Image: Ralph Gilles at Chicago auto show
Scott Olson  /  Getty Images
Ralph Gilles, Dodge’s general manager, plants a kiss on the fender of the new, 465-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT8 at this month’s Chicago auto show. Automakers are under pressure to squeeze more miles out of every gallon of gas — yet the market also craves more muscle
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/16/2011 1:17:45 PM ET 2011-02-16T18:17:45

This is the year of the electric car, or so one might believe based on the headlines of recent months, with new vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan’s electric Leaf racking up awards and rolling into car showrooms.

So, what should we make of this month’s Chicago auto show, where potential customers will find the spotlight shining not only on the latest lithium-ion-powered wonders, but also on some of the most powerful cars ever to roll off an assembly line?

At the Chevy stand, for example, the Volt made way for the new Camaro ZL1 — a 550-horsepower version of the reborn “pony car,” which General Motors’ design chief Ed Welburn proclaimed “the most technically advanced Camaro ever built.”

A quick walk across the vast McCormick Place convention center found Ralph Gilles, the Dodge brand’s general manager, kneeling to plant a kiss on the fender of the new, 465-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT8. Gilles — who also serves as Chrysler’s corporate design chief — is one of the first in line for the high-performance sedan, which traces its roots back to the pre-oil shock era of anything-goes muscle cars.

“Performance is back,” Mark Reuss, GM’s president of North American operations, has said on numerous occasions.

For all the attention GM has given the electric Volt, the automaker has delivered significantly more muscle car models to market over the last year, including an assortment of Camaros, and several new versions of the Cadillac V-Series, including the 550-hp CTS-V Coupe.

Indeed, the Chevy Camaro (with an EPA fuel economy rating of 19 MPG in the city and 30 MPG on the highway) was one of the hottest cars of 2010, notably knocking down the king of the pony-car hill, the Ford Mustang, for the first time in 25 years.

Ford used the Detroit auto show, last month, to reveal several new battery-based vehicles, including an electric version of its new Focus, and the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid version of its new microvan. But the automaker is also burning rubber with the new Mustang GT500, which pumps out an impressive 500 hp.

Even Toyota, which used the Detroit show to reveal a new family of Prius-badged hybrids, is getting into the action. Its Lexus luxury division recently started deliveries of the LF-A supercar, and the Japanese automaker is getting ready to reveal, at next month’s Geneva Motor Show, a new high-performance sports car developed in partnership with the smaller Japanese carmaker Subaru.

High-performance models like the Camaro, the Mustang, the Charger and the Challenger (another Dodge muscle car) collectively outsell hybrid-electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid — the darlings of the environmental set.

But there’s a caveat to that success. The highest horsepower offerings, such as the Camaro ZL1 and Charger SRT8, make up a relatively modest niche, as most car buyers opt for more mundane versions of these cars, such as the V6-powered Mustang.

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Once derided as a “secretary’s car,” the Mustang’s base model has only minimal muscle, yet it still delivers surprising performance — a hefty 305 hp (about 50 percent more than the top-line Mustang GT of two decades ago). But the V6-powered Mustang also gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 30 miles per gallon on the highway, which underscores some of the big changes that have occurred since the days when muscle cars ruled the road.

New technologies, like turbocharging and direct injection, make it possible for cars to churn out significant amounts of power when needed, but still maintain acceptable fuel economy. The new Charger SRT8, for example, can idle half of its cylinders when the demand for power is low, significantly reducing fuel consumption.

And that’s only the beginning. Mercedes-Benz is readying a pure battery-electric version of its gull-winged SLS supercar, which will debut in 2013. And little Tesla, the Silicon Valley start-up, has already sold more than 1,000 of its two-seat Roadster sports cars.

British specialty carmaker Lotus is developing an assortment of new models that will use a special hybrid driveline — initially developed for the Formula One race circuit — to punch out some extra performance while allowing the carmaker to utilize a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine.

Porsche is taking a similar approach with its 918 sports car, a race version of which was introduced at the 2011 Detroit auto show.

