By on December 20, 2018

Domestic sedans are currently being walked up to the edge of a mass grave. Beneath them rests their two-doored brethren and the first wave of four-doors previously executed by the Big Three. Ford has promised a lineup comprised almost entirely of pickups and utility vehicles in the coming years and General Motors is in the process of doing the same. Fiat Chrysler wisely kept its automotive killing spree under the radar by being the first to pull the trigger and not making a big deal of it. But consider what’s left within its domestic nameplates: SUVs, pickups, a few vans and the endangered Chrysler 300 — which is really a more of a commoner’s luxury vehicle.

FCA also has the Dodge Charger and Challenger in its stable, but they’re not what one might consider when imagining your typical sedan. They’re ancient, powerful creatures. Gas-guzzling muscle cars, brimming with attitude, and seemingly impervious to harm. Goliaths without a David or fuel crisis to put them down. Who could have ever imagined that American muscle would crawl back out of its grave after such a long absence and manage to outlive the typical sedan?

Their manufacturer, for one. 

According to Timothy Kuniskis, head of FCA’s Fiat and Jeep brands, it’s all because traditional sedans have nothing exciting to offer consumers.

“What’s dying is the commoditized, four-door nothingburger, no-personality cars,” Kuniskis, who ran the Dodge brand from 2013 to early 2018, told Bloomberg this week. He claims muscle cars “have a really well-defined personality and positioning.”

Considering long-legged success stories like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord and the muscle car’s role as a niche vehicle, Tim’s assertion that might makes right sounds a little iffy. However, even though the Japanese seem more steadfast in there adherence to the body style, they’ve also starting losing ground. Meanwhile, we’re now seeing brands attempt to butch up vanilla vehicles with sport-inspired appearance packages as a ploy to bolster sales and widen their profit margins.

If you’d like an example, you need look no further than Chevrolet’s Redline Series. But we shouldn’t pick on General Motors; most automakers have engaged in this tactic to some degree. Toyota recently introduced TRD versions of the Camry and Avalon, upgrading the the vehicles’ brakes, suspension, and appearance while leaving the powertrain alone, and even Chrysler offers a meaner-looking Pacifica.

The hope is that these vehicles can be upsold by dealers and get a taste of the margins SUVs and pickup trucks enjoy. But real muscle cars already enjoy decent margins. At least they do for Dodge.

From Bloomberg:

Fiat Chrysler, which kicked off the sedan-slashing trend in early 2016, commands an average transaction price of around $36,000 for its muscular Dodge Challenger. It might not be enough to match the fat margins on the trucks and SUVs that have become the focus for Detroit, but these powerful throwbacks can be still be moneymakers. And that can help big automakers finance their shift to a more electric future — especially since the initial investment on developing a Challenger (on the same platform since 2008) or a Dodge Charger (2011) has long since been paid off.

Looking for growth in muscle cars still might be a bit of a stretch. Fiat Chrysler expects to sell roughly 65,000 Challengers this year, about the same as last year and just below the record 66,000 reached in 2015. Sales of the four-door Charger dropped 11 percent this year through November.

That’s better than most sedans, but it would be ambitious to assume the muscle car will never go back into hibernation. Chevrolet’s rebadged VF Commodore, the SS, crashed and burned — selling only 12,860 units during its four-year stint in United States. Granted, it wasn’t branded as a muscle car, but the concept was close enough for it to be cross-shopped against the Charger.

Extremely powerful muscle cars like the SRT Hellcat and Demon also provide a halo effect for the rest of the Dodge brand. Josh Towbin, co-owner of Towbin Automotive in Las Vegas, has sold both and claims most collectors looking for high-profile muscle cars find his business via social media. His dealership’s Instagram feed regularly features clips of people doing lengthy burnouts in their Challengers.

