Automakers are Flexing Muscle in Face of Going Green

Those attending a recent new car auto show could be forgiven if they were confused. Daily auto-industry news seems dominated by chatter of electric and hybrid vehicles, new strategies and technologies to improve fuel-efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of automobiles.

But strolling through the aisles to take in the auto industry’s latest wares was an impression of an industry intent on giving consumers something entirely different. The headliners of the 2011 Chicago auto show were 550-horsepower sport coupes and 360-horsepower sport utility vehicles.

Is this the last-gasp cycle of performance machines before the auto industry has to get serious about that 35 mile-per-gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandate coming in 2016 — or is there, as some analysts suggest, still a vast disconnect between what the government thinks this country needs and the kind of vehicles people really want?

Don’t expect 35 mpg from GM’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which set the tone for the show. The ZL1 revives the sneaky and ultra-rare Camaro performance code used only for the 1969 model year. For the 2012 Camaro ZL1, there’s a 550-horsepower, 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 and a high-tech magnetic suspension to help keep it planted. Chevy said production starts late this year.

Hyundai’s Genesis sedan is a luxury car that rivals Lexus and Mercedes midsizers for a lot less money, but at Chicago the company unveiled a hot-rodded Genesis that gets a new 5.0-liter V-8 that generates a rather unruly 429 horsepower. And just for good measure, Hyundai said it’s upgrading the Genesis’ 3.8-liter V-6 to churn out 333 horsepower, which still is enough to startle the neighbors.

Not to be outdone, Chrysler’s Dodge division — with a new mission to carry the company’s performance baton — unveiled the 2012 Charger SRT8. Behind one of the more outlandish grilles you’re likely to ogle is a 6.4-liter version of the company’s famous Hemi V-8 that generates an estimated 464 horsepower. Gulp.

Dodge must be serious about the renaissance of its performance heritage to bring back the Charger SRT8. The company just dumped the high-performance Charger variant for 2011 after moving a grand total of 688 Charger SRT8s during 2010.

Chrysler’s Ram truck brand had to pick up its game in the diesel-engine arms race that’s always going on in the medium-duty pickup market. It’s all about torque, not horsepower, for commercial pickups, and Ram executives announced an upgrade to its Cummins-made 6-cylinder turbodiesel that puts out an astounding 800 lb.-ft. of torque. Forget the hassle of staying over at Grandma’s house this Christmas: with the Ram’s outrageous new pull-power, just hook up her home and tow it back to your place.

If the auto industry is sending mixed messages about what’s more important — performance or fuel economy — then the Chicago auto show seemed a clear indicator that for now, horsepower is more important than polar bears. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
Copyright, AutoWriters Associates Inc., 2011

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