And while company officials won’t comment, there have been numerous reports that Ford will be bringing back the legendary GT nameplate. But the new version will supposedly use supercharging and hybrid power to help it deliver 0 to 60 acceleration in barely 3 seconds.

While it’s hard to find a manufacturer these days that isn’t working on a battery car, plug-in or conventional hybrid, the same can be said for performance and muscle cars.

Even Hyundai, a brand traditionally known for its low-price and high mileage, is getting in on the act. During its Chicago auto show preview this year the automaker said it would add another 51 hp to its popular Genesis sedan, bumping the numbers up to 429 hp.

And with federal mileage standards set to make some big jumps in the years ahead, automakers are under pressure to squeeze more miles out of every gallon of gas — yet the market also wants them to deliver more muscle, as this year’s Chicago auto show underscores. The good news is that the latest drivetrain technology is allowing the industry to do both.

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Video: Top 5 hot rides at Chicago Auto Show

Explainer: 2011: The year of the reborn minivan

  • Image: Dodge Caravan
    Dodge

    The minivan has been alternately pronounced dead and revived repeatedly as various alternatives have debuted and departed. But the van chugs onward, unassailable in its position as the best vehicle for transporting the maximum number of people in the least amount of space and with the least amount of fuel.

    Minivans are easier to park than long-snouted crossover SUVs, they have more fight-reducing elbow room inside and their sliding doors mean that the young’uns don’t inflict insurance claims on adjacent cars every time they climb in or out of the van.

    Are minivans cool? TODAY Moms weigh in

    Whether 2011 marks a renaissance for minivans or just the recognition that this is a critical segment that isn’t going to be displaced, carmakers clearly agree on one thing: They need fresh products because every minivan currently on the market will be replaced during the 2011 model year, or in calendar year 2011.

    Indeed, Americans bought more than 460,000 minivans last year, and with appealing all-new choices, 2011 should attract even more minivan adherents.

    Here’s a list of new minivans for 2011.

  • Chrysler Town & Country

    Image: Town and Country
    Chrysler

    When Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca conceived of a “leather minivan” for the 1989 model year, the Town & Country was his notion that just because a box on wheels is practical doesn’t mean it can’t also be comfortable and luxurious. Now that model is more feature-packed than ever. Leather doesn’t set a van apart from the rest anymore, so the 2011 Town & Country has standard rear back-up camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to minimize the chance for “I didn’t see it” accidents. The 2011 Town & Country should be well-received, as the 2010 model was already America’s top-selling minivan, accounting for a quarter of all minivan sales.

  • Dodge Grand Caravan

    Image: Dodge Caravan
    Dodge

    The Dodge Caravan was the minivan that launched the minivan segment (along with the Plymouth Voyager) in 1984. As vans in the class grew not-so-mini, so did the Caravan’s name as it became the Grand Caravan. The Grand Caravan is Dodge’s version of the same vehicle as the Town & Country, and it aims to be less expensive, with less standard equipment, while offering a hint of sportiness (presumably just in case you need to race to the local Target for another box of Pampers). Key is the new 283-hp Pentastar engine, giving Dodge (and Chrysler) van drivers Hemi-style bragging rights for the most power. Cue Tim Allen.

  • Ford C-Max

    Image: Ford C-Max
    Ford

    Minivans have become maxi-vans, leaving a potential opportunity for smaller vans. Mazda has been in this space with its Mazda5 for several years, but a large brand like Ford could legitimize this so-far marginal van sub-segment. Ford terms the C-Max a 5+2 seater, recognizing that the third row is suitable for car-pooling teammates on their way to soccer practice, but is also probably not ideal for adults on long drives. Segment exclusive gadget: a sensor that lets a person carrying the van’s key to wave a leg under the back bumper to open the hatch, saving them from fumbling for keys while carrying groceries. Ford has announced plans for hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max for 2012, making it potentially the most fuel-thrifty family hauler.

