Is America Outgrowing Muscle?

2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS

As we noted Wednesday, muscle cars sold very well in 2014 and 2015, which we took as a sign the car business was healthy. But the first 7 months of 2016 saw Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger sales drop by 5.5% year over year while the redesigned Chevrolet Camaro’s sales dropped by 15.4%. What’s the problem?

The years since the auto bailout have been tons of fun for fans of V8 power and rear-wheel drive, as the Big Three have each offered at least one vehicle that can satisfy any muscle-car fan’s need for speed and tire smoke. But muscle cars are not very practical and recall an era when getting a driver’s license and learning about cars was viewed by many as a critical part of growing into adulthood. These days, most teenagers seem a lot more interested in smartphones and online gaming than learning to drive, which is part of why you’ve been seeing and hearing so much about infotainment systems and distracted driving.

And let’s face it, while a fast car on U.S. highways understandably seemed exciting to American children of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you can’t blame kids these days for finding the information superhighway more exciting than muscle cars, particularly given how many more cars populate U.S. roads now. So we’re going to take a look at three new vehicles we think might excite young people in the way Hemi engines and huge tires and wings once did.

If you’ve been paying any attention to new cars lately, you know some of them offer features that will be enhanced, refined, and connected in order to eventually enable cars to take over the single car-related task we enjoy most: driving. While we’re confident that self-cleaning and/or self-repairing cars would generate a lot more positive feedback than self-driving ones, we’ve also spent plenty of time trapped behind the wheel in traffic jams when we would have been perfectly happy to hand over the controls to the car itself and get some work done, chat with passengers, or simply enjoy some music, if we had only had confidence the car could handle the job.

Volvo S90 Mussel Blue

Volvo’s legendary focus on safety and its stated goal that no one will be killed or seriously injured in one of its new vehicles by 2020 indicate it wants drivers to feel strong confidence in its cars. And some of its latest models include tempting pieces of the self-driving puzzle that have been well received, with the Volvo XC90 and its Pilot Assist having earned Motor Trend’s 2016 SUV of the Year award. The 2017 Volvo S90 sedan will feature a more advanced version of the XC90’s system that will allow it to steer, change speed, stop, and cruise at up to 80 mph on marked roads. Volvo is a luxury brand, so the S90 won’t be cheap, but it will cost substantially less than the flagship XC90. And the S90 will include technology aimed at letting the car itself handle some of the least enjoyable types of driving while still offering plenty of power and lively handling to ensure human beings can enjoy the process when they do the driving. On top of all that, you might be able to spec out and buy an S90 via the Volvo’s new Concierge without ever visiting a dealership.

2016 Nissan Leaf

Today’s young people have more concern about the environmental impact of most things they do than previous generations. This fact combined with aggressive CAFÉ standards for 2025 has driven automakers to focus hard on increasing efficiency and lowering emissions. One way to increase the efficiency and reduce the immediately perceptible environmental impact of cars is to drive them with electricity instead of gasoline. Disruptor Elon Musk has earned himself and his electric-vehicle company, Tesla, a huge reputation in the EV world, but his cars are simply too expensive for most young people. The Nissan Leaf offers a much more affordable electric alternative, and while it can’t match a Tesla’s range, the Leaf’s range of 84 to 107 miles should meet the needs of just under 90% of American commuters, since only 11% of American commuters travel more than 30 miles each way. Electric-vehicle infrastructure has a long way to go, but drivers who live near either coast can now buy a car that doesn’t produce any harmful emissions and lets them refuel while they work at the office, rather than having to stop on the way home.

Good American muscle cars deliver short bursts of straight-line speed in magnificent fashion. One thing the originals didn’t do very well? Change direction. In the 40+ years since the first energy crisis, carmakers have made monumental improvements to typical car steering, suspensions, and power delivery. Those 40+ years have also seen an increasingly diverse population and the rise of the Internet, resulting in, among other things, a huge boom in American interest in a non-native kind of car racing: rallying.

2016 Ford Focus RS

Ford has been an active participant in the muscle-car craze from the beginning, as muscle cars were a response to modified and more-powerful later versions of the original pony car, the 1964 Mustang. And Ford continues to build the Mustang, which finally has an independent rear suspension and can be bought as a track-ready, flat-plane-crank Shelby GT350R. But the popularity and sales of Subaru’s rally-inspired WRX opened Ford’s eyes to other possibilities, which resulted in ST versions of the Focus and Fiesta, both of which are speedy and fun but have front-wheel drive. For 2016, Ford finally gave U.S. rallying fans an all-wheel-drive option, the Ford Focus RS, which Europeans have loved since its 2002 debut.

The Focus RS is Ford’s 30th RS (rally sport) vehicle. It will not feature a V8 or rear-wheel drive, but it should have plenty of straight-line speed courtesy of its 350-hp 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost engine, and it will offer only a manual transmission. So the Focus RS offers one of the same basic sorts of freedom the original muscle cars did—speed in a straight line—but it can also handle turning and doesn’t look like anything that was built in the original muscle-car era.

What will be your top priority next time you shop for a car – self-driving capability, environmental friendliness, speed, or something else?

-Steve Halloran

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