Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Future of Pony Cars

The Future of Pony Cars
Pony cars are a segment of the automotive landscape near and dear to me. I love and respect all three major manufacturer’s versions of these cars as offered in both past and present iterations. All had their perspective strengths and weaknesses and the argument of who built the best one could go on for days if not weeks at a time. This entry is not a focus of where they’ve been or who is building a superior product, rather it’s where they are and where they are headed. I will tackle each of the Big 3’s offerings here and offer what are my opinions of the future of each car. I may be completely off on all of my predictions here or only partly correct, so just remember these are just my opinions and not any facts of production yet, but they are based on my daily readings of various blogs and news stories about the Big 3 or about the pony cars.

Is this the shape of the next Mustang?

Up first is the car that started it all, the original Pony car the Ford Mustang. Significantly revised for 2005 and updated several times since then the Mustang today offers a solid performance value.  The current V6 base model makes more horsepower than many of its V8 predecessors, the legendary 5.0 badge and displacement made their return recently and offered one of the best V8’s Ford has ever produced in terms of performance and technology. For 2013, the Mustang will get a slight bump in power, some cosmetic changes and that’s about it. The Shelby GT500 model gets the significant improvements with a revamped 5.8L DOHC V8 producing an astounding 650HP. Along with that you can get electronically controlled suspension and a top speed in the coupe of at least 200 MPH, provided you can find a police free, empty stretch of road long and straight enough for you to safely enjoy such a feat (better keep that one to the track).
The Mustang will celebrate it’s 50th birthday soon and it would seem that the original Pony will be maturing a bit. Rumors are flying around that the long used 8.8” solid axle will be ditched for an independent rear suspension, let’s hope it’s superior to Ford’s previous attempts at offering an IRS equipped Mustang in the 1999-2004 Cobras.  Since the Mustang is to be a “World Car” in line with Ford’s current “One Ford” strategy it would make sense that an IRS is probably a sure thing in the next generation Mustang in order for it to compete on a global scale.
Rumors abound as well of a four cylinder version coming onboard perhaps in lieu of the current V6. This may make sense as well. The upcoming Focus ST will offer a 250ish HP 2.0L Ecoboost direct injected and turbo charged four cylinder. I would venture that with some tweaks to displacement or in turbo and injector size as well as computer calibrations that this same engine could be applied to a rear drive configuration in a Mustang with the same power as the current V6 offering. Let us hope too though that the next generation car is light enough to make good use of a 4 cylinder base powertrain.  As I am writing and editing this both Top Gear and Motor Trend have rumor reports of a 2.3L SVO powertrain rumored for the next Mustang.
I would expect the 5.0L engine to live on, though I would imagine it will be an updated iteration to feature direct injection allowing for perhaps more power and better fuel economy as well as lower emissions. Remember folks CAFÉ restrictions are coming soon and they threaten to strangle all manner of cars within the auto industry not just the performance cars and big trucks. Direct injection for the 5.0 also makes sense. The current engine’s cylinder heads are setup to easily allow for direct injection as designed originally. Some revisions in designs and tooling as well as a new intake manifold and valve covers are the biggest bits of what will be needed to make this change physically to the current engine. This change may also allow for another bump in the engine’s compression ratio.
The Shelby GT500 if it survives I imagine will also make use of the 5.0L. While Ford made a significant investment in the current 5.8L adding new tech such as piston cooling jets this engine is essentially becoming long in the tooth. Still a derivative of the modular platform that was developed way back in the 1980’s and first seen in Crown Vic’s as a 4.6L in the early 90’s this engine is destined to go by the wayside soon. While the 650HP number is quite spectacular from the current car and the most powerful production Ford engine ever, I don’t see how it can last in this form with the new CAFÉ standards looming.  SVT also is rumored to be going by the wayside as we know it and being incorporated into the ST line as part of the “One Ford” vision. This may also contribute to the Shelby receiving a heavily hopped up version of the 5.0, quite possibly making at or close to the current 650HP mark. A lot of this may also depend on what the competition is doing.
As far as chassis and body goes on the new Mustang. It is my hope that it will be a smaller car, lighter in weight and stiffer. Since this will be the first truly worldwide Mustang sold in multiple international markets would expect the interior to be a little more upscale. The current chassis is good but there is always room for improvement.
As far as appearance goes, what will it look like is perhaps as big a question for most people as is how much horsepower will be under the hood. I say look no further than the EVOS concept for your basic shape and design. This concept according to Ford represents the styling direction of Ford for the next several years. Looking at multiple pictures of this concept there are several things that standout as to why I believe this is the shape of the next generation Mustang. The first is the car’s layout, it is very much Pony car in it’s long hood and short rear deck or even hatchback design. Now forget about the four gullwing doors, that’s just a concept car design gimmick to get attention at shows.  Look closely at the photos too and you see some big brakes on this car, also a performance car hallmark these days. If you removed the taillights from the rear deck and replaced them with an updated variant of the Mustang three bar design that harkens back to 1965 as well as has been back in use since 1994 in some variation or another. Stretch the too thin front lamps down, move the grille up and change it from the current shape to a more traditional for Mustang trapezoid shape, stick the running Pony in the middle and there you have it.

