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Directions: What Dreams May Come

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The new year gives the auto industry a new opportunity to deliver an exciting crop of vehicles. Many in the industry are hoping that next 12 months are better than 2007. This is especially the case for the Michigan-based automotive manufacturers, as the year 2007 seemed to be one endless stream of setbacks, bad news and slowed sales.

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As the new models are introduced and the attempt is made to excite the driving public, it will be interesting to see which of the 2008 models will turn your head, which ones will be flops and which ones will become produced in enough volume to make it worth your while to service them in your shop a few years from now.

While this time of the year is cause for some excitement for car enthusiasts, there’s also a big element of risk. At a time when the government is looking to mandate fewer emissions and higher fuel economy, one of the most interesting aspects of the 2008 models is the mini wave of “muscle car” revivals. And, you can’t have a muscle car without equipping it with a fuel-thirsty V8. However, since many of these revivals were planned months, even years in advance, many of the issues such as outrageous fuel prices ($3.19 plus per gallon this month) probably weren’t part of the design team’s planning.

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Take, for example, California, which in early January said it was suing the U.S. government for blocking the implementation of the state’s tough new standards on greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles. The move came after the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) December announcement that it was denying California’s request to be allowed to set new vehicle emissions standards that would be stricter than the federal laws.

California’s Attorney General Jerry Brown filed the suit Jan. 2 with the U.S. Court of Appeals challenging the EPA’s decision to block the law, which requires a 30% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2016.

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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said by implementing these standards, California would be eliminating greenhouse gases equivalent to taking 6.5 million cars off the road by the year 2020. For now, it looks like The Governator’s plan to reduce emissions will be terminated in California and 15 other states that have followed suit.

Michigan automakers also said the new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) rules passed in December are going to be hard to hit. The domestic automakers recently warned the government that the CAFE law of 35 miles per U.S. gallon by 2020 is going to be extremely expensive for them to achieve, and that consumers are going to be the ones who will have to pay for it.

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Which leads us to believe that maybe Detroit is trying to distract us from fuel and energy issues by throwing at us some spectacular products that will have us daydreaming of years past when muscle ruled the roadways.

Dream Machines
First up and 40 years after the 1968 film Bullitt, Ford has launched a dark green 2008 Bullitt that’s powered with a 4.6L V8. The Bullitt, one of the latest spin-offs of the Mustang since its redesign in 2004, is a tribute to the late Steve McQueen’s character who drove a Mustang GT in one of the greatest movie car chases ever filmed.

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The Dodge Challenger, which enjoyed its heyday more than 30 years ago, is back as the Dodge Challenger SRT8 and has a beefed up 6.1L Hemi V8 engine. According to Business Week, dealers began taking deposits for the SRT8 in December and Dodge says it has more than 10,000 orders placed. Set to be officially unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February, the Challenger SRT8 will come with a $2,100 gas-guzzler penalty on its price tag.

The Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, which will be hitting the streets this summer, is being touted at General Motor’s fastest production car ever. The 2009 ZR1 will have a supercharged, 6.2L V8 that creates 620 hp and 595 ft.-lbs. of torque. (Pretty good torque, but not “Bentley good” as you’ll see later in this article.) GM says the ZR1’s all-aluminum engine borrows technology from the racing industry, including the use of lightweight, strong alloys, plus titanium connecting rods and forged aluminum pistons. Code-named “LS9,” the ZR1’s engine will be hand-assembled at GM’s Performance Build Center in Wixom, MI.

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But that’s not GM’s only muscle flex for this year. Late in the fall, you can expect to see some test drives of the Chevrolet Camaro. During its first “life” between 1967 and 2002, GM sold about 4.8 million Camaros. The resurrected version, which will be available for sale in early 2009, will include an optional 6.0L, 400 hp V8 engine with cylinder deactivation technology to shut down four cylinders while at cruising speed. The new Camaro also will be offered in a V6 engine version as well.

And if you have some bucks to spend on a legend (and to pay for the fuel that it will suck down) from across the pond, you may want to consider the new Bentley Brooklands. Yes, even the British Bentley carmaker is dropping in its most powerful V8 ever under the hood of its Brooklands coupe. The twin-turbocharged Bentley Brooklands is rated at 523 hp has 774 ft.-lbs. of torque, which Bentley claims is record torque for any V8! Bentley, which is owned by Germany’s Volkswagen, said the Brooklands will debut in the first quarter of 2008 and production is limited to only 550 units for the lifetime of the car.

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Waking Up To Environmental Issues
However, fuel guzzling shouldn’t be a problem with the next couple of 2008 models that are sure to grab the public’s attention.

The battery-powered, $100,000 Tesla Roadster, offered by Tesla Motors in San Carlos, CA, will be cruising around this year. Named for Nikola Tesla, the pioneer of electrical inventions who died in 1943, the Tesla Roadster has suffered technical glitches, supplier problems and management restructuring that have caused the delay this car by at least a half-year.

According to reports, the transmission has been the main source of the Tesla’s 2007 debut delay. The transmission that can maintain the original claims of 0-60 mph in 4 seconds is not functionable at this time, so, in the interest of getting cars into the hands of owners, Tesla Motors said it will deliver the roadsters with a transmission that enables the car to do 0-60 in just under 6 seconds. Once the company has perfected the originally planned performance transmission, it will then retrofit all the delivered cars with the new transmission at the company’s expense. By the end of the year, the company expects to have 650 of these performance roadsters on the streets.

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After hitting some speed bumps, the long anticipated Smart Fortwo, with its 71 hp, three-cylinder engine will finally reach the U.S. shores. Expected to be used for around-town driving, the egg-shaped eco-mobile should still be powerful enough to draw a crowd wherever it goes. While it is expected to be fun to tool around town — and to find parking in over-congested cities — zero to 60 mph in record speed is not what this car will be known for.

What it may be remembered for is the problems getting it here. Legal importation issues of the Smart began in 2006 and lead to changes from its European turbo-charged Mercedes Benz engine to a normally aspirated Mitsubishi engine.

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Dreams That Missed The Boat
In 2007, there was a lot of buzz about the manufacture of The Aquada — an amphibious car invented by Alan Gibbs. It was reported that Gibbs planned to relocate his company from the United Kingdom to Michigan last year. The manufacturing facility blueprints and groundbreaking plans are still floating around for the Aquada, which was expected to retail about $85,000. So don’t expect to see the aqua car cruising your favorite fishing hole anytime soon.

And remember all that talk about Chery Automobiles, the Chinese auto manufacturer of small, affordable, low-end cars that were going to invade the country this year? Well, that plan has all but fizzled out. Malcolm Bricklin, who planned to bring the Chery to America has since departed that boat and is reportedly working with an overseas manufacturer to develop a hybrid vehicle that would compete with a Mercedes S-Class at a much lower cost. Estimated delivery date on the hybrid — 2010. I guess we’ll set the alarm clock for this one.

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How this year pans out for the new car industry is still up in the air. The issues of a slowed national economy, a broken housing market, high fuel costs, consumer uncertainty and growing unemployment numbers are all contributors to slowed car purchases. And that’s a nightmare that automakers hope to avoid in 2008.

Sources: Business Week, Associated Press and The New York Times.

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