The Future of Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger: What We Know
Spoiler alert: One pony dies.
First the SUVs came for our sedans. Now they're going after our sport coupes.
Two-door American coupes and convertibles with virtually unusable rear seats, usually referred to as pony cars or muscle cars and considered sports cars by some, have long been a hard sell in the U.S. market. Now with the Detroit Three offering SUVs like the Chevrolet Blazer RS, Ford Edge ST, and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, the future of this segment is in grave doubt.
Consider: In calendar year 2015, when U.S. auto sales hit 17.4 million for the first time (followed by two more record years), the combined sales of the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro, and Dodge Challenger were 266,216. In 2018, the U.S. market held on to 17.3 million total sales, but the three ponies totaled just 193,134. That's a collective 27.5 percent drop.
Since at least the 1960s, constant design and performance updates have been key to the success of sporty two-doors. The thinking is that after the first model year of almost any expressive, aspirational car, everyone who wants one has one. Makers of the Mustang, Challenger, and Camaro work overtime to keep these models fresh, but sooner or later it becomes time for an all-new replacement. Here is everything we know about the future of these cars as we approach a decade in which electrification, autonomy, and car-sharing will do far more to upend the auto business than the proliferation of SUVs.
We've been hearing for weeks that General Motors brass have been debating whether there's a future for the Chevy Camaro. Now, Muscle Cars & Trucks reports that development of a seventh-generation Camaro is on hiatus, and the car will be discontinued after the 2023 model year. We think "hiatus" may be a tad too optimistic, even though the Camaro went on hiatus before, between the 2003 and 2008 model years.
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When the fifth-generation, '09 Camaro made its debut it shot to the top of pony-car sales, topping even the Ford Mustang. But the all-new '15 Mustang passed it again for good, outselling it that year 122,349 to 77,502. Dodge sold 66,365 Challengers in '15. Since then, with low-volume Hellcats and Demons polishing its halo, the Challenger has passed the Camaro in sales; last year the numbers were 75,482 Mustangs, 66,716 Challengers, and just 50,963 Camaros.
While the '09 Camaro borrowed interior and exterior visual cues from the 1969 Camaro, early proposals were to completely redesign the car for its sixth-generation with a Gen II, 1970.5 look. Instead, that redesign proved far too conservative for such a style-conscious segment, and the problem was compounded by an even gloomier interior and poor outward visibility that forces drivers to depend heavily on modern camera and proximity sensor technology.
There's another reason to ice the Camaro for good: It allows Chevrolet to devote the car's resources toward updates and upgrades of the new mid-engine Corvette, which will have a base price competitive with the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350. There's no reason to continue competing with the four-cylinder Mustang EcoBoost convertibles popular mostly with California and Florida rental fleets.
The new rear-wheel-drive platform that underpins the 2020 Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator was designed to put volume, and thus cost-effectiveness, into the next-generation Ford Mustang, which is the automaker's single remaining non-truck/non-SUV sold in North America. But when we were attended the '20 Explorer first-drive program, engineers said the longitudinal-engine architecture was designed to be a sport-utility platform from the start.
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A hybrid Mustang is expected next year as a 2021 model, and this car always was planned for the existing architecture. This suggests the Explorer/Aviator-based Mustang would come in time for perhaps the 2023 model year, with the hybrid powertrain carrying over.
The "Mustang-inspired" all-electric four-door crossover will not be mechanically or architecturally related to any of these models.
Now it looks like the current Ford Mustang will roll on at least through the 2025 model year, if not later. The Explorer/Aviator architecture isn't quite as flexible as Ford first thought, so if the Mustang does eventually migrate to their bones, it will grow to be closer in size to the Dodge Challenger.
The current Mustang is 188.5 inches long overall and 54.3 inches high, on a 107.1-inch wheelbase. In comparison, the Challenger is 197.9 inches long and 57.5 inches tall, and has a 116.2-inch wheelbase, a result of sharing a tall firewall with the Charger and Chrysler 300. The Camaro is close to the Mustang in size, at 188.3 inches long and 53.1 inches tall, and with a 110.7-inch wheelbase.
A Challenger-size Mustang would make it a tough sell in the European Union, where Ford says the car has become the region's bestselling sports car. But it might be the future for what most likely will be a two-car segment, consisting of Mustang and Challenger. Think of this next-generation Mustang as being a kind of retro nod to its 1971 ancestor, which left its Falcon compact platform for the one under the midsize Torino. Of course, that 1971-73 model was succeeded by the Pinto-based '74 Mustang II.
If the Ford Mustang does not migrate to the Explorer/Aviator platform by the 2026 model year, we'd bet on Ford skipping the move in favor of constant updates to keep the current architecture fresh. Those SUVs will be getting old after '26, and their underpinnings are scheduled to next be replaced in model year '29, according to one source.
Fiat Chrysler's muscle/pony has had a checkered future, full of oft-cancelled replacements. The Challenger debuted in '08 in SRT guise, with the full line added for '09, and Dodge had planned a new "Barracuda" in the early 2010s that would be smaller than Challenger, though on the same platform. It was a pet project of Fiat Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles.
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By Fiat Chrysler's second Five-Year Plan introduced by then-CEO Sergio Marchionne in 2014, the Dodge Challenger and Charger were to migrate to Alfa Romeo's rear-drive Giorgio platform, on which the Giulia is built. But delays and added cost in developing that platform put the Dodges on ice.
By Fiat Chrysler's third Five-Year Plan presentation last year in Balocco, Italy, Marchionne confirmed that the Giorgio-based Dodges were off, and that constant updates of the Challenger/Charger/Chrysler 300 platform would keep the models fresh through the 2020s. Fiat Chrysler long ago evolved the chassis, cribbed from the Mercedes-Benz E-class during the DaimlerChrysler years, to the point that it considers the platform its own. For instance, AWD was added to the Dodge Challenger in the 2017 model year. Earlier in the decade, Fiat Chrysler had to pay a licensing fee to post-Chrysler Daimler for AWD systems for the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300.
Meanwhile, ZF Friedrichshafen last week announced Fiat Chrysler has placed the second-largest order for the transmission supplier's eight-speed automatic for longitudinal-engine, rear- and all-wheel-drive models. The order includes a "significant share of hybrid transmissions," which means Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep, as well as Alfa and Maserati, will likely soon offer 48-volt systems like those seen on Ram pickups and the Jeep Wrangler/Gladiator.
Fiat Chrysler now considers the Dodge's plus size an advantage, so we don't expect any significant downsizing when the next Challenger arrives, likely for 2022.