Now for all you bowtie lovers, let’s talk about the Camaro. This car was late getting back in the party having only just recently come back to market. Like anyone who is late to the party though, the Camaro has made a big entrance. Coming on the scene besting it’s chief competitor (the Mustang) by 100 horsepower when it debuted the Camaro has made waves once again in the pony car/muscle car market, just as it did back in 1967. The styling of the current car can be a bit polarizing, it also kills visibility from the driver’s seat, some love it, some hate it. I will admit from my perspective that while the concept was great at the time it was revealed GM was too slow to market with this car and it came in far too late in the retro crazy pony car rebirth. In spite of all this the Camaro has managed to outsell the Mustang the past two years in a row, no small feat, and probably partially attributed to loyal fans holding out for the Camaro to return to the scene.
The upcoming ZL1 Camaro promises even more fun for those who can afford the sticker. Much like the GT500 is Ford’s top Mustang offering the ZL1 will be the top shelf Camaro. Currently boasting a supercharged 580HP as well as electronically adjustable suspension technology taken from the Corvette, the ZL1 will be a force to be reckoned with on the street and track. Make no mistake about it there will be a horsepower and a performance figures war between Ford and GM for supremacy, bragging rights and customer’s cash at least until 2015.

My opinion Code 130R = 2015 Camaro

Also due for a refresh in 2015 the Camaro faces the same challenges as the Mustang in terms of fuel economy while maintaining performance.  GM has already shown its hand in terms of what will be under the hood though.  The next generation small block Chevy V8 is set to debut in the 2013 Chevy Corvette. Much like the LS1 debuted in the mid 90’s in the C5 corvette the new small block will debut here in GM’s flagship before various versions of it make their way throughout the production line over the next few years. Technology that GM V8’s have made due without (and by made due I mean done very well for themselves)  for the last several years will be standard on this engine, variable camshaft timing and direct injection are promised. We know in the C7 Vette that displacement will drop to 5.5 liters although GM maintains that performance will be equal or better than current power outputs. It would make sense that the Camaro will receive either a 5.5 liter, 5.0 liter or similar version of this same engine, with the same or slightly less power than the big brother Corvette makes.
Base powertrain is also likely to be a forced induction four cylinder. GM has a lot more experience in this department than Ford having developed hot cars like the Cobalt SS and the turbocharged Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice a few years back. They also have already proven these types of powertrains in a rear drive applications (the above mentioned Pontiac and Saturn). I would expect these four cylinders to also deliver the same or better performance than the V6’s they will likely replace though their power output will likely be in the 300HP range.
The ZL1 like the GT500 will either remain or will be the last gasp of the high horsepower battle between Ford and GM. I fully expect the ZL1 to get even more power before 2015 as Ford and Chevy duke it out for pony car muscle supremacy. If the ZL1 remains it will likely be just as the GT500 would be a lower displacement but still high output engine. Still utilizing forced induction this GM performance bruiser could theoretically continue fighting against Shelby until the market for such cars dries up.
As far as appearance and chassis goes. Much like I believe Ford has already shown their cards in this respect I also believe that GM has shown it as well. Look at the Code 130R concept car from GM. Right now GM has an issue, an age issue. The average age of a Chevy buyer is 55. They need to attract a younger audience. However building two rear wheel drive performance cars in the current market (the Camaro and the 130R) makes little sense to me as one could cannibalize the sales of the other. This might have made sense in the 1960’s but today there is too much competition from other brands, let alone from within. Higher ups at Chevy have said they will tour the Code 130R concept this year to gauge public opinion. I see this as the next Camaro and Chevy shifting the focus from aging Baby Boomers and 40+ crowd buyers for Camaros back to the youth market that the car was originally intended for in the 60’s when it first debuted.