  • Honda Odyssey

    Image: Honda Odyssey
    Honda

    Honda destroyed the myth that “minivan” equals “Chrysler” when its innovative Odyssey van set new standards for convenience features and garnered large sales. Until the Odyssey, competitors blamed the weak sales of their poor products on customers’ reflexive purchases of Chrysler vans, but Honda proved that consumers just want practical features. The new-for-2011 Odyssey proposes that consumers want a sleek, stylish minivan. It remains to be seen whether shoppers will be attracted by the styling, or whether they will continue to look past exterior appearances and concentrate on interior features. The rear seat video screen is so wide that its can show two different episodes of Dora the Explorer (or any other video content) simultaneously, side-by-side on the screen.

  • Kia KV7 concept

    Image: Kia KV7
    AFP - Getty Images

    Kia is the only minivan maker that doesn’t have a fresh family hauler headed to showrooms in coming months, if not there already. But lest anyone think that the aggressive Korean upstart is satisfied with being left behind in the face of new competition, Kia unveiled the KV7 concept at the Detroit auto show, previewing the styling for its next generation Sedona. Of course, the Sedona won’t actually have the KV7 concept’s outlandish gull wing doors, but auto show concepts are supposed to be outrageous. Just don’t expect your kids to be able to disembark from the van’s back seat like Marty McFly climbing from his time-traveling DeLorean.

  • Mazda5

    Image: Mazda5
    Mazda Motor Corportaion

    People movers are smaller in Japan, but Mazda thought its best solution to replacing its old MPV minivan was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” by importing a smaller Japanese-market model with no direct competitor in the U.S. market. The six-seat Mazda5 retains the light weight and simplicity of manual sliding side doors that are so carefully designed that they close with the push of one finger. The 2012 iteration carries expressive new styling too. And this van’s claim to fame? Enthusiast drivers can buy one with a manual transmission if they want. Zoom zoom.

  • Nissan Quest

    Image: Nissan Quest
    AP

    Nissan has followed its own path in the minivan segment, admirably and unsuccessfully, as family van buyers didn’t buy into the Quest’s quirks. For 2011, Nissan has punted that strategy, introducing a thoroughly conventional and completely equipped contender that should easily gain the attention of Odyssey and Sienna intenders rather than scaring them off. Available dual sliding glass moonroofs allow more light and air into the van’s interior depths than is normally the case, while still permitting space for the overhead video screen.

  • Toyota Sienna

    Image: Toyota Sienna
    AP

    Toyota saw Honda’s success in challenging Chrysler directly with a full-sized contender and followed up with a bigger Sienna that was an instant hit. The 2011 Sienna continues that path with available eight-passenger seating and the only available four-cylinder engine among full-size minivans. Unfortunately, there is only a slight fuel economy benefit from the smaller engine, but it could be a step in the right direction. And the Sienna is the sole all-wheel-drive minivan on the market, making it a viable alternative to a crossover SUV for customers concerned about all-weather security.

  • Volkswagen Routan

    Image: Volkswagen Routan
    Volkswagen

    The truth is that Chrysler did not invent the minivan; Volkswagen did, way back in the 1950s. The old Beetle-based microbus was the first minivan, but the company let that legacy wither away over the decades. VW still makes vans in Germany, but they are too expensive to be competitive in the price-sensitive U.S. market. So instead the automaker sells its own version of Chrysler’s minivan, branding it the Routan. So far sales have been tepid, but a refreshed version of the van (not yet revealed) featuring the improvements seen in the new Chrysler vans should make the Routan more appealing to U.S. car buyers.

  • Ford Flex

    Image: Ford Flex
    Ford

    Ford’s Flex gets an honorary mention here. It’s almost a van, and derived from the Fairlane concept, which like the Kia KV7 debuted wearing impractically designed rear doors. In the Fairlane’s case, they were rear-hinged “suicide” doors rather than Kia’s top-hinged gullwings. Regardless, they didn’t make it to production on the Flex. Ford considered proper sliding doors to make the Flex a minivan, but consumer clinics revealed such a strong customer aversion to minivans that Ford estimated it could sell triple the number of Flexes if the vehicle were equipped with SUV-style hinged rear doors, according to Ford styling chief J Mays. But in 2010 Chrysler sold three times as many Town & Country minivans and three times as many Grand Caravan minivans as Ford sold Flexes. Maybe if it had suburban-chic sliding doors Ford would sell more of them.

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