Muscle Cars Rule at Auto Show

Inside the fortress-like Jacob Javits Center this week, the outside world does not bother us. Oh sure, just down the road Wall Street is in turmoil. So is Main Street, as gas prices shoot up toward $4 a gallon and home values continue to collapse. But here at the New York Auto Show, nothing is slowing down the parade of muscle cars taking the stage. Chrysler is showing off its reborn Dodge Challenger, with a screaming V8 hemi engine. GM rolled out three hot-rod Pontiacs, including a car-cum-pickup truck inspired by the El Camino from the 1970s. Nissan rolled out a new version of its smoking hot Maxima sport sedan, with a 290-horsepower engine. Every other auto show this year has been overrun with futuristic plug-in electric Chevys and switchgrass burning Biofuel Ferraris. But here, it's green be damned. Like an infamous Yankees pitcher, the New York Auto Show is all about the juice. The only difference: Performance enhancement isn't denied, it's celebrated and glorified at the Javits.

What are these guys thinking? Well, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they planned these new model intros long before they knew about bank failures, $100 a barrel oil and federal bailouts. But shouldn't the car business, of all industries, be able to switch gears? To hear them tell it, they don't want to. Consumers - those folks hiding out in their homes, clinging to their wallets - are near-to-burst with pent up demand for gas thirsty muscle cars capable of going zero to 60 mph in under 5 seconds. "We have both" green and mean, says GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz, standing near a Corvette and a hybrid Chevy Tahoe SUV. "Just because vegetarianism is on the rise doesn't mean you shut down the meat counter."

The meat counter, though, is not getting a lot of business these days. Sales for GM's ultimate muscle car, the Corvette, are down 18.6 percent this year. And Detroit's meatiest models - pickup trucks and big SUVs - are tanking. Fold in the consumers' crisis of confidence, and you've got a car business headed for the ditch. J.D. Power and Associates this week forecast U.S. auto sales will reach their lowest level since 1994, falling below 15 million vehicles for the first time this decade. Just three years ago, Americans purchased 17 million cars and trucks. "Autos have been a leading indicator of what is happening in the rest of the economy now," says Nissan executive Dominique Thormann. "Our industry has been in recession for the last three years."

What models are those brave few buyers laying down deposits on? Small, fuel-efficient cars. Just ask Honda. It introduced a new version of its Honda Fit subcompact at the New York show Wednesday. Sales of that little runabout -- which gets 34 miles per gallon on the highway - are up 87 percent so far this year. And the new version coming this fall manages to be just a little bigger and yet improve its mileage by a mile or two per gallon, says Honda senior vice-president Dick Colliver. Asked why Honda didn't flex a little muscle in New York like the Detroit automakers, Colliver said: "We wanted to show a car that people actually want to buy."

Don't try telling that to the folks at Pontiac, who provided the most steroidal - and surreal - moment of the show when 50 Cent joined 76-year-old Bob Lutz on stage to introduce three new hot rods. "Hi 50, how are you doing?" the white-haired senior statesman of the industry said as he shook hands with Fiddy, dapper in red Harvard hat and track jacket. 50 is an automotive tastemaker who made a star out of the Chrysler 300C by casting it in one of his videos. But he's working for Pontiac now and, by the looks of things on stage, he's earning his money. "This Solstice if faster than a Boxster," 50 said, patting the fender of Pontiac's little duce coupe. "You need this one, not that one."

Like two rock stars from alternative universes, Lutz and 50 stood back to back on stage fielding questions from the media horde that descended upon them after their press conference. And 50 sounded less like his expletive-laced songs and more like an MBA from that school on his hat. "Where I come from, people equate quality with how much you pay," said 50, a huge diamond and gold encrusted cross swinging from his neck. "And that's just not the case. The pricing on these cars is very affordable." 50's hot new ride, by the way, is that El Camino-style new Pontiac. "It's a pickup truck meets sports car," he says. "They should call it 'the Curtis'" (His real name and the name of his latest album.)

Over at the Dodge stand, a young 50 wannabe is working as a security guard and craving the new Challenger. "I had pictures of this car up on my wall," he says, staring up at the blood red Challenger spinning on a pedestal. "This car is my future." Then I provided the buzz kill by asking the young man with bling in his ears and stars in his eyes how he could afford to fill up this 425-horsepower monster of the motorway. "That's the only problem," he says, "with gas at $4 or $5 a gallon. That's tough."

Chrysler officials contend their Challenger line-up has something to offer fuel conscious consumers. There's a stripped down version with a V6 engine that gets 25 mpg on the highway. "A car like this is never out of step with the times," says Chrysler President Jim Press. "At some point, everybody likes to put the throttle to the floor and see what this baby can do."

Indeed, another Chrysler exec suggests that many people who come to their showrooms for sensible reasons might end up going home in a car like the Challenger. "A lot of people come in for fuel economy or even a hybrid and then go home in something different," says Chrysler marketing VP Deborah Wahl Meyer. Of course, currently, you wouldn't be able to find a hybrid on the showroom floor of your Chrysler or Dodge dealership. They will introduce their first gas-electric hybrid systems on big SUVs later this year. (Toyota currently controls 80 percent of the hybrid market.)

Oddly enough, I finally happened upon a green message coming from, of all places, Bentley. Yes, Bentley, home of $300,000 luxury cars with V12 engines that swills gas like 50 downs Cristal. At its sparsely attended press conference, Bentley marketing chief Stuart McCullough pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (the global warming gas) from its tailpipes 15 percent by 2012. What's more, Bentley will introduce a new engine that will cut its gas guzzling by 40 percent and it will make all of its motors capable of running on biofuels by 2012. Through all these measures, Bentley promises to boost its fuel economy from the teens today to 46 mpg, when you factor in the entire lifecycle of the car and how much oil (rather than Biofuel) it actually burns. Why does Bentley bother when its well-wheeled buyers clearly can afford gas at any price? "The cost of gas is not the issue," says McCullough. "It's the fact that people might start throwing stones at your car. Our customers are very conscious of the public statements they make." So, too, are the rest of us. Which might be worth remembering before Detroit rolls out another muscle car.