billion-dollar losses of years past; forgotten also is the ecology craze with its boring economy cars powered by economical mini-motors. The battle between Ford and GM is ready for the next round. Americans love their muscle cars, even if all that muscle can’t be used because of nationwide speed limits.

From the European point of view, the Mustang and the Camaro don’t represent “the good old days,” but rather the great depression in the American auto industry. “Those are fossils from prehistoric times,” blasphemes auto expert Helmut Becker of Munich’s Institute for Economic Analysis and Communication. “The cattle in Texas are standing up to their bellies in water – the Americans see climate change, too, but they apparently still don’t get it.”

The two largest American carmakers won’t be able to recoup their sales losses with their new muscle cars alone because sport models account for only 2 percent of domestic sales in the United States. But their significance for the image of the entire line is enormous.

Last month, GM sold 6,867 Camaros while Ford could manage to move only 3,627 Mustangs. We can hardly believe that we so totally dominate this segment,” said John Fitzpatrick, Marketing Manager for Camaro, adding, “That’s a 40 percent market share.”

The customers who buy Camaros and Mustangs couldn’t care less if their cars can’t do better than 24 MPG, even if they use all the gas saving tricks they know. The manufacturers, however, have a tough time explaining their philosophy in the face of the government mandate to reduce CO2 output 30 percent by the year 2016, as President Obama promised. That decree is forcing the companies into a painful balancing act. This year, adjacent to the usual displays where manufacturers spotlight their latest warhorses, there will be a venue for alternative vehicles: “Electric Avenue.”

This is where visitors can get acquainted with the alternatives, a new auto world featuring some 20 electric and hybrid models. In the past, such displays were little more than token events, even in Europe. It’s unlikely that the 2010 Detroit Auto Show will change that perception. The idea that it could change, however, was recently shown at the Los Angeles Auto Show, where a contrasting event took place. In California, home to America’s Green Conscience, German car manufacturers made an effort to show that power, environmental protection and a sporty image could all be reconciled with one another.

Audi introduced its electric-powered R8 racing machine, albeit only in prototype form. And Chevrolet used the event to introduce its own alternative to the Camaro, the Chevrolet Volt, likewise powered by electricity: the gasoline engine takes over only when the battery runs dry. The one thing Mustang, Camaro and Volt have in common is that they’re all expensive. Where sales volume determines whether GM and Ford will one day return to profitability, those models will have limited effect. That’s where horsepower and fuel economy figures take a back seat to the number on the price tag.

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