David Kelleher, a Philadelphia-area Jeep, Ram and Chrysler dealer, has a marketing agreement with several basketball and football players from the Philadelphia 76ers and Eagles. He claims young athletes frequently choose to take home muscle cars over the other models. “The kids think it’s the coolest thing going,” Kelleher said. “Those are cars that say something about who you are.”

Unfortunately, sales from people wanting to emulate professional athletes won’t be enough to keep FCA’s muscle twins perpetually on tap. There’s a limited window for these types of vehicles but a subset of the population will want something to fill the void when they’re gone (which should be the takeaway for manufacturers the world over). That’s not to say it’s prudent for manufacturers to spend a fortune developing their own version of the Dodge Charger. Still, it would be wise for them to consider why the car seems poised to outlive just about every other American four-door with a proper trunk. We would imagine it has something to do with it possessing a genuine sense of fun, strong personality, and gobs of power for an absurdly low price — you know, things that make people actively want to buy a car.

While the muscle-adjacent Mustang and Camaro will likely trudge onward for the foreseeable future, most agree that Dodge’s Charger and Challenger only have a few years left in them. The brand was absent from Dodge’s five-year plan that was presented over the summer and Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, told Bloomberg he doubts whether FCA can sustain sufficient volume to keep its muscle cars in production by the end of it. Gas can’t stay affordable forever and electrification will eventually become an essential component in tomorrow’s mainstream performance vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler is gently optimistic, though. “I’m not going to tell you it’s going to grow,” Steve Beahm, head of FCA’s passenger brands, said of the company’s muscle-car offerings. “But it’s going to dramatically buck the trend in regards to where passenger cars have gone lately and where they’re going to go in the next couple of years.”

Image: FCA

[Images: FCA]

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53 Comments on “Why American Muscle Might Outlive the Standard American Sedan...”


  • avatar
    FerrariLaFerrariFace

    “What’s dying is the commoditized, four-door nothingburger, no-personality cars,”

    The Focus ST/RS and Fiesta ST would like to disagree. Although I suspect those are mostly considered collateral damage, especially since they still exist in some form in on other continents.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    What a pile of misinformation.

    “Considering success stories like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord…” who’s sales are steadily declining, and have been replaced by their respective companies’ utility vehicles as their best sellers. Quite a success story!

    “[the Chevrolet] SS, crashed and burned — selling only 12,860 units during its four-year stint in United States.”

    Except it sold beyond expectations and was never supposed to be a high-volume product.

    So, we have two sedans that are struggling to keep afloat but still sinking, yet that’s considered a success story. Then, we have a muscle sedan that sold better than expected, but that’s a crash and burn. Excellent analysis, Mr. Posky.

    • 0 avatar
      PandaBear

      I’d like to see which alt universe that Camero or Mustang will outlive Camry or Accord.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        I’d like to see which universe that this thing called a “Camero” exists.

        Nothing in my post claims the CamAro or Mustang will outlive those cars, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. There is going to come a point when the Asian automakers realize there is little sense in throwing R&D money into products that arent worth it. If the trend continues, expect to see a lot more sedans go by the wayside.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        The Mustang has been on sale for 50+ years. The Camry dates to 1979 so it has some catching up to do. Either way, While it may not keep it’s current incarnation indefinitely, I wouldn’t bet on the Mustang nameplate going away.

    • 0 avatar
      deanst

      “So, we have two sedans that are struggling to keep afloat but still sinking, yet that’s considered a success story. Then, we have a muscle sedan that sold better than expected, but that’s a crash and burn. Excellent analysis, Mr. Posky.”

      New math: 2 vehicles selling 600,000 units per year = failure
      1 vehicle selling 3,000 units per year = success

      The 250 models that sell less than Camry or Accord must really be losers.

      • 0 avatar
        jatz

        +1 MAGA math.

      • 0 avatar
        MoparRocker74

        600K sales that each lose money vs 3K that MAKE money…which one is sustainable business?

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          Where’d you see that the CamCord are unprofitable?

