Are Muscle Cars Uncool?

When General Motors and Chrysler initially showed off concept versions of the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, respectively, gas prices were around $2.35 a gallon.

While shockingly high at the time, that's 62 cents lower than the current average price.

That may be why executives from both companies now hesitate to call the cars, which carved out a niche in automotive history in the 1960s and 1970s as tire-burning, gas-guzzling speed racers, by their well-earned nickname: muscle cars.

They would rather you called the coming production versions "high-performance vehicles," thank you very much.

The Dodge Challenger SRT8, unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday, "is not a straight-line fast car," says Frank Klegon, Chrysler's executive vice president of product development, moments after the automaker showed video of Challengers burning rubber. "It's designed and engineered to be a really great car."

The top-of-the-line 425-hp SRT8, which goes on sale in March for $37,995, will come with technology usually associated with family haulers: side-curtain air bags and anti-lock brakes.

The Camaro, isn't just a muscle car either, says Ed Peper, general manager of the Chevrolet brand. "This is much more refined than that. This is a sleek, aerodynamic, futuristic sports car."

And, maybe somewhere down the road, even fuel-efficient.

Troy Clarke, president of GM North America, says the automaker will make more fuel-efficient versions of the Camaro, which hits the market early next year, and is toying with the idea of making one that runs on an ethanol blend.

Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press says he could see Challenger getting 35 mpg in the coming years, even though the least-fuel-efficient V-8 version is being launched first. "The technology exists, but you have to package it in a way that people can afford it."

Demand for the Ford Mustang, the first retro muscle car to return to the market, was down 19.2% in 2007. But auto execs say there's still room for similar cars. GM has a list of 500,000 people who said they're interested in the Camaro. And Chrysler got 4,300 orders the first day it said it would make the Challenger SRT8. It plans to build only 6,400 of that version.

"These people that are going to be buying a Camaro or a Challenger, I don't think their first consideration is gas prices," says Brian Moody, road test editor at Edmunds.com. "They're interested in the car as a status symbol or an icon."

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