By Matt DeLorenzo Photos by Jay K. McNally, John Lamm & Ron Perry Smoky burnouts. Big horsepower. No-nonsense styling. These are the essential elements of the quintessential American muscle car. American muscle cars were powerful. They were unlike anything else on the planet. But most of all, they were authentic. And now, American muscle cars are in again. It's about time. For too long, it seems Detroit has been trying to build cars like Europeans and Asians. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The Europeans certainly know how to make cars handle and stop, and the Asians have mastered the Zen art of screwing cars together with tight seams and high quality. There's no doubt Detroit has taken these lessons to heart, but do our cars have to look like theirs? Evidently, Big Three designers are asking the same question and have decided that it's time to build distinctly American cars again, but with new levels of refinement and pulse-quickening technology that go far beyond the old idea of wedging a powerful V-8 into a lightweight body. There is a new generation of muscle cars coming off the drawing boards, onto the auto show circuit and someday in the not-too-distant future, to showrooms near you. ----- Ford 427 There's no question that a new kind of American muscle car is on the way, but two show cars squaring off at the North American International Auto Show demonstrate that there's plenty of life left in the original concept. Both are high-powered, rear-drive 4-door family sedans. The Ford 427 is not, according to Ford design VP J Mays, "a wolf in sheep's clothing, but a very nicely dressed wolf." Based on the Lincoln LS rear-drive platform, the Ford 427 is not a retro interpretation of the Galaxie 427. Instead, it's a more contemporary vehicle. There are some elements that recall '60s design, like the stacked headlamps and horizontal bar grille, but the 427 has slab sides and much different proportions by sporting a long hood and short rear deck. The interior is equally fresh, done entirely in black leather (including the headliner) and accentuated by oatmeal-colored stitching. Design aside, what makes the Ford 427 tick is beneath the hood: a 427-cu.-in. V-10 that puts out 590 bhp at 6500 rpm and 509 lb.-ft. of torque at 5500. ----- Chevy SS Chevy's response is the SS concept, another 4-door rear-drive family car with pumped-up performance. "This is classic muscle-car flavor interpreted in a modern way," said Franz von Holzhaussen, exterior designer on the SS. "Its DNA is clearly seen in the way we've modeled the fuselage, fenders and elements of the front and rear." More rounded and flowing than the 427, the SS carries a hint of Corvette shapeliness. The off-white interior, which blends leather with a woven, hound's-tooth check vinyl that echoes '60s'-era Chevys, contrasts with the car's red exterior. The cabin seats five with the front buckets divided by a center console-mounted shifter. The transmission also features manual sequential shift paddles on the steering wheel. The car is powered by Chevy's legendary small-block V-8 displacing 6.0 liters (366 cu. in.) and making 430 bhp and 430 lb.-ft. of torque. Ford vs. Chevy — it's déjà vu all over again. ----- Ford Mustang Granted, the original Mustang, when it was introduced midway through the 1964 model year, didn't fit the definition of a muscle car as set down by Pontiac's GTO. Although the Falcon-based Mustang was the progenitor of the pony car, it didn't take Ford long to figure out that the Mustang had muscle-car potential. And it's the second-generation Mustang, from which the Shelby GT500 and the Mach I came, that inspires the next-generation Mustang due in 2004. "This is a muscle car," said J Mays, Ford's vice president of design. "The original Mustang was a pony car, but in 1967 it went to the next platform, or rather ladder frame, and became a true muscle car. That's when it got the big-block 428s and 429s." Some may call the look retro, but to Mays, it's more of a mission to reestablish the lineage between the early Mustangs and the next-generation car. He believes the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird disappeared because those cars lost their connection with the originals. "Some of the most beautiful Firebirds and Camaros came from the late '60s. I think if they had evolved those cars, they would still be around," Mays explained. "We've made some mistakes with Mustang — the Mustang II is the most notable example. If you dissect the cues that people associate with the Mustang, most people gravitate to the '64 1/2 to the '70 models. Those are the vehicles lodged in people's minds as the iconic Mustangs. We wanted to take those cues and what we fill in between them becomes the modern part." The coupe and convertible shown at Detroit are somewhere between the style of the next Mustang and Mustang Cobra models. The Mustang V-6 and V-8 GT won't be as extreme, while Mays promises that the Cobra will be even more aggressive than the cars shown. It is important to Mays that the new Mustang "is more faithful to the late '60s than it is to the last