          • 0 avatar
            MoparRocker74

            I never said CamCord aren’t profitable. Im proving a point. CamCord and other appliances have very slim margins. So sales numbers alone don’t mean success. It’s a proven fact that numerous ‘compliance cars’ have been pooped out by the D3 over the years and they ‘sold’ relatively well…yet actually cost money, rather than making any.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            Except that the 600K cars mentioned were Accords and Camrys, two models that built profitable businesses. Maybe the UAW-3 couldn’t make a profit on Escorts and Chevettes, but Honda probably made more money on Accords than Chrysler did in its entire independent existence.

  • avatar
    thelaine

    A love of powerful engines is one of the reasons so many people switched to pickups in the first place. Thank you, CAFE.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      Yup, and muscle cars are pretty much trophies for people who have enough accumulated financial wealth to afford these overpriced toys.

      To be able to fully indulge in one’s hobby like Jay Leno does is a gift, and Jay got it the old fashioned way; he earned it!

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I am a huge Leno fan (he came to Afghanistan my last deployment and had us all in stitches). Also took hours to just talk with people. Class dude.

        But to hold up multi million dollar T.V. deals as “earning it” in comparison to the rest of us is stupid. What did I have a f&+king money tree sprout up in my yard? No, I and everyone I know that has “toy cars” worked their a$$es off for 20 years and unlike some of us on these forums didn’t skimp on our taxes and hire illegals when they could.

        • 0 avatar
          Flipper35

          Jay did not pay for any of his cars with the money made off of his TV contracts. He stated that in an interview a few years ago.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            When Leno did “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” he and Jerry talked about how Jay always had TWO jobs from a young age.

            One he would spend and one he would save. I always assumed the collector cars came out of one of those two revenue streams. He kept doing stand-up even after he hit it big.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        The notion that heavily discounted cars bought on credit = wealth is quaint to say the least

        Yes you can get a HEMI for ~30% off and 84 months, nothing down.

  • avatar
    salmonmigration

    Look at the front end of the new Mustang and Camaro and then look back at the Challenger. It’s hard to sell a competitive masculinity enhancer when it has a droopy and flaccid face.

    Dodge got these cars figured out right way back when and they’ve been coasting ever since, admittedly. But the market is clearly still out there.

    • 0 avatar
      MoparRocker74

      Coasting? The LXs have received CONSTANT refinement and upgrades. The powertrain, interior, and styling have all seen multiple updates. You said it yourself: Ma Mopar designed these cars right back in 2004, and they’ve been competitive if not class leading ever since. Just changing things to be changing them without actually moving forward is idiocy. I hope the next generation of these cars is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Take a good look at the evolution of the Jeep CJ to the YJ Wrangler and how that has evolved. They’ve proceeded cautionsly and any changes were meaningful. Its become the only game in town for a ‘real’ sports-utility, as everything else has downgraded to CUVs.

  • avatar
    The Crusty Autoworker

    I’ll bet money both Charger and Challenger live on into the future and even move to a new platform. Because as everyone now goes willy nilly killing off large sedans they are creating a market for buyers that are left behind.
    Not everyone wants a cookie cutter CUV, some main stream buyers want something with a soul.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      This plus the fact that performance models carry a higher price tag so they are still profitable. In theory the Miata shouldn’t sell since its a small sports car which is a lose-lose in today’s world. However because its the only game in town it continues to stick around.

    • 0 avatar
      MoparRocker74

      ABSOLUTELY. And with even more attempts to shove hybrid/electric greenie mobiles down everyones throats, the pushback by buying trucks and muscle cars is just going to get more intense. How else better to Up The Finger to the elites than with a fast, loud muscle car packing a powerful Hemi?

  • avatar
    ajla

    “it’s all because traditional sedans have nothing exciting to offer consumers.”

    This is part of it, but the LX cars are as much the new Panther as they are the new Road Runner.

    My understanding is that even at basically 100% fleet sales the Panthers were still able to make money for Ford and it was tightening government regulations that caused its death because re-engineering the car would be too expensive.

