High-performance cars make no sense. I’ll take two, thanks.
Some 50- years after the era of Chevy 409s, Mercury Cyclones, Olds 442s, Pontiac GTOs, Hemi ’Cudas, and other high-powered Detroit sedans and coupes, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Four hundred horsepower is just a modest entry point now. Production cars are stuffed with 550, 650, and even 800 hp, usually with handling and brakes we could only dream of in the old days. But why? Why spend the resources, scarce as they are? I mean, outside of a small audience, who wants these things? If you answered “a clamoring public,” you’d be dead wrong. Sure, there are folks like you and me, but that’s increasingly not the public. It’s usually a group at the manufacturer, either in marketing, product planning, or engineering, convinced that a sexy high-performance car (or a performance version of another model) will give the brand upmarket cachet.
Sometimes it works. The early Subaru Impreza WRXs, heroes of video games, paved the way for later success. AMG has helped Mercedes-Benz shed dullness. M-series cars have polished the BMW brand. The Hellcat gave a much-needed shot of vitamins to an aging, moribund line of Dodges.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. The Fiesta ST and Focus RS, neat as they are, have sold in modest numbers, with no real effect on overall brand health. The jury is still out on the Cadillac V-series, magnificent machines in head-on collision with the generations-old “soft and squishy” Cadillac image.
Often, the brand decides a unique car is needed. Here, again, the results are mixed: The Viper lent new credibility to a feeble, K-car-producing Chrysler that many had written off. The Solstice made Pontiac semirelevant again. But the Cadillac XLR came and went with few sales and no “halo” for the marque. The Nissan GT-R is a technological tour de force, though it’s never sold in big numbers. The Ford GT is a splendid low-volume car, but with little discernible benefit for Ford, the brand.
There’s often another, well-hidden reason: The product folks at most manufacturers are stung by media kudos bestowed on competitors. (The general fawning over Toyota and the Prius angered me to the point of creating the Volt—admittedly a different category, yet the same motive applies.) “Hell, we can do better than that; we’ll bury those guys!” is the rallying cry. And semienthusiastic marketing people, as well as totally opposed finance guys, are rope-a-doped into supporting a financially questionable program. But it’s all worth it when they see the magazine covers blaring, “Shock! Horror! A 700-hp Lincoln you can buy!” (I’m making this one up.) It feels so good to the creators, much as it must to the designers of a high-end Swiss mechanical watch that is one millisecond per day more accurate than the competitors’.
In short, we make high-performance cars for reasons that are sometimes logical, sometimes emotional, and they are sometimes successful and often not. But they do, thank God, enrich the automotive landscape. Let’s hope the process continues until autonomy buries it.
Bob Lutz has been The Man at several car companies. Ask him about cars, the auto industry, or life in general, by submitting questions: [email protected] or via .