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Muscle cars flex their appeal at New York auto show

Who says America has lost its muscle?

Growling, unapologetic performance is the theme of this year's New York International Auto Show, which runs through Sunday. Sure, there's something called the EV Pavilion, where visitors can ride around in a plug-in hybrid. But automakers didn't introduce any hybrids or electrics at the show.

The focus is on power.

Dodge unveiled the 2015 Challenger, which will offer a 6.4-liter, 485-horsepower V-8. Swedish supercar maker Koenigsegg debuted its $1.6 million Agera R supercar, which gets 1,140 horsepower (that's not a typo) and has a top speed of 273 mph. There was a new Corvette convertible and an Alfa Romeo sports car. Ford kicked off the show by putting a 2015 Mustang on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

Dodge chief Tim Kuniskis said internal surveys of car buyers consistently show that around a quarter of America's 16 million car buyers are most interested in performance.

"Muscle cars are really not niche cars," he said. "There are 4.5 million people looking for cars like this — very emotional cars that they can connect with."

Dodge buyers are overwhelmingly male and young, Kuniskis said. The average buyer of the brawny, four-door Dodge Charger is 46, which is 17 years younger than the average for the full-size car segment. The Challenger, too, attracts younger buyers, despite its retro styling. Both 2015 models go on sale later this year.

There are other factors behind this enduring love of muscle. Gas prices have stabilized, so many customers aren't as concerned about fuel economy. U.S. gas prices averaged $3.51 per gallon last year and are expected to average $3.45 this year, according to government statistics.

"People aren't as averse to performance vehicles and vehicles that don't get as much fuel economy," said Eric Lyman, vice president of editorial at Automotive Lease Guide, which forecasts used-car values.

At the same time, manufacturers are making all of their cars more efficient. The Charger offers two engine choices, one of which gets 31 miles per gallon, while the sporty Alfa Romeo 4C gets 28 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. The new Mustang, which goes on sale at the end of this year, will offer Ford's EcoBoost engine, which gives a smaller four-cylinder the power of a larger engine.

It's a different kind of show than a few years ago. After gas prices spiked, automakers took notice and released a flurry of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars.

But they haven't lived up to expected sales, Lyman said.

Sales of hybrids and electrics totaled 594,729 last year, or 3.8 percent of the market, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. That was up 23 percent from the prior year. But Challenger and Charger sales were also up 19 percent each.

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with car buying site Kelley Blue Book, says buyers have simply come to expect that fuel economy is always improving no matter what they drive.

"Green technology by itself is no longer an interesting story, because we've been hearing about it for so long," he said. "People don't want a car because it's green. They want a car because it's a great vehicle that also happens to have green characteristics.

"The idea that you sacrifice for green," he said, "is no longer acceptable."

camry, THE sales-muscle car

The best-selling car in America is trying to shed its vanilla reputation. The redesigned 2015 Toyota Camry was among the new models unveiled in New York recently. The new version of the midsize sedan is longer and wider, with a large, aggressive grille and chiseled sides. Even though the Camry has been the best-seller for the past 12 years, it's been increasingly challenged by stylish rivals. "Everyone was raising the stakes a bit. We had to make sure we could keep this competitive," said U.S. Toyota chief Bill Fay. — AP

Muscle cars flex their appeal at New York auto show 04/23/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 2:31pm]
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