There was plenty of chatter over the new electric and hybrid offerings at Friday's opening of the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place. But off in the wings, the throaty roars of unapologetically powerful V-8 engines more than drowned out the buzz.
Throwbacks in the age of high-tech, fuel-efficient engineering, a new wave of muscle cars from the Detroit Three is proving that for many attendees, miles per hour is still a lot sexier than miles per gallon.
The Ford display prominently featured new gas-electric and plug-in hybrid versions of its 2013 Fusion, but it was the 650-horsepower, 200 mph 2013 Shelby GT500 that turned more heads. A noisy, floor-rattling demonstration probably didn't hurt.
Urged on by an announcer, a large and overwhelmingly male crowd gathered quickly around the slightly less powerful, 550-horsepower 2012 version, which was tethered to a dynamometer — a stationary test track that can put a car through its screaming paces. Tomm Moland, a roofing superintendent from west-suburban Montgomery and longtime Ford enthusiast, correctly answered a Mustang trivia question, earning a shotgun ride in the blue convertible, and the envy of onlookers.
With the engine amplified by a microphone, a designated driver revved up through four of six gears, rear wheels burning, the car bucking and jumping like a bronco penned behind a rodeo gate. In a matter of seconds, the car hit a simulated speed of 140 mph, which felt more than real to Moland.
"The thing is a beast," Moland said. "Even strapped down, it was still twisting. It was still pulling ... you could feel it."
Moland, who brought his 9-year-old son, Matthew, to his first auto show, has owned 20 Ford autos in his life, including his current rides, a 2008 Taurus and a 2010 Ranger XLT pickup. But his heart still races when he talks about his 1970 Boss 302 Mustang, which he bought used in the late '70s.
"That was a fun car," he said, still visibly pumped up from his virtual ride.
Moland wasn't quite ready, however, to plunk down the $54,000 he would need to get behind the wheel of the new Shelby. He isn't alone. Despite an improving economy, the high-end muscle cars remain a narrow niche, according to Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com.
"They're always showstoppers," Krebs said. "They're not necessarily what people will buy."
In the Chrysler display, a young spokeswoman in a black miniskirt launched into her spiel as she spun on a carousel with the much-anticipated 2013 Dodge Dart, the new subcompact to be built in Belvidere, Ill. The presentation drew its share of attention, but a competing audience gathered to admire an adjacent model — a bright blue, 375-horsepower 2012 Dodge Challenger R/T.
Scott Prendergast, 29, an auto mechanic from Villa Park, deftly reached inside to pop the hood, which he opened to the delight of a growing crowd. Prendergast owns a 2009 Challenger R/T but wanted to compare notes, and perhaps drool a little over the subsequent tweaks and innovations.
Prendergast, who was attending the show with his fiancee, Evie Kozlowski, unabashedly professed true love for his car.
"You can talk numbers all day long, but you get that seat-of the-pants feel when you mash the gas. That's priceless," he said.
At the Chevrolet display, Dan Newton, 37, of Montgomery, was no less smitten with his muscle car of choice. Bypassing the electric Chevy Volt and other cutting-edge cars, he swooped in to take photos of a yellow and black 2012 Camaro SS coupe, whose paint scheme reminded him of Bumblebee from the movie "Transformers."
Newton, a manager at a Panera restaurant, drives a Dodge Ram pickup, but he misses the '86 Camaro of his youth.
"I like a muscle car like this — tough-looking, beefy, louder the better," he said.
The 426-horsepower V-8 Camaro, which sells for just under $40,000, gets 16 to 24 mpg, but fuel economy was the feature furthest from Newton's mind. As such, the appeal of electrics and hybrids are lost on him.
"I like to be able to step on the gas and it growls at you," Newton said. "I'm not really interested in driving an electric car. I want to feel the power."
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