generation. Sometimes you try too hard to be new and you forsake 40 years of heritage. The idea here is to recreate and get the lineage back on track. Once the lineage is reestablished in the production car, then we can move forward again." The new platform for the Mustang, a reworked version of the DEW98 chassis used in the Lincoln LS, allows Mays to recapture the original car's striking proportions. "It has a long hood, short rear deck, close-coupled greenhouse, like the original car had, and that's a really different animal from what's on the road today," Mays said. While the overall shape and detailing of the car are similar to the original's, the newness comes in the way the Mustang comes together. "The new platform allows us to update the car and give the precision and quality that goes into a modern car," Mays said. "The overall tautness, rigidity of the bodywork and construction techniques have brought it into the next century." This is a huge step forward for the Mustang. "I think the surfacing on this car is significantly more geometrical, it is more technical. The overall feeling is more milled rather than the romantic, voluptuous Mustangs that you remember. Although the car has all the same cues, like the hockey-stick shape on the side of the door, the way that detail is handled on the Concept is more technical. These are the kinds of things that separate it from a car that was styled back in the '60s or '70s." The other thing that distinguishes the car in Mays's mind is the placement of the large 20-in. wheels flush with the outer edge of the flared wheel arches, a treatment that gives the Mustang a muscular, tough-looking stance. That toughness is reinforced once the hood is raised. The Mustang is powered by the current SVT Cobra's supercharged 390-bhp 4.6-liter V-8. The coupe is equipped with a 6-speed manual, while the convertible uses a 5-speed automatic. Inside the cabin, Mays said the goal was to re-create the symmetrical approach to the dash layout of the first Mustangs. Brushed aluminum is used generously as an accent, and the exterior hockey-stick cue is repeated in the door trim inserts and the seats. Mays is particularly proud of the instruments, which are decidedly non-retro. "This car has gauges like you've never seen before," Mays boasted. "They are very modern-looking, closer to a camera aperture than a gauge." The interior is finished in red, with a red leather interior mainly because Ford Chairman Bill Ford said if there was one car he could have, it would be a red Mustang convertible with a red interior. Mr. Ford, your car is ready. ----- Pontiac G6 Pontiac has shed the extra plastic cladding image for the new G6 concept car. Lead designer Jeffrey Perkins is going for a more mature, performance-car look which all Pontiac products will eventually sport. While the first American muscle cars were V-8-powered full-size family cars, the purest expression of the genre came in 1964 when Pontiac dropped the 389-cu.-in. V-8 from its full-size offerings into its intermediate Tempest/Le Mans body style. The Pontiac G6 concept, which is a forerunner to the next-generation Grand Am, seeks to recapture the spirit of that original GTO in a more contemporary way. "The most significant element of the G6 is that it represents a new design direction for Pontiac," said Jeffrey Perkins, lead designer on the project. "It is still visually exciting, but there are no more ribs, no more plastic. It's a very clean shape." The concept is called G6 because it represents the sixth generation of Pontiac mid-size sedans, and the elements that identify it as such are the twin port grilles and the cat's-eye headlamps. Perkins said the goal was to develop the most expressive midsize sedan on the market. Riding on GM's new Epsilon platform, the G6 has a 113-in. wheelbase and 185-in. overall length. Perkins said that while there is absolutely nothing retro in the G6's design, some of the inspiration of the car came from those early GTOs. "When you look back at those cars, they were very clean, purpose-built performance cars without the boy racer looks. The G6 is not retro, but we did look at those early cars as a point of reference." Exterior designer Tim Kozub said he wanted a clean body shape that pulled outward toward the wheels. "I wanted an aggressive look at the front, with the 20-in. wheels far out to the corners to show off the width of the car. This is a new definition of muscle car for a younger audience." Although the G6 is a 4-door for convenience' sake, the shape is very much like a 2-door coupe with an extremely fast backlight. "It's definitely not New Edge," Kozub says of the shape. "It still has a muscular form." A slick feature on the car is the flush door handles. Instead of being electrically activated, they're mechanical. Simply push in on the handle and it pops out, presenting the door pull. After opening the door and releasing the handle, it automatically springs back into the flush position. Ryan Vaughan, who designed the interior, said the goal was to get away from the athletic-equipment look of interiors on such lifestyle