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Muscle cars: Green and mean no longer incompatible

Toyota FT-1 concept car: a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, long-nosed concept that harkens back to the Toyota 2000GT of the late-1960s.


Following the Arab oil embargo in 1967, the U.S. Congress established corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to boost fuel efficiency for all vehicles. In 1978, the targeted CAFE for passenger vehicles was 18 miles per gallon (13 litres/100 km); this year, it's 38 mpg (6.2 L/100 km); by 2025, it will be 61 mpg (3.8 L/100 km).

Following the lead of the Americans, governments worldwide have applied incremental pressure to build fuel-efficient vehicles. They are motivated by gas prices being largely unpredictable for the average consumer, environmental issues grabbing headlines relentlessly, and even in times of peace, the oil business fraught with political baggage.

Fuel economy is more important than ever. With gas prices unpredictable and environmental issues grabbing headlines, governments worldwide are forcing auto makers to build more efficient vehicles. Yet, this is quite clearly the Year of the Muscle Car, the dominant theme of the 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) this week.

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Given the external pressures, how is it possible that manufacturers can continue to place so much emphasis on high-performance cars?

The answer: technology.

Engineers are coming up with myriad ways to raise the average heart rate, even while charged with improving mileage. The modern muscle cars on display in Detroit this week showcase the innovations that will, eventually, trickle down to vehicles in all categories.

The high performers fall into three broad categories: new editions of classic American sports cars, mystery-machine concept cars and hot compacts, the more modestly sized efforts from global manufacturers.

Chevrolet Corvette C7-R AP Paul Sancya AP  

American classics

The poster child for the NAIAS looked like it would be the all-new, sixth-generation Ford Mustang … until the marketing army at Ford brought the car to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas a week prior. Grabbing the NAIAS spotlight instead was another old-school sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette. The latest-generation 'Vette was introduced last year to great acclaim and GM upped the ante in Detroit this year with the unveiling of the Z06.

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The Corvette Z06 is powered by a 6.2-litre super-charged V-8 that churns out an estimated 625 horsepower (if not more) and 635 lb-ft of torque (at least).

This engine incorporates direct injection, variable valve timing and an active fuel management system to produce all that performance without sacrificing fuel efficiency completely. The Z06 is also fitted with either a seven-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic, the extra gears coming in handy when it comes time to cruise rather than race.

If there is any doubt that Americans know how to design, engineer and build a world-class car, the latest Corvette Z06 should put those thoughts to rest. And here's the kicker: an even higher-performing version of the Corvette, the ZR1, is rumoured to be in development.

The 2015 Mustang will be available with a V-8 engine, one that displaces 5.0 litres and generates an estimated 420 horsepower. But this engine is no fuel-gulping lump; it's an entirely new design fitted with revised valves, valve springs, camshafts, crankshaft, connecting rods and camshaft timing to deliver expected power and unexpected efficiency.

A more interesting development for the new Mustang lineup – the addition of a turbo-charged, 2.3-litre four-cylinder to the range of engines being offered. While the thought of a four-cylinder Mustang will send the average muscle-car fan fleeing for higher ground, this engine incorporates the latest thinking – direct fuel injection, twin-scroll turbo-charging – and produces a healthy 305 horsepower.

Concept cars

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While many manufacturers are not typically bringing concept cars to auto shows, there's no better way to impress worldwide media keen on uncovering the next best thing.

Toyota did just that in Detroit by revealing the FT-1, a stunning sports car concept that continues the company's march towards a more exciting product lineup. While the engineering remains under wraps, the FT-1 is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, long-nosed concept that harkens back to the Toyota 2000GT of the late-1960s, considered to be the very first Japanese supercar.

The Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge was not as radical a reveal as the FT-1, but this concept could feature a startling 500 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque – this, by process of elimination, suggests a high-performing gas-electric hybrid powertrain. The Eau Rouge features aerodynamic add-ons inspired by the various flips, kicks and wings found on the Infiniti Red Bull Formula One race car.

While the Korean manufacturers are relative newcomers to the muscle car movement, the Kia GT4 Stinger concept demonstrates that they have learned from their elders. This gorgeous prototype brings the latest thinking to a long-established vehicle type: the rear-wheel-drive 2+2 sport coupe.

Under the long, low, sleek skin, the Kia features a six-speed manual transmission linked to a 2.0-litre, turbo-charged four-cylinder engine (derived from the Kia Optima GTS race car) that develops a reported 315 horsepower.

While the Stinger is not yet confirmed for production, some form of sports car is on the horizon for Kia.

Volkswagen's Heinz-Jacob Neuber stands next to an e-Golf electric vehicle during the press preview day of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 13, 2014. REUTERS REBECCA COOK REUTERS  

Hot compacts

For fans of smaller-sized muscle cars, the introduction of every version of the BMW M3 is a hotly anticipated event. This time around, the topics of conversation are the addition of a new name for the coupe variant (M4) and the return to a six-cylinder engine – the previous generation used V-8 power.

This 3.0-litre, turbo-charged inline-six is 10 kg lighter than the V-8, 25 per cent more fuel-efficient and considerably more powerful – reports suggest 11 more horsepower, to 425 in total.

Detroit also showcased the latest production versions of the Subaru WRX STI and the Volkswagen Golf R.

VW focused on extracting more all-around performance and the new Golf R shows increases of 34 hp, 37 lb-ft of torque and a modest fuel gain over its immediate predecessor.

Subaru aimed to help the driver better control the legendary performance of the STI. This latest rally-inspired compact features a stiffer chassis, revised suspension system and active torque vectoring, all contributing to higher speeds and increased confidence in the corners.

The modern muscle cars at this year's NAIAS prove that high-performance and eco-consciousness are not mutually exclusive ideas.

In fact, when equipped with the latest advances – alternative powertrains, improved aerodynamics, more efficient engines and transmissions – there's no telling what may be possible down the road.

Exciting times.

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