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Ford, Chevy, Chrysler muscle up

New models of Mustang, Camaro, Challenger start simultaneously this season for first time in decades

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

Stoplights will get a lot more interesting this spring.

For the first time in decades, the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger will face off head-to-head-to-head as new models.

General Motors has begun building the 2010 Camaro at its Oshawa Car Assembly plant in Canada. Ford is rolling out redesigned 2010 Mustangs from its assembly plant in Flat Rock, Mich., and Chrysler LLC's Dodge brand will introduce new retro colors such as B-5 blue for Challengers built at the Brampton Assembly Plant in Ontario.

The last time these were true muscle cars at the same time was in 1974, when Blazing Saddles was in theaters, Hank Aaron still trailed Babe Ruth in total home runs at the start of the season and President Richard M. Nixon was battling the Watergate scandal.

While a dismal year for auto sales has been forecast by industry analysts and manufacturers for 2009, these three vehicles could help Detroit build up the inexpensive sports car segment with new customers who rode the popularity wave of big pickups and SUVs but now want something that's stylish, fun to drive and good with gasoline.

''These are the people who the only thing they put in their pickup bed is a bed liner,'' said Jim Hall, an analyst at 2953 Analytics in Birmingham. ''It may not sound like a lot of buyers, but it's more than you think.''

The key to this year's race might not be the big V-8 buyers, who tend to be enthusiasts and loyal to a particular brand, but rather the V-6 customers jumping into a pony car for the first time.

''The real Mopar guy is not going to buy a Mustang and Chevy fans are not driving around in Challengers,'' said Mike Accavitti, the director of Dodge. ''We're fighting for the guys and gals who don't have a brand allegiance.''

It's a fight Chevrolet and Ford

''The people we're going for are passionate drivers,'' said Karen Rafferty, Chevrolet's director of product marketing. In particular, Rafferty said, Chevrolet wants to target women and import sports car buyers such as those driving the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35. She said the Camaro will have one competitive advantage over Dodge and Ford: It will have the highest gas mileage.

The Camaro's 3.6-liter V-6 direct injection model is expected to achieve at least 27 miles per gallon on the highway, GM says.

But the new Mustang is only 1 mpg off that mark, said Mike Crowley, marketing manager for Ford's cars.

Mustang has a distinct advantage over the Challenger and Camaro because there is a convertible model.

Chevrolet has not announced if it will build a drop-top Camaro, though it has shown a concept version of it. Dodge has ruled out making a convertible.

No one expects the glory days of muscle cars to return. In 1974, the year Dodge ended production of its Challenger, Ford sold 285,864 Mustang IIs, Chevrolet sold 135,780 Camaros and Dodge sold 14,243 Challengers, according to Wards Automotive Yearbook.

Bringing back a muscle car is not without risk. GM attempted to resurrect the Pontiac GTO in 2004 but the car never caught consumers' imagination the way the Challenger did last year or the launch of the Camaro has. - Ford, Chevy, Chrysler muscle up
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