Other reasons I believe the Code 130R to be the next Camaro, it is built on the same platform as the upcoming Cadillac ATS sedan. This is also the same platform that the next generation Camaro will ride on according to GM. Again final shape and styling are all subject to a little tweaking but the retro theme is now literally old and will most likely see its end with the debut of the next car. This small lightweight car would be a true pony car in every sense. The concept also featured an independent rear suspension, something already present in the current Camaro.
Inside I would look for plenty of upgrades to the Camaro over even the current car. I also would imagine a new infotainment system similar to what will be offered on the upcoming ATS. Again I might be totally wrong on this prediction but the more I look at the pictures of the Code 130R the more I say, there’s your next generation Camaro.
In the handling department I expect the electronically adjustable suspension which is debuting on the upcoming ZL1 to trickle its way to the option packages on future Camaros, perhaps even on this generation car as well as the next generation much like it has over the years on the Corvette where it first appeared.
Transmission wise I think a 6 speed manual is the available transmission across the board in all models as well as possibly an eight speed automatic. Rumor is that a seven or eight speed manual trans will be available in the upcoming C7 Corvette, if this is true I would look for that to take the place of a 6 speed manual in the 2015 Camaro.
The last of the Big 3 ponycars is the Dodge Challenger. Little has been mentioned other than a few whispers about the future of the Challenger. Rumor has it that this nameplate is going by the wayside along with the current “big” car. The Challenger is a big car indeed, bigger than either the Camaro or the Mustang. While stylistically the closest appearing to its retro inspiration it is also the lowest volume seller of the three. Still the Challenger is a good car, with great power and plenty of options.  This is a car is a platform that was missing from Chrysler’s lineup for over 30 years in terms of a rear wheel drive pony car.
All of my info on the future of a Chrysler pony car is based on rumors I’ve read and speculation on my part. Chrysler has been either tight lipped or is simply behind in developing a plan for what’s next. Rumor has it that Chrysler will replace the Dodge Challenger with an SRT branded ‘Cuda or Barracuda model in the near future. The car will still be rear wheel drive. Powertrains are as yet unnamed. I would suspect a variant of the Hemi V8, perhaps even with variable cam timing and Chrysler’s displacement on demand systems shutting down individual cylinders during even or part throttle cruising to save fuel.
I would also suspect much like Ford and GM that a four cylinder forced induction base model engine will be offered that is at least the equivalent in power and performance to the current V6 base model. If the current model is an SRT brand only though, it is possible that it may only be offered as a hot V8 and in limited production. Think little brother to the Viper but not a high volume car like the Camaro or Mustang. Another possibility is that the Pentastar which is Chrysler’s new V6 could remain an option as the base engine in the ‘Cuda as this engine offers significant refinements in terms of power and efficiency, all of this is of course speculation.
In the styling department Chrysler has said that the replacement for the Challenger will not be retro. This is the first of the big 3 to come out and make this statement known. Though they have said that the new car will pay homage however to the models that came before it and bore its name just not in a completely retro fashion as the Challenger does.  It would also make sense that the ‘Cuda replacement will be a much smaller car than the current Challenger.
Chrysler has in the last two years made dramatic improvements with respect to interior quality throughout its lineup, I expect this to continue here.  This really is all I have read or know about what’s coming from Chrysler with respect to their pony car, a model which may have been neglected in the recent merger with Fiat due to the increased focus on small cars.
Chances are if you’re reading this blog posting you have at least some interest in performance cars or pony cars in general. What I hope is not going to happen is 1974 all over again. Manufacturer’s back then delayed far too long and did not develop the necessary technologies and strategies to meet consumer and government demands. Performance can be had in smaller, lighter packages but without sacrificing V8 power and while netting better fuel economy. Let’s hope that the Big 3 learn from the past and don’t set our performance figures back 20+ years because they were unable to cope with changing times and standards.

1 comment:

  1. Simple but beautiful car, never fail to amazed me.

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