When GM took the wraps off the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to open the Chicago Auto Show, it marked a notable change in direction for the modern-day muscle car'”and an equally notable course adjustment for the industry, at least as compared to what we've been seeing at other recent auto shows. While the focus at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, for example, remained on efficiency, the situation in Chicago was reminiscent of the days when mph was more important than mpg'”and a reminder that for many folks, those days are still with us.
A Camaro for the Curves
The eye-popping numbers for the ZL1 are hard to ignore'”we're talking about roughly 550 horses and 550 lb.-ft. of torque, courtesy of GM's supercharged 6.2-liter LSA V-8'”but they aren't the real story here. Crazy-high amounts of power are exactly what one expects from a muscle car. What's different about this model is that it was "intended to reach optimal lap times on road-racing circuits," not (solely) drag strips. In other words, the Camaro ZL1 isn't so much a modern-day muscle car as it is a no-excuses modern-day sports car.
Now, I know that the current-generation Ford Mustang happens to showcase exceptional handling, but its solid rear axle remains a psychological barrier for a certain chunk of enthusiasts. And the 2011 Dodge Challenger received a significant chassis and suspension upgrade for the current model year, which should greatly improve its handling as well. But neither of those rivals has anything like the ZL1's Magnetic Ride Control system, the world's fastest-reacting suspension setup according to GM. That's going to be a game-changer in the segment, even though it also may end up convincing some Bow-tie buyers to shift their sights from a Chevrolet Corvette to the new ZL1'”especially when you consider the latter will boast noticeably more horsepower and torque than a Corvette Z06.
STR8 Out of Dodge with the SRT8
Chicago also saw the introduction of the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8, the division's high-performance sedan flagship. Now packing a 6.4-liter HEMI that's good for an estimated 465 hp and 465 lb.-ft. of torque, the Charger SRT8 is expected to deliver a top speed of 175 mpg, 0-60 runs in the high 4's and quarter-mile trips in the upper 12's. It's also a flat-out wicked-looking car that is a better fit for the Charger's dramatic new sheet metal, especially with the additional SRT8 body pieces.
And Dodge didn't just premiere its frighteningly fast full-size sedan; the company also debuted a five-vehicle R/T lineup that also ups the performance ante, just not quite so high as with the Charger SRT8. Members of the team include R/T versions of the Dodge Journey, Dodge Durango and Dodge Grand Caravan, as well as the Charger and Challenger. The R/T makeover offers a mix of cosmetic and performance-oriented upgrades to the vehicles, although no R/T-specific engines are in the mix. Of course, part of the reason for that is the introduction of the 283-hp Pentastar V-6 to the basic Chrysler Group lineup, providing a healthy horsepower boost even in many non-R/T models.
Hyundai's High-Po Genesis
I also want to take a virtual stop by the Hyundai exhibit, where the 2012 Hyundai Genesis 5.0 R-Spec sedan made its debut. While it's no doubt impressive that the automaker was able to whip up its very own eight-speed automatic transmission for the car, what's also getting people's attention is its new 5.0-liter V-8. Rated at 429 hp and 376 lb.-ft. of torque, it's the most powerful production V-8 ever offered by the company.
But its launch also has forced Hyundai into a slightly awkward position: The automaker that has been bragging about its 40-mpg had to admit that this new range-topping Genesis engine is actually a tad less efficient than the old one. Hyundai's 4.6-liter V-8, still available on the mid-level Genesis, notched a rating of 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway; the 5.0-liter mill goes 16/25.
The "Need" for Speed
That business with the Genesis' new V-8 makes for a minor difference in the real world, but a powerful symbolic example of how even a company like Hyundai, dead set on achieving a leadership role in fuel efficiency, can succumb to customer demand for more power'”even as the U.S. works itself into a tizzy over the possibility that Saudi Arabia is running out of oil.