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MUSCLE CARS AREN'T DEAD

By Mark Phelan - Detroit Free Press

Muscle car fans fretting over the future of the performance car during the annual Woodward Dream Cruise last month created a haze of V-8 angst and leaded-gasoline exhaust that gave me a headache that's still pounding. - Let's clear the air.

Today's cars are better, faster and more fuel-efficient than the classics a million people celebrated at the Dream Cruise, and there's plenty of reason to expect tomorrow's cars will be better, faster and more fuel-efficient still.

That doesn't diminish classics like the '57 Chevy Bel Air, '65 Ford Mustang GT350 or '71 Dodge Challenger. They were the height of engineering and design in their day, and they deserve to be cherished.

But let's get real. A 2010 Chevrolet Camaro would run rings around a 1970 Camaro Z28, and the new car's 304-horsepower V-6 runs cleaner and uses far less fuel than the old one's 302-horsepower V-8.

Don't believe the fuel-economy fear mongers who say the fast car will be an outlaw in a future world of high-mpg bore-mobiles. New systems and technologies from automakers and suppliers will maintain the upward trajectory.

How does an 18 percent improvement in fuel economy - without changing a bolt or removing a cc of engine displacement - sound? That was the promise German supplier ZF made at the Center for Automotive Research's annual Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich., last month.

Forget about mega-powered little engines like those in the Audi TTS and the Chevrolet HHR SS for the moment. Ignore Ford's stunning new 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6, which produces more torque and uses less fuel than BMW's 4.8-liter V-8. Don't worry about fancy hybrids and the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car's claim to get 230 mpg in city driving.

ZF was talking about production-ready technologies that could take a car like the 304-horsepower Camaro from its current 29 mpg to within spitting distance of the coming 35 mpg mandate.

Do the math. ZF says its eight-speed automatic transmission - debuting shortly on the BMW 760Li, 550i and 5 series Gran Turismo - boosts fuel economy 6 percent. Switching from hydraulic to electric power steering saves another 2 to 3 percent.

An autostop system to shut the engine off at stoplights cuts an additional 5 percent, while an electronic roll stabilizer reduces consumption by 1 to 2 percent, and lightweight, low-friction axles and transfer cases each saved an additional 1 to 1.5 percent. Moving from heavy steel to lighter aluminum suspension components promises further improvement.

ZF also produces the PDK dual-clutch transmission that allowed Porsche to boost the power, performance and EPA fuel economy rating of its Boxster and 911 sports cars. The PDK's next showcase will be on Porsche's breathtaking Panamera 400- to 500-horsepower sedan.

"Is performance dead? I think not," said Paul Olexa, head of ZF's North American drivetrain business. The eight-speed transmission is lighter and has fewer parts than ZF's six-speed, and it shifts faster and offers more gear ratios to boost fuel economy and performance, he said.

Reducing a vehicle's weight also improves performance and handling while reducing fuel consumption, he pointed out.

Imagine adding five gears and taking a few hundred pounds of weight out of your classic car. If you like the sound of that, you'll like the coming generation of performance cars.

A 2010 Chevrolet Camaro would run rings around a 1970 Camaro Z28, and the new car's 304-horsepower V6 runs cleaner and uses far less fuel than the old one's 302-horsepower V-8.

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