Analysis-American carmakers muscle up on software, tech to keep horsepower wars going
By Nathan Gomes and Akash Sriram
(Reuters) – American carmakers will lean on technology to keep the horsepower wars going among their electric muscle cars, a tectonic shift from the big, rumbling motors of the past.
Muscle cars – long dominated by models such as Ford Motor Co’s Mustang, the Stellantis-owned Dodge Charger and General Motors Co’s Chevrolet Camaro – have played a crucial role in American culture with movies or TV shows like “Bullitt” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”, while also serving as a brand halo that drove other sales.
That is changing, however, with the advent of cars powered by electric powertrains and loaded with computer chips, industry executives and analysts said.
“It might be the beginning of the end of the V8-powered, gas-engine muscle car,” said car auction website owner Doug DeMuro, adding that the differentiation of electric muscle cars from regular family cars will come down to “weird equipment or extras that other cars don’t have.”
Muscle cars refer to American two-door performance-oriented vehicles, powered by near-400 horsepower V8 motors sending power to their rear wheels, helping them dish out sub-5 second zero-to-60 miles-per-hour acceleration times.
Starting in the 1960s, American carmakers looking to capitalize on demand spurred by the novelty factor and brand loyalty, used large-capacity motors to one-up rivals of the time and produce the most power – a trend that continued until the mid-2000s.
However, demand had begun to taper off in the 1970s because of rising fuel prices and was hit hard by record gas prices during the Gulf War, giving way to smaller, more fuel-efficient Japanese rivals such as Honda Motor Co’s Civic and Toyota Motor Corp’s Corolla.
Ota updates and ‘exhaust’ notes
Muscle car sales have continued to deteriorate over the years as consumers switched to trucks and SUVs, and now the EV era’s emphasis on higher efficiency and lower emissions has raised the risk for muscle cars even further as the electric technologies offer great acceleration times.
“Nearly all the EVs do handle the same, they’re very rigid, and they’re heavy because you can’t escape the fact that the batteries are very heavy weights,” said racing driver Ben Collins, formerly the Stig from British motoring TV show “Top Gear”.
With most car companies phasing out their gas-powered cars in favor of electric variants, automakers that had earlier differentiated their muscle cars with large engines will now rely on software updates and quirks to define their muscle cars.
GM and Dodge have both issued timelines to stop selling gas-powered muscle cars and replace them with electric variants that will wear the same badges. Dodge’s Charger and Challenger muscle cars will not be made next year, while Chevrolet has laid out plans for an electric Corvette.
This shift to electric powertrains with software and technology will leave electric muscle cars fending off competition from other high-performance EVs made by Tesla Inc, Lucid Group and Rivian Automotive Inc.
Brands such as Polestar and Mercedes-Benz have announced optional power upgrades to their sedans that improve acceleration and total horsepower via paid OTA (over-the-air) software updates.
Dodge has said it will transition its muscle cars to an electric platform, and is working to differentiate those models.
The brand’s chief, Tim Kuniskis, told Reuters in an interview that Dodge will sell physical radio-frequency keys to drivers who want to upgrade their car, a move to differentiate from companies that make everyday cars and roll out over-the-air (OTA) updates to improve features and give their cars more power.
“We’re not going to sell you over the air update for you know, heated seats. We’re going to sell you direct connection upgrades for performance and suspension and things like that, where you actually physically have to change the car,” Kuniskis added.
Dodge launched a concept Charger Daytona EV last August with features to mimic the feel of driving a gas-powered car that appeals to enthusiasts, including an “exhaust” note, and the ability to shift gears, unlike most EVs.
GM said that it was using software to keep its performance vehicles interactive.
Ford, which sells an electric SUV that wears the same badge as the Mustang, said its Ford Power-Up over-the-air software updates create an “upgradable ownership experience” over time.
At their essence, the speed and performance of electric cars are functions of battery size and power rating of the motor along with factors such as aerodynamics and weight playing a role, and industry officials said consumers need not fear a future without gas-powered engines.
“In a lot of ways, electric vehicles are treated like the boogeyman to enthusiasts, as if they’re coming to take away your internal combustion engines,” said YouTube auto reviewer Nick Roman from Regular Car Reviews.
“Electric vehicles are simply the latest evolution in the auto industry. It’s a change. And while change is uncomfortable, it should challenge you too.”
(Reporting by Nathan Gomes and Akash Sriram in Bengaluru, Editing by Ben Klayman and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)