By Paul Lienert
DETROIT (Reuters) - To look over the roster of racy new and future vehicles at the 2014 North American International Auto Show here, the initial impression is that U.S., European and Asian automakers want to turn back the clock to a time when performance and speed trumped concerns about energy and the environment.
So-called green cars — electric vehicles, hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells — are being heavily overshadowed at the Detroit show by sports cars, in a broad spectrum of sizes, shapes and price segments, from Ford Motor Co's <F.N> redesigned 2015 Mustang to Kia Motors' <000270.KS> zippy GT4 Stinger concept.
"Sex sells. Speed sells," said Michael Tracy, principal at Michigan-based consultancy the Agile Group. "People don't talk about wanting to buy a Camaro because the base V6 gets great mileage."
A HINT OF GREEN
In fact, there is more than a hint of green lurking in even the sexiest sports cars at this year's Detroit auto show, which opens for media members this week. Take the new Mustang, which this fall will offer buyers the choice of a 420-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 - a throwback to the classic street cars of yesteryear - or an economical 2.3-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine that still cranks out an impressive 305 horsepower.
"We're seeing a new era of performance cars that are very safe, very fuel-efficient and more mainstream," said industry consultant Lincoln Merrihew, of Millward Brown Digital.
The latest edition of Volkswagen AG's <VOWG_p.DE> Golf R, which goes on sale in early 2015 in the United States, is a good example.
Under the familiar hatchback shell of the long-running Golf, VW has fitted a 290-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. VW said it is the most powerful Golf ever sold in the United States, but it also surpasses the fuel economy of the 2013 edition, with an EPA highway mileage rating of 31 miles per gallon. To help improve the car's stability and traction, all-wheel drive is standard.
The definition of "performance" is evolving, from the old-school values of straight-line acceleration and cornering capability. As with the Mustang and the Golf, engines are getting smaller to improve efficiency, but devices such as turbochargers provide more power, so there is less tradeoff between going faster and going farther.
Perhaps the epitome of the modern sports car is Kia's GT4 Stinger, a compact, low-slung four-passenger model fitted with a 315-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that hints at a future rear-wheel-drive performance model from the Korean manufacturer.
Makers of traditional sports cars are reducing weight, which further enhances both sides of the power versus economy equation.
Even the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z28, which goes on sale this spring, has benefited from General Motors Co's <GM.N> "lightweighting" efforts. GM engineers shaved mass from the $75,000 muscle car by using a smaller battery and thinner rear glass, as well as eliminating the trunk carpet and the tire-inflator kit.
BMW <BMWG.DE> says its redesigned 2015 M3 sedan, which reaches U.S. dealers in early summer, has shed 175 pounds, in part by using more aluminum and carbon fiber-reinforced plastic in place of heavier steel and by switching from a normally aspirated 4.0-liter V8 to a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. The smaller engine makes more power and, with the weight reduction, enables faster acceleration, while boosting fuel economy by 25 percent and lowering emissions by the same amount.
Both the M3 and its two-door companion, the new 2015 M4 coupe, also provide an array of driver assistance systems, including a new Active Driving Assistant that warns of an impending collision with a pedestrian.
Enthusiasts will find many of the same safety systems and focus on efficiency in the latest supercars from Europe, Asia and the U.S., notably the 620-horsepower 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, which goes into production late this year.
THE FUN FACTOR
Chevy also aims to amp up the fun quotient for Corvette owners. Later this year, the 2015 Corvette will offer an optional Performance Data Recorder — essentially a built-in high-def videocam and microphone that will enable drivers to record up to 13 hours behind the wheel and play it all back on the car's in-dash touchscreen or upload it to Facebook and other social media sites.
Five years ago, during the depths of the U.S. auto industry's recession, "excess went out of fashion," said consultant Merrihew, as auto companies parked their performance models to focus on greener technologies.
Now that the economy has rebounded and automakers are redefining performance as a combination of speed, safety and efficiency, "that stigma is starting to fade," he said, "and performance cars are OK to buy again."
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)