    I have a feeling it’s the same case for the Charger/Challenger: it makes money at lower and fleet-heavy volumes and nothing beyond a minor face-lift is happening in the future. There might one day be a Challenger on a new platform, but I don’t there’s a life for sedans beyond the LX.

    One place FCA succeeded where Ford (and GM to a lesser extent) failed is that there’s a market for $40K – $70K performance LX cars.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      The news I’ve seen says that the Brampton LX plant is running at roughly 80% capacity (which is supposed to be a magic number for auto plants to be profitable.)

      One of the reasons that the Panthers stay profitable was because Ford shut down the Wixom plant and moved Town Car production to Canada with the rest of the Panthers. (Assembly quality suffered a bit sadly, same with GM when they shut down B-body production at Willow Run to move all production to Arlington, TX)

      GMs biggest problem looking at the Impala/XTS/Lacrosse is that GM tended to build factories with wildly optimistic capacity. I think the XTS and Impala for example are being built in factories that are only running about 50% capacity.

  • avatar
    stars9texashockey

    Timothy Kuniskis needs to spend less time basking in the niche glow of Challengers and more time working on getting FCA vehicles out of the basement of every quality survey.

  • avatar
    mikey

    “Droopy and flaccid face “….Agreed, and I own a 15 Mustang. I’ve taken a pretty close look at the Challenger. IMHO the Dodge is by far the prettiest of the three. The Challenger also has little more back seat space.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      It is a bit more than a little larger back seat IMHO. However, it is a much bigger car and it feels like such behind the wheel. I always compare it to my old MN-12 Thunderbird/Cougars as to how it feels. Not a bad thing.

      • 0 avatar
        whynot

        Not just the back seat, the trunk on the Challenger is much larger too (both overall size and opening). The Challenger is less compromising compared to the Mustang and especially the Camaro. Unless you readily need easy access to the back seats it is a very easy car to live with as your only vehicle and daily driver.

        • 0 avatar
          larryken

          agree Whynot…..I’ve owned a Challenger since 2015 as a daily driver. I always look forward to driving. The backseat is real usable and the trunk size is generous.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Take my muscle car out of my cold dead hands.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Take my muscle car out of my cold dead hands.

  • avatar
    Null Set

    The Challenger has terrifying crash ratings, though. It’s always at the bottom of the crash safety pile. That alone would keep me from touching one. Plus it’s as wide as an aircraft carrier, which nixes any nimbleness I might be wanting in a fast car.

    • 0 avatar
      MoparRocker74

      The LXs have always had great crash ratings. THEN, the NHTSA invented new tests and standards. Ive seen these cars get mangled and the drivers/passengers walk away with minor injuries dozens of times. The idea that its EVER ‘safe’ to crash a car is total B.S.

    • 0 avatar
      nrd515

      The crash ratings are far from “terrifying”, they simply reflect the fact that the car it was based on, the Charger, was designed a long time ago. In the real world, I’ve seen enough Challengers/300’s/Chargers wrecked to see they do just fine against even an F150 head on. I’m more than happy to be driving my second one.

    • 0 avatar
      Peter Gazis

      Crash reality
      In Challenger vs. Solid Cement wall, cement wall wins.

      In Challenger vs. Camry, Challenger wins.

      In the real world, the second sanario is far more likely.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Oh Lordy; y’all should invite BTSR back from time to time. First of all; CAFE killed the V-8 powered American sedan. Pine away for the days of Caprices, Bonnevilles, and LTDs filling our streets and highways. Not all is lost; when you’re spending 30-45K there are “Murrican V-8 RWD sedans, coupes, and convertibles to choose from. Oh there are plenty of FWD snooze-mobiles in that price range that will run until 200k miles and get replaced with another one. Thankfully there are people who will have 200k smiles when there right foot presses on the right pedal. For all the Euro-snobs, their car brands figured out “big engine, small car” that us unsophisticated yanks figured out decades ago. Want a fast sedan? Some letters speak to you: F, M, S, AMG, SS, GT, and RT. They’re not for everybody but thank heavens we have those choices.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Has anyone noticed that this CAFE abomination is killing off the most economical market segments instead of the ones that consume resources like a private jet on its way to a climate summit?

