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V-8 to volts: How do American muscle brands transition to EVs?

From California to New York to Washington, regulators increasingly are looking to phase out gasoline-powered cars in favor of electrics. That could pose challenges for some legacy Detroit brands.

Take Dodge, for example.

The performance brand has built its current lineup on V-8 powered Challenger and Charger muscle cars harking back to the company's 1960s muscle-car roots. Dodge's earth-shaking 700-horsepower Hellcat engines have pulled buyers into showrooms. Even the three-row Durango family-hauler has a Hellcat option.

But can Dodge convince customers to buy stealthy battery-powered machines that announce themselves on cat's paws instead of with thunder?

"We are really in the infancy of where we're going to go as an industry," Dodge marketing chief Matt McAlear said trackside at the Durango Hellcat's media debut in November.

"We're not going to be able to change it — electrification is the future, and that's what gets us out of bed is to continue to build this brand and make sure it evolves. Who knows where we are going to go? Maybe sound is piped in, maybe it's a more modular design on skateboard architectures."

Dodge has bucked the trend of declining sedan sales over the last five years by positioning itself as anything but a boring commodity product, McAlear said.

"We stand out in a crowd. It's about our signature sound in our exhaust to our signature colors that you can't get anywhere else."

Sound is a big challenge. The distinctive melody of the supercharger-fed Hellcat engine is core to the brand. It's the soundtrack to Dodge's marketing pitch. But Dodge could follow the lead of other builders of electric performance cars, and broadcast the roar of a lusty V-8 into the cockpit via the cars' sound systems.

Government and cultural trends in the last decade have pushed automakers to tout their fuel-efficient hybrids and safety qualifications. Dodge has achieved its success, say analysts, by positioning itself as a counterculture brand that thumbs its nose at politeness. Dodge's 459,000 unit sales in 2019 dwarfed the 242,000 of all EVs combined in the U.S.

"They have cultivated a position that goes against general trends," said Karl Brauer, executive analyst with ISeeCars.com. "It has created a brand with very strong identity, with good results in sales and consumer quality ratings."

But states like California are moving counter to the trend. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order ending sales of new cars with internal-combustion engines by 2035. A Biden White House is expected to move toward a more carbon-neutral policy.

"Brands like Dodge will be the most threatened," Brauer said.

Ford's Mustang muscle-car brand already is experimenting with the transition. It has targeted Tesla's best-selling Model Y in the compact EV segment with the Mustang Mach-E SUV.

Ford is banking that Mustang's performance history will give Mach-E credibility against a Tesla brand that has defined green performance since it introduced its "Ludicrous" acceleration mode in 2016.

Its signature V-8 bark has always set Mustang sports cars apart from wispy European turbo-6s. V-8 means Yankee muscle.

The electric Mustang Mach-E seeks to replicate some of that bark. In addition to the eerie thrum that all EVs must emit by federal regulation in order to alert pedestrians to their presence, the Mach-E's drive modes (Whisper, Engage and Unbridled) pipe in noise through the stereo system to simulate an exhaust note. Unbridled's low roar is the most distinct.

Porsche experiments with a similar sound in its first electric, the Taycan.

But neither EV utters the hair-raising shriek of a V-8 at full throttle. The absence of that soundtrack has turned off some early reviewers.

"A Mustang is supposed to be exuberant, unbridled. It's supposed to make driving an occasion of joy," wrote Road & Track. The magazine called the experience of driving the Mach-E "about as exhilarating as shopping for chest freezers."

That doesn't deter Dodge's McAlear. He argues the brand has other signature qualities including color and style: "When you see a black-on-black Hellcat coming down the road, usually you hear it. But if not, you see it coming. There's something about that grille, that stance — the air intake in the hood, the vivid colors. This brand is successful on so many aspects of vehicle design."

ISeeCar's Brauer says electric powertrains have inherent qualities — face-flattening acceleration, low center of gravity — that dovetail nicely with performance. If used correctly, those attributes could help the transition.

He points to Ford's cornerstone F-series pickup brand which was largely V-8-powered until five years ago when Ford introduced turbocharged V-6s. Boasting similar capability to V-8s while bettering gas mileage, Ford's "Ecoboost" V-6s are now part of a buffet of engine offerings including a hybrid.

"The F-150 now offers six powertrains, and only one is a V-8," said Brauer. "It's still there because buyers who have been with the brand for 30 years won't buy a pickup without a V-8. The lesson is, if you don't abandon your traditional buyers, then you can play with new technology."

Analysts expect turbo V-6s in Dodge to replace some V-8s just as F-150 has done. Electrification would be the next step.

"The reality is those platforms and that technology we used does need to move on. They can't exist as you get into the middle-2020s," Fiat Chrysler chief Mike Manley told The Detroit News at the 2019 Detroit auto show. "And we can use electrification to really supplement those vehicles."

Dodge and Ford marketers are also looking to racing, long a pillar of performance marketing, to help with the transition. NASCAR, where Ford plays, is going hybrid in two years. Drag racing, which suits the Dodge brand, may be a tougher sell with electric dragsters an oxymoron in a sport where nitro-burning, eye-watering fuel is at the heart of the sensory experience.

Traditional brands have a tougher road to drive compared to Tesla, which was founded as an electric brand. "Detroit brands are fighting with another image," Brauer said. "They are not going to get there overnight."

But government mandates are unlikely to happen overnight, either.

"California has a long history of setting zero-emission standards — going back to the 1990s — that don't get met," continued Brauer. "The government comes up to a deadline, and then realize the consumer isn't there."

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