Motor City meets a new test in the EV transition: Keeping gearheads behind the wheel

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Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis unveils the Charger Daytona SRT electric muscle car concept on Aug. 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.  
Michael Wayland / CNBC

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

The features aren’t needed for an electric vehicle − but could be key for winning over die-hard fans of performance vehicles.

“Sound is a critical component,” Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis said. “And the shifting is critical … we went round and round for the longest time. It does not make the car faster … but it’s way more engaging and way more fun to drive.”

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

The sales heydays of muscle cars are decades in the past, but the vehicles have become cultural touchstones that create massive awareness for brands and their customers remain loyal ambassadors. That hype can create a halo effect for other models that translates into sales.

In recent years, Tesla has created a cult following for its EVs through its sleek, tech-savvy vehicles and humming motors. But Detroit’s Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford brands have loyalty dating back family generations, and the legacy automakers are still figuring out how to bring those enthusiasts along as they electrify their fleets.

Dodge shows its hand

Dodge this week became the first of Detroit’s traditional performance brands to announce its plans on how to retain its muscle car customers. At the event in Pontiac, Michigan, the company showed off 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 EVs “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 were going to look at and go holy s—, they did this right!” Kuniskis told CNBC this week.

Some design aspects of the concept car, including an exhaust system and multi-speed transmission, are expected to negatively impact the electric range of the vehicle – but Kuniskis said that’s not something Dodge cares about. He said the point is to make the car feel and drive like a traditional muscle car.

Josh and Darla Welton, of Detroit, stand by a muscle car on display at a Dodge event on Aug. 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

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

“To keep the enthusiast, you’re going to have to have the driver engaged as opposed to having some self-driving, autonomous car,” said Josh Welton, 44, who was wearing limited-edition “SRT Demon” sneakers that were made in partnership with Dodge and Warren Lotas. “They want to be involved with what’s going on.”

Pete Seguin, a 62-year-old auto technician from Ottawa, Ontario, was also at the event showing 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 standing with brother Robert Seguin, of Gatineau, Quebec, at a Dodge event Aug. 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

“I just liked it,” he said of the more than 700-horsepower cars. Still, Seguin said he is very supportive of electric vehicles, and interested in the Dodge concept car.

Dodge confirmed at its events this week that it will discontinue its gas-powered Charger and Challenger muscle cars at the end of next year.

In-transition

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

GM has confirmed it plans to produce hybrid and all-electric models of its famed Chevrolet Corvette sports car in the years to come, but Detroit’s largest automaker has been mum on the future of the Chevy Camaro, which has experienced dwindling sales since a redesign of the vehicle in 2016. Performance enthusiast websites such as Muscle Cars & Trucks have said the company is expected to end production of the Camaro in 2024.

The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 starts at about $62,000 and is powered by a 650-horsepower V8 engine, a considerable upgrade over the roughly $26,000 base model.
Source: General Motors

Ford is expected to reveal the next generation of its iconic Mustang car next month, but it has not given any notion that 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 other than the sports car to wear the company’s prancing horse logo.

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

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

He said a big challenge for automakers in the shift from today’s muscle cars with rumbling V-8s, and creating the same type of emotional connection,.

Representatives for GM and Ford declined to discuss plans beyond what has been announced.

Shrinking market

Sales of Detroit’s mainstream performance cars are falling.

The current cars enjoyed popularity after the Great Recession, peaking at more than 394,000 vehicles in 2015, according to industry researcher Edmunds. But sales have declined since, including a nearly 50% drop for two-door coupes such as the Challenger, Camaro and Mustang.

Many of the vehicles have evolved to offer smaller engines with less power, but they can still carry a stigma as noisy, gas-guzzling cars. There’s also increased competition from automakers outside Detroit, including EV makers; a move by consumers away from cars to more practical crossovers; and a potential change in performance culture.

“Performance has definitely felt like it’s taken a backseat in recent times, in this move to electric cars, which have a different type 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 were down about 35% last year compared with 2015. They were down by 25% from then in 2019 – the last year of pre-pandemic automaker sales before they were impacted by ongoing global supply chain problems, including a shortage of semiconductor chips.

To keep attracting buyers, Detroit automakers will need to “find a niche and a brand image” Caldwell said.

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

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

As a lifelong Detroiter whose family worked in the auto industry, she noted the excitement of getting to witness the transition of the muscle cars like the Demon to EVs.

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

The Charger Daytona SRT electric muscle car concept was unveiled on Aug. 17, 2022 in Pontiac, Mich.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

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