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      There is another letter that belongs in that group: ‘V’. I adore mine, even though it’s languishing on my driveway, needing a water pump.

  • avatar
    MoparRocker74

    Kuniskis is saying what Ive been saying for a LONG time. First it was the softcore all show no go PLC coupes that died off…theyre kind of pointless. Same thing with bottom feeder sedans. The CUV is just a better appliance for the masses, if you look at it objectively. The only coupes and sedans worth building are going to have to run the line from base affordable versions up to hardcore performance models. IMHO, this is why the Holden based Chevys and Pontiacs failed. They offered only a couple models and only the top engines. The entire lineup as it was in Australia/NZ (coupe, sedan, wagon, ute, awd versions v6 to hot V8) should have been done here as the backbone of GMs car lineup.

    The LX’s success is proof that there IS a market for old school rwd V8 cars. People who own them are fiercely loyal, many are repeat buyers. There is MASSIVE pride of ownership with these. And mark my words: FCA’s plan to axe the 300 is a HUGE mistake!

    • 0 avatar
      markmeup

      “People who own them are fiercely loyal, many are repeat buyers. There is MASSIVE pride of ownership with these. And mark my words: FCA’s plan to axe the 300 is a HUGE mistake!”

      agree. and I have that same loyalty, passion & pride with my 300S (2nd one). I have not loved a car, or felt so connected to one this much in a very long time.

    • 0 avatar
      volks92

      There’s a market for this type of car, the question is, how big is it? FCA is successful because it appeals to a niche but I can’t see them growing beyond their customer base in today’s car market.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    What grave did the American muscle car crawl out of? I don’t think it ever disappeared. Sure it ebbed and tided, but even during the darkest era (1975-81) the muscle car was still around, even if severely emasculated and produced by fewer manufacturers.

    I don’t think the sedan is going to disappear either. It’s receded, like muscle cars did in the 1970s, but I think the CUV craze will run its course and sedans and small cars will sell again. And the automaker’s who gave up on them will regret doing that, and so will we after we have to bail them out again.

    • 0 avatar
      MoparRocker74

      Exactly. American Muscle has ALWAYS existed in one form or another once it became a thing. Mustang has been a continuous name plate. Even in the malaise era, there’s always been SOME affordable performance option, even when it isn’t the preferred format of a beefy two-door coupe with a big V8. Buick GNX, GMC Syclone/Typhoon, Daytona/Spirit R/T, Ford Lighting , 454 SS, Grand Cherokee SRT, I can go on and on. The hard truth is that vanilla appliances are always going to outsell anything interesting. BUT, the rate of return will be slim for a number of reasons which boil down to the fact that you’re just fulfilling basic necessities at that point. People don’t ‘need’ muscle cars…we ‘want’ them. And people generally shop on price needs. We pony up big when rewarding ourselves with something we WANT.

      • 0 avatar
        Superdessucke

        Today, we might laugh at cars like the Volare Road Runner, Aspen R/T, Cordoba 300, Mustang Cobra II, Monza Mirage, Nova Shark, LeMans Can Am, and big heavy Trans Am’s that had 175 horsepower. But those were still muscle cars as the era defined that term.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    Chevy might have sold some more SS’s if they let people know they existed. I have a couple of friends who bought Chargers because they didn’t know the SS was available. They wanted a sanely priced RWD V8 car that wasn’t hideous, had a usable trunk and back seat. That left out anything Ford or Chevy had, except the SS, but since it wasn’t advertised (If it was, I never saw anything about it), and people didn’t know about it, the Charger was the default. When they looked at the Charger, they might move to the 300 or Challenger.

