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Sep 22, 2022

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American muscle goes electric

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You might no longer smell the exhaust fumes, but you may hear them ripping down the street.

Classic American muscle cars, known for their mighty gas-powered engines and storied pasts, are starting to go electric as pressure mounts on automakers to offer more climate-friendly vehicles.

But in an effort to make the transition easier for traditional gearheads, some car companies are trying to maintain the feel of performance vehicles by showcasing new electric models with sleek designs — and even fake engine noise.

Experts say they aren’t convinced it will be enough to win over die-hard fans of gas-powered hot rods, who have devoted decades to collecting and caring for cars with internal combustion engines.

“Despite the fact that EVs can have acceleration and other on-road performance characteristics that are just as good as conventional IC engine cars, I think that many car enthusiasts will not welcome the switch to EVs, and they may resist it until IC engine cars simply are unavailable,” said Peter Frise, the director of the Center for Automotive Research and Education at the University of Windsor. "And that will take many years.”

But as governments impose stricter emissions standards in an effort to curb potentially catastrophic climate change in the years ahead, and consumers seek out more fuel-efficient vehicles amid sky-high gas prices, car manufacturers have had to begin shifting their strategy — whether classic car enthusiasts like it or not.

“Auto manufacturers are coming to terms with the inevitability of electrification as the predominant powertrain paradigm moving forward,” Edward Sanchez, a senior analyst in the global automotive practice at research firm Strategy Analytics, said in an email.

“The enthusiast community has reacted to this with varying states of acceptance,” Sanchez told the Washington Examiner Magazine. “But regardless of the feelings of a small handful of die-hard ICE (internal-combustion engine) enthusiasts nostalgic for the ‘good ol’ days’ of performance, the automakers are facing regulatory requirements regionally and globally that are effectively forcing their hand toward electrification.”

The new era in automotive design comes as climate scientists warn that the planet could hit several “tipping points,” irreversible changes that would alter life on Earth, in the near future if governments, companies, and people don’t take drastic actions to curb global warming.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order setting an “ambitious new target to make half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles.” Last month, he signed a massive social and climate spending bill with a host of new measures to support the country’s shift toward electric vehicles, including tax credits to make them more affordable to consumers.

Most recently, he visited the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where new electric vehicles were on full display, and announced a $900 million plan to build 500,000 charging stations along the country’s interstate highways.

“The great American road trip is going to be fully electrified, whether you’re driving coast to coast along I-10 or on I-75 here in Michigan,” the president said. “Charging stations will be up and as easy to find as gas stations are now.”

Biden, the original owner of a green 1967 Corvette Stingray with a V-8 under the hood, drove an electrified Cadillac in Detroit and was surrounded by many auto manufacturers’ latest electric vehicle models.

One of them was Dodge’s new Charger Daytona SRT Concept, the “future of electrified muscle,” as the company put it last month. It features a “[m]ulti-speed transmission with an electro-mechanical shifting experience that’s pure Dodge,” as well as what Dodge calls “Fratzonic Chambered Exhaust,” a new exhaust system that “delivers a performance sound that rivals the SRT Hellcat.” In other words, the Daytona will sound like the current gas-powered Charger and Challenger models, which the company is retiring next year.

Sanchez, the industry analyst, says it’s “one of the most interesting and unique” responses to the electrification challenge automakers face.

“The Charger Daytona EV concept combines retro-inspired styling and some stylistic sleight-of-hand to pull off a look that is both retro and thoroughly modern,” he said. “And to buck the notion that EVs are silent, Dodge is deliberately boasting about an external speaker that can create up to 120 dB of noise, roughly equivalent to what the outgoing internal-combustion models make.

“In a sense, I think Dodge knew their core audience was one of the most passionate about ICE performance, and that if it were just to make another anonymous, bland EV, it would get a lot of backlash. So consequently, the Charger Daytona EV concept is about as boisterous and as bad-boy as you could envision with an EV.”

Frise, who works in Canada directly across the border from Detroit, said there is a safety reason to make electric vehicles noisier as well.

