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American Drivers Racing to Flex Their Muscles Again

Detroit is joining foreign rivals in fueling the need for speed

September 07, 2002|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — The thunder is getting louder.

America is on an automotive performance binge, with the engines getting bigger and bigger, and the cars and trucks punching out ever more power.

"There has been kind of a rebirth of performance but in a much more sophisticated way than in the '60s," said Jim Wangers, an automotive consultant in Vista, Calif., and the head of marketing for the father of all muscle cars, the Pontiac GTO, when it came out in 1964.

Ford Motor Co. announced this week that it formed a new unit, the Ford Performance Group, to develop more powerful versions of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models.

Three weeks ago, General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division unveiled its high-performance line, the V-Series; in June, GM had announced a new performance division.

Among the Europeans, Porsche this year has the all-new 911 GT2, at 456 horsepower the fastest Porsche on the market; Lamborghini has just come out with the 571-horsepower Murcielago; and the new Ferrari Enzo tips the scales at about 680 horsepower. There's even a turbocharged New Beetle from Volkswagen.

Environmental concerns are essentially nonexistent. With gasoline relatively cheap, and many of the performance cars getting respectable mileage, buyers aren't burdened by such civic responsibility.

The race to pour on the horses is primarily in the luxury segment, with the more established performance units--the AMG line of DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz, BMW's M-Series and the S-Series from VW's Audi division--being challenged by new and upcoming entries from Ford's Jaguar and Lincoln brands and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus.

These brands attract more educated, affluent buyers who look for more than raw horsepower and torque, a measure of acceleration and towing ability. Such owners tend to be fairly knowledgeable--and enthusiastic--about their cars and become, in effect, walking billboards for the brand.

"If you stop a BMW M3 owner and ask him about his car, he'll talk for half an hour," said Wes Brown of the automotive consultancy Nextrend in Thousand Oaks. "So as a manufacturer, by having these types of vehicles out there, you get publicity without having to pay for it."

Bob Kiddoo, a computer consultant from Northridge, is that kind of enthusiasm personified. He grew up rebuilding cars in his garage and today owns a 1998 BMW M Roadster and a 2001 M5, both black.

"I like the cornering and the handling, and I consider these cars works of art," said Kiddoo, 42. "The braking is fantastic; the steering is light and quicker. The M5 sedan has nothing but luxury but does zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds. And the M Roadster has all the perfect roadster aspects: You hear the engine, feel the road, but with all the creature comforts of a BMW."

He also likes the subtle external design features that to a novice may look no different from those of a standard BMW.

"I don't want to stand out massively from the crowd by driving something that looks strange," Kiddoo said. "The M cars allow me to drive something that a lot of people relate to, but a performance edition of it. I can pull into any parking lot and the general populace doesn't notice--but the parking attendants sure do."

But it's not just the luxury and exotic brands that are tweaking their lineups for greater performance. More and more mainstream brands are adding engine displacement, spoilers, larger tires, better seats and finely tuned suspension to beef up their cars' handling and appearance.

In the heyday of the muscle car, auto makers routinely dropped the biggest engines they could fit into existing cars, resulting in such creations as the Plymouth Roadrunner or Ford Torino Talladega and muscle-bound versions of the Chevy Nova and Malibu.

"Most of the muscle cars of the '70s were just engines," analyst Brown said. "They were the same as the rest of the cars, and suddenly did zero to 60 in five seconds. But go around a corner and the car couldn't handle it."

Today's jazzed-up models are far more sophisticated, even at the more affordable end, often sporting bigger brakes, stability control and sometimes all-wheel drive.

The appeal to mainstream non-luxury brands is to attract a more educated, wealthier and hip consumer who might not otherwise give the brand a second thought.

Ford has made inroads with the performance version of the Focus, which has 170 horsepower, compared with 110 to 130 horsepower for standard models.

So have Japanese makers, such as Honda Motor Co. with the Civic Si, whose engine is bumped to 160 horsepower from the stock 115. Nissan Motor Co.'s Sentra SE-R with 175 horses is only 10 more than the standard Sentra but has a sturdier suspension and transmission and bigger tires and wheels. Subaru, made by Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., has the WRX, a version of the Impreza based on the racer that has won World Rally Championships.

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