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Revived Camaro surges past rival Mustang

One of the longest-running battles in the auto industry has taken an unusual twist as the reborn Chevy Camaro has surged past Ford's Mustang.  But the shoot-out is far from over.
Image: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro LT
The 2010 Chevrolet Camaro won the World Car Design of the Year Award at this week's New York auto show. AP

One of the toughest — and longest-running — battles in the auto industry has taken an unusual twist in recent months.  But the shoot-out at the pony car corral is anything but over.

Once given up for dead, Chevrolet’s reborn Camaro has, since mid-2009, become the top-seller in the so-called pony car segment, toppling arch rival Ford Mustang from its throne for the first time in nearly a quarter century. But the fight is far from over. While horsepower is certainly key to Mustang’s planned comeback, mileage rather than muscle may ultimately determine the winner in this battle.

From the day Ford first brought out the original 1964-1/2 Mustang, it was a force to be reckoned with. While the original coupe was more about style, the Detroit automaker soon shifted to an emphasis on performance, taking on its cross-town rivals at General Motors, Chrysler and, in the early days, old American Motors.

By the early 1980s, in the wake of America’s twin oil shocks, domination of the pony car segment largely came down to a two-horse race. More often than not, Mustang nosed out its competitors and drove one after another from the market, including the Camaro, which seemed to be gone for good in 2002.

Cool concept cars and some slick, and green, vehicles are on display at the 2010 New York International Auto Show.

Last year, Ford once again claimed sales leadership in the segment — for the 24th year in a row. But last year’s win was a largely Pyrrhic victory.

That’s because the Chevy Camaro only began its phoenix-like revival, after a seven-year hiatus, in mid-April. By June, the well-reviewed coupe was in full production and hot demand, with volume surging to more than 9,000 units that month.  That initial rush has cooled off only slightly since then, with Camaro besting Mustang month after month.

“Mustang isn’t a bad car, but it’s been around for awhile,” said Bob Lutz, the soon-to-retire General Motors vice chairman who spent nearly a decade as its “car czar” and was behind the rebirth of the Camaro.

When it comes to muscle cars and sporty coupes, American buyers traditionally have opted for the newer and more striking design, though delivering the most horsepower has often been a deciding factor in the race. And the 2010 Camaro was generally seen as best in all those categories, even though it also carried a price premium over Mustang. Both cars generally list for between $22,000 and $34,000, depending on styles and options.

“Right now, in the eyes of the public, Camaro is a more desirable car,” contends Lutz, but he quickly concedes “that could reverse itself.”

Or so Ford is betting.  It tried to keep its own pony car up-to-date, for 2010, with a modest freshening that fell short of the dramatic new look of the Camaro. So for 2011, it is putting its money where it long has mattered in the muscle car market — under the hood.

“Outselling Camaro is a huge motivation,” said Amy Marentec, marketing director for the 2011 Ford Mustang, as she prepared to join a group of journalists gathered in Los Angeles for a drive of the new car.

While there have been a few cosmetic changes for ’11, the big news is the complete makeover of Mustang’s powertrain line-up. The brand’s most visible model, the Mustang GT, gets an all-new V8 making a tire-spinning 412 horsepower, a figure that, not that many years ago, would have put the coupe into supercar territory, in the rarified company of brands like Ferrari and Porsche.

But while the GT may grab the headlines, especially in automotive enthusiast publications, analyst Jim Hall, of 2953 Analytics, in Birmingham, Mich., points out that most pony car buyers are poseurs, more interested in mileage than muscle.

The problem for Ford has been that the Mustang’s old, truck-derived V6 was slow, not particularly efficient, nor all that much fun to drive — especially compared with the six-cylinder offering in the reborn Camaro, which was both significantly peppier and more fuel-efficient.

The V6 Mustang, says Hall, “was a pretty poor excuse for an automobile.”  But not so the new 3.7-liter V6 in the 2011 Ford. It’s got the performance numbers, turning out a solid 300 horsepower — more than the super-high-performance Mustang SVT of 1998. But when it comes to the typical pony car customer, including younger, less affluent buyers who like the car's looks, the figure that’s more likely to sway the purchase decision is 31, as in miles per gallon on the EPA’s highway cycle (and 19 mpg in city driving).

That, says analyst Hall, “gives them a very good chance of getting back” the sales crown. It also helps that Ford has more body styles for Mustang, including not only the coupe, but a new glass roof model and a convertible. Camaro will launch its own cabriolet, but due to problems with the soft-top’s original supplier that launch remains more than a year away.

Of course, few expect GM to simply sit back and let Mustang knock Camaro back down again.  While it has indefinitely delayed a proposed super-high-performance model, the Chevy’s renewed success is freeing up development dollars at the post-Chapter 11 company.

Domination, at least on the sales charts, predicts Hall, “is likely to flip-flop in the next few years.”

Longer-term, the future looks hazy for both pony cars, observers caution. For one thing, the industry is facing tough new fuel economy standards that will make it ever harder to field products with the powerful V8s that give both Mustang and Camaro their image.

Chevrolet engineers are known to be shifting their pony car to a more modern (read: lighter) platform that could keep the nameplate alive. Ford’s strategy is less certain, though CEO Alan Mulally hints there’s a plan to modernize Mustang as well.

So, the ongoing shoot-out between the old rivals may extend well into the 21st century.