    In my own case, I wanted a Challenger when they first were reintroduced, but only the SRT level was available, so I ended up with a Charger R/T. I liked it, but I wasn’t happy with the looks of it at all. In 2010, I bought a Challenger R/T and recently traded it for a 2018 Challenger R/T Scatpack. If the Challenger or Charger/300 wasn’t available, I probably would have ended up in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. I have no use for “modern styling”, which, IMHO, is making most cars look like squished eggs with bizarre angry bug faces and strangely deformed rear ends. I’m old, have some bucks and bought the car I really WANTED. The fact it has 485 HP just makes it even more fun.

  • avatar
    mechimike

    Chevrolet might have sold more SS’s if the dang thing didn’t look like a Malibu. And not the new Malibu, either, but he one before it. I’ve seen SS’s around here, there’s one or two, but there’s at least as many of the last gen of ‘Bu’s and I always have to wait until it passes me to tell them apart.

    Pontiac made the same mistake with the G8 and GTO. Too bland, easily mistakale for something else.

    Charger/ Challenger just work because they’re unmistakable for anything else. And they look the part. Just like trucks have been getting butchier, the Chally/Charger have a stance and appearance to them that’s compelling.

    I think the V8 serves as a bit of a “halo” for these cars; I don’t have the production numbers in front of me but I’d wager the V6 variants are the volume sellers. And they’re plenty well-motivated. No one buys the V8 unless they want the sound. When I was new-car shopping this fall I even considered a Charger. If they’d offered it in a manual with the V6 I would have considered it even harder (ended up buying a Mazda 3 6MT hatch).

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      The Holden’s are typical Aussie family cars, they’re styled to attract families. Kinda like typical RWD American family cars of the 70s. They impress people because they’re well made cars that feel premium rather than the cheap FWD 4 cyl crap we get in America today.

      • 0 avatar
        MoparRocker74

        Hummer, you nailed it. If GM had mirrored the Aussiie lineup here (and arguably Ford with the Falcon) I believe that the automotive landscape would look a LOT different here. Trying to out-efficient and practical the Japanese was a huge mistake. They certainly aren’t trying to out brash and muscle the D3. With the LX, FCA is building the cars it should have ALWAYS been building. Leave the appliances and tinker toys to the Asian mfgs who do that best.

        • 0 avatar
          Hummer

          The original plan was to make the Aussie cars the de facto GM cars for America – the alpha platform underlining new compact, Commodore as the midsize, and Caprice as the fullsizer, ridding GM of the FWD cars – then bankruptcy happened. The American car landscape would be a much different place if GM hadn’t gone bankrupt, and Barra hadn’t purposely steered into the ice berg once out.

        • 0 avatar
          volks92

          Not really a recipe for success given that even Holden discontinued their Zeta-based vehicles and now sells a rebadged Opel Insignia as the Commodore due to the shift in customer preferences.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I think I agree with FCA’s premise. One of the things I love about my Optima is the design. It drives OK, and H/K suck (look up the recalls) but the look back factor is high.

    Cars have become so commodified and regulated I feel like a lot of manufacturers have either forgot or are unable to inject any kind of personality into them, though some are trying. Even if a company can’t put a V8 in all its cars… good design is cheap and goes a long way.

  • avatar
    Jordan Bell

    The previous Dominant American V8 RWD Platform was the Ford Panther Platform, which survived its last 13 years almost exclusively on fleet sales, and the Dominant American V8 RWD Platform before that was the GM B Platform, which survived from the late 80’s to 1996 on little more than fleet sales. See the trend? In recent decades, a V8 RWD sedan that is made by an American car company sells well to the public for a while, and after that, it spends another 10 years being sold mostly as a rental car or police car. The LX platform cars are popular with fleets, but they’re still doing well with consumers. I’d say they’ve got at least 12 years left.

  • avatar
    jatz

    As long as there is a fan base for Marvel superheroes there will be American muscle cars.

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