Motor City faces a new test in the EV transition: keeping gear behind the wheel

Motor City faces a new test in the EV transition: keeping gear behind the wheel

Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis unveils the Charger Daytona SRT concept electric muscle car on August 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Michigan.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

PONTIAC, Mich. – At an event this week with headbanging ’80s music and $2 beers, Dodge unveiled a concept for its first electric muscle car that included an exhaust system and a multi-speed transmission.

The features aren’t needed for an electric vehicle – but could be crucial to win over die-hard fans of performance vehicles.

“Sound is a critical component,” said Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis. “And shifting is critical… we rode back and forth for the longest. It doesn’t make the car any faster… but it’s a lot more responsive and a lot more fun to drive.”

As Detroit’s legacy automakers struggle to transition to electric vehicles, they’re also trying to win over longtime auto enthusiasts who love the sound of rumbling V-8 engines and the feel of shifting gears that gives them a visceral connection to the cars.

Muscle cars’ sales heyday has been decades, but the vehicles have become cultural touchstones, generating massive brand awareness and their customers remaining loyal ambassadors. This hype can create a halo effect for other models, which translates into sales.

In recent years, Tesla has created a cult following for its electric vehicles through its sleek, tech-savvy vehicles and roaring engines. But Detroit’s Dodge, Chevrolet, and Ford brands have loyalty stretching back family generations, and legacy automakers are still figuring out how to take those enthusiasts with them as they electrify their fleets.

Dodge shows his hand

Dodge this week became the first of Detroit’s traditional performance brands to announce plans for retaining its muscle car customers. At the event in Pontiac, Michigan, the company showcased its Charger Daytona SRT concept ahead of its first production electric muscle car in 2024.

Kuniskis called it one that regulators and environmentalists who support electric vehicles “don’t want you to have” because of its performance, modernized retro styling and new patent-pending technologies.

“It was important to bring back something visually that they would look at and say, s— they got that right!” Kuniskis told CNBC this week.

Some design aspects of the concept car, including an exhaust system and multi-speed gearbox, are expected to negatively affect the vehicle’s electric range – but Kuniskis said Dodge doesn’t care. He said the point is that the car feels and drives like a traditional muscle car.

Detroit’s Josh and Darla Welton stand next to a muscle car on display at a Dodge event August 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

That’s crucial for car enthusiasts like Josh and Darla Welton, who own several vehicles including the infamous Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, which some condemned when it was produced for its performance as a street-legal drag racing car.

“To keep the enthusiast, the driver has to be engaged rather than having a self-driving, autonomous car,” said Josh Welton, 44, who wore limited-edition SRT Demon sneakers made in partnership with Dodge and Warren Lotas. “They want to be part of the action.”

Pete Seguin, a 62-year-old auto technician from Ottawa, Ontario, was also at the event and showed his support for Dodge’s SRT Hellcat with an “SRT” and a Hellcat logo tattooed on his right forearm.

Pete Seguin (L) of Ottawa, Ontario shows off his “SRT” Hellcat tattoo along with brother Robert Seguin of Gatineau, Quebec at a Dodge event August 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

in transition

Ford Motor and General Motors have yet to disclose plans for their respective performance brands and vehicles.

GM has confirmed its plans to produce hybrid and all-electric models of its famous Chevrolet Corvette sports car in the coming years, but Detroit’s largest automaker has spoken out about the future of the Chevy Camaro, which has seen dwindling sales since a redesign of the vehicle in 2016. Performance enthusiast websites such as Muscle Cars & Trucks have announced that the company expects to end production of the Camaro in 2024.

The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 starts at around $62,000 and is powered by a 650-horsepower V8 engine, a significant improvement over the roughly $26,000 base model.

Source: General Motors

Ford is expected to unveil the next generation of its iconic Mustang car next month, but it has no idea the car will be electric as part of its strategy to electrify its “most iconic nameplates.”

Since 2020, Ford has offered an all-electric crossover called the Mustang Mach-E, which is the only production vehicle to bear the company’s Prancing Horse logo alongside the sports car.

“Dodge really played to its own strengths with its concept,” said Paul Waatti, manager of industrial analysis at research firm AutoPacific. “It will be interesting to see what Ford and GM have in store for that as well. I think Dodge has laid out a pretty good roadmap for these types of cars.”

People visit Ford’s Mustang Mach-E all-electric SUV at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, the United States, November 22, 2019.

Xinhua via Getty Images

He said a major challenge for automakers is in transitioning from today’s muscle cars to rumbling V-8 engines and creating the same kind of emotional connection.

GM and Ford officials declined to discuss plans beyond what had been announced.

shrinking market

Detroit’s mainstream performance car sales are falling.

Current cars thrived after the Great Recession, peaking at more than 394,000 vehicles in 2015, according to industry researcher Edmunds. Since then, however, sales have declined, including a nearly 50% drop in two-door coupes like the Challenger, Camaro, and Mustang.

Many of the vehicles have evolved to offer smaller engines with less horsepower, but they can still carry a stigma as loud, gas-guzzling cars. There is also increased competition from automakers outside of Detroit, including EV manufacturers; a consumer shift away from cars towards more practical crossovers; and a potential change in performance culture.

“Performance has definitely felt like it’s taken a back seat lately in this shift to electric cars, which have a different kind of performance,” said Jessica Caldwell, Executive Director of Insights at Edmunds.

Combined sales of the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette, and Dodge Charger and Challenger fell about 35% last year compared to 2015. They were down 25% compared to 2019 – the final year of pre-pandemic automaker sales were impacted by ongoing global supply chain issues, including semiconductor chip shortages.

To continue to attract buyers, Detroit automakers “need to find a niche and brand image,” Caldwell said.

Ford’s Mustang Mach-E, for example, has done well for the automaker, although it’s taken on the form of a larger crossover rather than the sleek muscle car of its gas-powered predecessor. And Dodge’s plans, for now at least, appear to have satisfied at least some of its most loyal fanbase with the Charger Daytona SRT concept.

“When it came out and then you had to see all the lines in the body and design, I got chills,” said Darla Welton, 43.

As a lifelong Detroit native whose family worked in the auto industry, she noted the excitement of seeing the transition from muscle cars like the Demon to electric vehicles.

“I can’t wait to get behind the wheel,” she said.

The Charger Daytona SRT electric muscle car concept was unveiled on August 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Michigan.

Michael Wayland/CNBC