Published July 17, 2012
Retro Cars: Auto Industry's Greatest Hits
Some automotive Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep years ago could wake up today and find a lot of familiar nameplates: the Chevy Camaro, the Dodge Dart, the Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen Beetle.
However, he wouldn't believe his eyes when he saw what kind of mileage and horsepower today's cars get, assuming he could accept that Americans even cared about gas mileage.
Some of today's retro cars, such as the recently announced revival of the Dodge Dart, bear no resemblance to their ancestors. The new Dodge Dart looks like a sexy Italian sports sedan, which it is, in a way, since it's on a platform shared with Fiat's Alfa Romeo brand. But it doesn't look at all like the squared-off Dodge Dart of the 1970s, with its long hood and long trunk.
Other retro cars, such as the unmistakable VW Beetle, Mini Cooper and Fiat 500, bear a strong family resemblance to their famous kin.
All of them have some retro touches, if only the name. They also have something modern about them, especially technology designed to get better gas mileage.
The Chevy Camaro's retro design is based on the original 1967 Camaro. It's a strong statement that General Motors is back. GM dropped the Camaro after the 2002 model, and then reintroduced it for 2010.
Some six-cylinder Camaro models get an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 30 miles per gallon. Other versions have features no one would have foreseen for a muscle car back in its early days, such as GM's Active Fuel Management system. The system shuts off half the cylinders in a V-8 engine when cruising at highway speeds to save on gas. With Active Fuel Management, even a 400-horsepower V-8 with automatic transmission gets up to 25 mpg in highway driving. That's twice the estimated mileage and almost three times the horsepower of the original 1967 base model.
Chevrolet is introducing a new generation of the Chevy Malibu for the 2013 model year, which begins this fall. It will be the third redesign since GM revived the Malibu nameplate in 1997 after a 14-year absence. The classic Malibu, with a name reminiscent of the surfing craze and The Beach Boys, was launched in 1964 as an offshoot of the Chevelle model. The current retro car model sits on a platform that's shared with GM's Opel brand in Europe.
The new Malibu has fuel-saving technologies like an "active shutter system." Located in the lower grille, it closes automatically when air intake is least needed to save fuel by reducing aerodynamic drag. Two engines are being offered at launch, both four cylinders with direct injection. Direct injection saves fuel by creating more efficient burning. GM expects the Malibu "Eco" version to get 37 mpg on the highway.
The Chrysler Group revived the Dodge Challenger in 2008 as retro car. That is, the classic muscle car that was first introduced in 1970 and discontinued after 1974. That's not counting a mild-mannered four-cylinder car called the Dodge Challenger, which was built by then-partner Mitsubishi and imported in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the fuel crisis.
In the modern incarnation, the base model V-6 generates 305 horsepower but gets a respectable EPA-estimated 27 mpg on the highway. The optional 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with a six-speed manual transmission generates up to 375 horsepower. With the optional five-speed automatic transmission and fuel-saver technology, it gets an EPA-estimated 25 mpg highway. That's Chrysler's term for cylinder shut-off, where half the cylinders stop running at highway cruising speed.
The top-of-the-line SRT8 Yellow Jacket model has a 6.4-liter V-8 that produces 470 horsepower at a starting price of $46,620.
There's really nothing in common except the name and the brand between the all-new Dodge Dart, which was released in June, and the old Dodge Dart, which was last sold in 1976. The old Dodge Dart looks gigantic by today's standards, but at the time, it was relatively small for a domestic brand.
The new Dodge Dart is a compact retro car. It shares a platform with the Alfa Romeo brand, which is part of Fiat Auto, Chrysler Group's parent company since Chrysler's bankruptcy restructuring in 2009. Alfa's version is called the Giulietta.
It has three engine options, all with four cylinders -- a 2-liter, a 1.4-liter turbo engine and a 2.4-liter, which is considerable in a small package. The first two engines generate 160 horsepower, respectively; the third, 184 horsepower.
The latest-generation Ford Fiesta returned to the North American market in 2010 and revived an earlier model that was last sold here in 1981. Like the original Fiesta, the new Fiesta relies on European styling and fuel efficiency to attract U.S. customers in an era of high U.S. fuel prices.
The old Fiesta was a relatively Spartan "econobox" Americans bought out of dire necessity to save money on gas -- or because they couldn't afford anything better.
The new Fiesta, especially the hatchback, is much more attractive and sporty looking. It comes with a fairly high level of standard features, including heated, leather-trimmed front seats. Gas mileage is as high as an EPA-estimated 40 mpg on the highway with an aerodynamic feature that minimizes air resistance and offers an optional six-speed automatic transmission. The base model retro car, with a five-speed manual, gets 39 mpg.
The Mini Cooper is one of the more successful revivals of an iconic 1960s brand, thanks in part to clever marketing, an appealing design and high U.S. gas prices.
The car first launched in 1959 with enough room inside created by pushing the wheels all the way to the corners and turning the engine sideways. In 1961, race car designer John Cooper began his transformation of the Mini into a competitor at several road races of the time.
By 1969, more than 2 million had been sold, including pickup truck and station wagon versions. The Mini never got a chance to catch on in the U.S. because of new emission standards introduced in 1968.
Mini was relaunched in the United States in 2002 by parent BMW Group. Today's retro car lineup includes six different body styles all with the same basic look, including a convertible and a four-door with cargo space. It offers snazzy limited editions -- the Baker Street, Bayswater and Highgate -- as well as high-performance "John Cooper Works" models.
VW Beetle prototypes were hitting roads in Germany in the 1930s. The first official export of the VW Beetle to the U.S. came in 1949. It grew in popularity as part of the counterculture of the 1960s and was the star of the movie, "The Love Bug" in 1968. It shipped until 1977, when it began a 21-year hiatus.
VW introduced the so-called New Beetle to the U.S. in 1998, ending a 21-year hiatus.
With this retro car update, the Beetle is lower, longer and wider than the model it replaces. It has actual legroom in the back seat for passengers, addressing one of the biggest criticisms of the "old" New Beetle.
In addition to fuel-efficient gasoline models, VW has announced a battery-powered concept car, the E-Bugster, plus a diesel-powered version that's expected to get 39 mpg on the highway that could go on sale in the 2013 model year. The diesel is a revival in itself. The previous generation had a diesel engine option from 1998 to 2006.
The entry-level VW Beetle for 2012 comes with a 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine that generates 170 horsepower and gets 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, with a five-speed manual transmission. There are five other Bugs available.