Market Weak for Muscle Cars

The Detroit Three’s muscle cars are going on a diet, and may even lay off the weights for a while.

Case in point: When Chrysler and General Motors announced the revival of the Dodge Challenger and the Chevrolet Camaro, respectively, in 2006, both companies expected the return of the muscle cars would hit a sweet spot with nostalgic boomers.

But high gas prices have prompted them to downshift their expectations and retool their marketing.

For instance, marketing for the Challenger, currently arriving in dealerships, will focus on the car’s smaller V6 engine rather than its powerful Hemi-inspired, 13 mpg image.

The Camaro, coming back early next year, will not be positioned as a hot rod. Among the models General Motors is considering is a fuel-stingy four-cylinder, which would make it less of a macho machine and more of a Malibu.

Both are trying to avoid following the path of the Ford Mustang. The Mustang’s sales have dropped 32% through May, per Autodata, Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Meanwhile, Ford’s overall car sales have increased by 3%.

“There are other aspects of [the Camaro] that have to be stressed,” said John Fitzpatrick, marketing manager for the model which will arrive in showrooms in the first quarter of next year. The sales goal of 150,000 a year for the Camaro requires marketing that speaks of “refinement and quality” as well as the trademark performance that has sold Camaro in the past, he said.

To attract buyers other than those with fond recall for their youth, Camaro advertising will hit on several different targets. In the buff books like Car and Driver, ads will focus on high-speed hijinks from the models with the larger engines. In lifestyle magazines, the message will be on the smaller engine and good fuel economy. Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., handles.

“The market has different expectations that we have to meet,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a balance that we have to strike now, between the strong heritage and today’s features.”

Peter DeLorenzo, a former automobile advertising executive, agreed that the two models would find a willing audience with “older enthusiasts,” but “the real challenge is to make the standard version of those cars appealing enough to sell to mainstream buyers.”

The Dodge Challenger, which is now arriving in showrooms, will have no broadcast and will rely heavily on the Web, said Mike Accavitti, director of Dodge brand marketing. Like the Camaro, the marketing will have to be divided in terms of media buys, with a focus on the mainstream buyer rather than the muscle car fanatic.

“We don’t want to walk away from where we came from,” Accavitti said. “We just want to take that into the 21st century. So in our advertising for the car, you might see more of a play on technology and strength as well as safety.”

He views the Gen X/Y group as “the greatest opportunity” to draw people to the Dodge brand. Marketing will be almost exclusively Web-based with a smattering of events and placement at occasions including concerts. Print, via BBDO, Detroit, is breaking now. A deal with Turner Broadcasting places the Challenger in a TNT microseries running during commercial breaks that begin later this month.

“They’re both going to have to sell the fun aspect,” said Joe Phillippi, president of Auto Trends Consulting, Short Hills, N.J. “The backbone of these, this time around, will be the smaller ones with the lower powered engines.”

The Mustang, meanwhile, awaits a facelift reported to arrive late next year. Among the new models reportedly is a smaller version of the classic.

It seems most consumers are nostalgic for the 32-cent a gallon gas that prevailed when the Camaro was introduced in 1966 rather than its V8, 400-plus horsepower.