vehicles as the Vibe and go more upscale with the G6. But instead of traditional materials, like carpeting, the interior has a padded tight mesh material on the floor. Rather than wood or carbon fiber, the interior accents are titanium-colored for a cool, technical look. The steering wheel has a squared-off bottom, like that on a Formula 1 car, and the bucket seat theme is carried into the rear area where two seats have headrests faired into the rear package shelf. "It's like having four driver's seats in the car," Vaughan said. Another striking feature is the center tunnel/console that moves wave-like through the cabin. This large tunnel not only has all kinds of storage bins, it also provides room for the driveshaft used on the car's awd system. The G6's transverse-mounted supercharged 3.5-liter V-6 engine is rated at 285 bhp and 272 lb.-ft. of torque. It's mated to a 4-speed automatic with sequential, paddle-type shift controls mounted to the steering wheel. Mike Lyons, project manager for GM's concept cars, said the G6 indicates the philosophical direction of the company's cars. "First of all, we wanted it to be instantly recognizable as a Pontiac," he said, adding that starting with last year's Solstice sports car, "we wanted to get away from cars that looked like cartoons. We want people to be able to see this car and then see exactly the same look in production." This bodes well, then, for the next Grand Am. ----- Dodge Avenger The Dodge Avenger is somewhere between an SUV and a passenger car. The Ram truck front-end styling and rugged interior give it a muscle-car feel. Muscle cars are not the only uniquely American vehicle form out there; take sport-utility vehicles (or as Henny Youngman would say, "Take them, please!"). There's no denying the road presence of these off-roaders, and the design team at Dodge decided to combine rugged, trucklike styling with good old American muscle. The result is the Avenger, a 4-door, 4-passenger, all-wheel-drive concept. Before you say World Rally Championship meets Monster Truck Pull, there's much more to the Avenger (which was originally called the Magnum) than meets the eye. It's based on a Chrysler/Mitsubishi midsize car platform and according to design director Lance Wagner, "It's not another SUV in a sea of SUVs, but it's not a car either. It's a very capable athletic vehicle. It has all-wheel drive and some ride-height capability that you don't see in passenger cars." Scott M. Krugger, who designed the exterior, said the basic look is that of "a passenger car fuselage nestled between these muscular rally-inspired fender shapes. You look at the graphics on it…even though it has a higher ride height and more aggressive tires, it still has catlike graphics on it front and rear. The greenhouse is very fast and sleek like a coupe's. The form vocabulary is Dodge, the boldness is put into this car with big fenders, bold graphics." These bold stylings include a corrugated look to the roof, squared-off wheel arches, a pronounced step in the body side and Dodge's signature cross-hair grille treatment. Looking at the front of the car, you can see very much the Ram truck, but in profile, the car has almost a chopped coupe look with its fastback hatch treatment. The Avenger is about the same size as the Pontiac G6. It rides on a similar 113-in. wheelbase and is 187 in. long overall. There are similarities in the mechanical package: The Dodge also has a transverse-mounted 3.5-liter V-6 tweaked to produce nearly 300 bhp, and it delivers the power to all four wheels through an automatic transmission with a manual sequential-shift feature. The rugged exterior is carried over into a rather spartan interior, which is devoid of carpet, leather and wood. Interior designer Jaehak Namgoong said the goal was to produce an environment of "high-tech athleticism." While some may see sport-equipment overtones in the bucket seats, which have ribbed backs with the look of body armor, the overall feel is more of a stripped-down race car. The corrugated roof pattern is repeated in the headliner, and the interior is mainly gray painted sheet steel. Brushed aluminum accents on the dash offer the appearance of strapping that piece to the firewall, while similar aluminum accents around the center-console entertainment center give the feeling of that separate unit strapped to the dash. The transmission features dash-mounted pushbuttons with steering-wheel paddle shifters. Instead of a large center console, the box-section center tunnel has two aluminum-topped mesh fences running the length of the cabin that form a large center storage bin. "This approach really opens up the interior," Namgoong said. "We're not trying to cover up anything, or artificially change anything. The materials you see are the materials you get. And you can venture out in this vehicle with no compromise." That sort of go-anywhere, do-anything attitude reflected in both the interior design and exterior shape, according to Wagner, gives the Avenger "a scale and proportion that has a larger-than-life feel to it." Which is the essence of American muscle.