“One of the interesting and potentially dangerous aspects of EVs is that they move down the road with very little noise,” Frise said in an email to the Washington Examiner Magazine. “The electric powertrain is virtually silent and so at low speeds, all you really hear is the tire noise which can fade into the background of other urban noise. Obviously, this can be extremely dangerous for pedestrians — particularly for the hearing impaired — as they walk across streets, sometimes without looking or pre-occupied by a cell phone or other connected device.”

As a result, Frise says, auto manufacturers “are adding or considering adding a noise-making device” to new electric models “to simulate the type of powertrain noise that pedestrians expect as an audible cue that a vehicle is approaching.”

Ford, the maker of the iconic Mustang, is waiting a little longer than Dodge to phase out gas-powered models. In Detroit, the company rolled out the next generation of Mustangs (all with internal combustion engines) with great fanfare, but it is reportedly planning to swap them with battery-powered versions sometime in 2028.

“Ford has taken an interesting approach with the new 2024 Mustang. The initial model lineup will have no hybrids or EVs in it,” Sanchez said. “Assuming a 5-6 year model cycle, the subsequent-generation Mustang will be coming in 2029 or 2030, and by that time, may offer an electrified model, or possibly be EV-only.”

For now, Ford offers an electrified SUV bearing the Mustang name and similar styling. “For the first time in 56 years, Ford is expanding the Mustang family, bringing the famous pony into the electric age with Mustang Mach-E, an all-new, all-electric SUV born of the same all-American ideals that inspired the best-selling sports coupe in the world,” Ford said of the 2021 model.

The 2021 performance edition of the Mustang Mach-E offered “the thrills Mustang is famous for, targeting 0-60 mph in 3.5-seconds and an estimated 358 kW (480 horsepower) and 860 Nm (634 lb.-ft.) of torque,” the company said.

The Mach-E “is proving to be popular,” said Sanchez, “and for the time being, Ford figures that is meeting the market need for a ‘Mustang’ EV.” The company is also “likely hoping to get some of the enthusiast market that feels abandoned by Stellantis (Dodge) and General Motors for their aggressive EV push.”

General Motors is investing heavily in battery-powered vehicle production and showcased electric versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and Equinox at the Detroit Auto Show. As for its classic muscle cars, details are scarce, but company President Mark Reuss announced earlier this year that electric Corvettes are on the horizon.

“Some time ago we moved the Corvette team into the EV space in Warren, Michigan, and when we revealed the new mid-engine Corvette, I said there would be ‘more to come’,” he wrote on LinkedIn, adding that had “finally answered the question I’ve been asked countless times.

“Yes, in addition to the amazing new Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and other gas-powered variants coming, we will offer an electrified and a fully electric, Ultium-based Corvette in the future,” he wrote. “In fact, we will offer an electrified Corvette as early as next year. Details and names to come at a later date.”

But as for the Camaro, another classic Chevy performance car, the future “is very much an open question,” Sanchez said.

“The prevailing belief is that there will not be an immediate successor to the sixth-generation model,” he said. “A Camaro-inspired EV based on GM’s Ultium platform may be coming at some point, or GM could take a page out of Ford’s playbook with some sort of crossover and put the Camaro name on it.”

In any case, Sanchez said the market for classic speedsters is “relatively insignificant,” at least “from a volume standpoint.”

“The importance is more symbolic, as many of these model names have been around for multiple decades, and have amassed an impassioned and loyal following,” Sanchez said. “But crossovers are clearly where the volume is globally, and particularly in North America.”

Frisa, however, believes the significance goes beyond nostalgia and symbolism. “I don’t have specific sales figures, but it must be a significant part of the market — otherwise, the automakers wouldn’t be building these vehicles and people wouldn’t be buying them,” he said.

Despite his doubts about classic car enthusiasts buying into electric vehicles, Frise said that “automakers are usually pretty good at reading the market and responding effectively to the trends.” He believes the broader shift toward electric cars “will work and that the new generation of vehicles will largely be accepted.”

As for the last generations of gas-powered muscle cars, they “will almost certainly shoot-up in value and become highly prized among collectors,” he said.

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