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Fast, fun, pricey cars return to showrooms amid auto sales boom

New models are the cars of 'dreams and desires, not needs,' Jake Fisher of Consumer Reports says

Dumping an old Honda Civic for a $40,000 Ford Mustang GT was an easy choice for Jeffrey Baird.

The personal trainer from Ontario had seen his business take off lately. He wanted what he wanted.

"It wasn't something that I needed," said Baird, 24, of the 435-horsepower coupe.

A booming car market and an improving economy have automakers investing big in fast, fun, expensive cars. Car sales jumped 14% in January over the same month last year, driven by a nexus of low gas prices and interest rates. It continues a five-year trend of strong growth.

Automakers are retooling factories to churn out high-end versions of existing models along with exotic new models — even a Ford that is expected to sell for $300,000.

That car, the Ford GT supercar, led a host of debuts last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which also featured the Acura NSX supercar and high-powered, off-road versions of the F-150 and Ram pickup trucks.

Even conservative Buick is releasing its first convertible in a quarter of a century. Dodge recently launched Hellcat versions of its Challenger and Charger muscle cars, offering an over-the-top 707 horsepower at a sticker price that can exceed $70,000.

These are the cars of "dreams and desires, not needs," said Jake Fisher, automotive test director of Consumer Reports.

By juicing their model lineups, automakers are looking to capitalize on a shift in consumer attitudes from the practical to the emotional.

They are gunning for consumers like Fullerton small-business owner John Palmero, who said he had to have a Challenger Hellcat. "I will take it to the drag strip and go to the events and participate in the culture and the scene," said Palmero, 40.

The car companies can do this because the industry is flush with cash from the especially robust U.S. market. Americans bought 16.5 million vehicles in 2014, up 5.9% from the previous year and 59% from an industry low in 2010.

Last year was the industry's best since 2006. U.S. car factories have doubled their output since in 2009.

"Every global manufacturer is making money, and the market is particularly good in the U.S.," said Alan Batey, president of General Motors North American operations.

Such a big market creates space for exotic, even "frivolous" vehicles, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Automotive.

The shift from sensible sedans to sexy sports cars was on display at the Detroit auto show.

Ford — having emerged from the recession by shedding luxury brands Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo — was showing off niche products like the GT supercar and F-150 Raptor truck. That's evidence the company "is back on a firm foundation," said Mark Fields, Ford's chief executive.

With a carbon fiber body, upswinging doors and a turbocharged V-6 that produces more than 600 horsepower, the GT is expected to sell for about six times the price of the automaker's most expensive vehicles now.

Acura's NSX will sell for about $150,000 and offer a twin-turbocharged V-6 mated to a suite of electric motors — a 550-horsepower hybrid.

Buick, with its new four-seat Cascada, will sell a convertible for the first time since the Reatta 25 years ago. Many automakers have pulled out of the category because convertibles account for less than 1% of the vehicles Americans have purchased annually in recent years.

But now convertibles are coming back. Alfa Romeo plans to launch its two-seat 4C Spider, which will sell for about $60,000. There's also a new Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster in the offing.

Automakers are looking beyond the roads with wilderness-ready trucks, including Ford's Raptor and Dodge's Rebel 1500, a variant of its popular Ram pickup.

"These vehicles play to the idea that you can take trips and have adventures and you need room for your gear," Brinley said.

Consumers are also packing more technology into their new vehicles. Options such as fancy infotainment systems and sophisticated semi-autonomous cruise control features are contributing to higher prices for vehicles, Brinley said.

New vehicles sold for an average price of $31,916 last year, up 2% from 2013, according to car shopping company TrueCar.com. It was a record for the U.S. market.

Although the auto market is on an upswing now, it's bound to ebb. IHS Automotive forecasts a series of small declines starting in 2018, after growth for the next two years.

Top auto company executives know that car sales are cyclical. So they're trying to take advantage of the boom.

"We are all in good shape," said Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. "We are not complaining, which is unusual."

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

twitter: @latimesjerry

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