Lawmakers increasingly are looking to phase out gasoline-powered cars in favor of electrics. And that could pose challenges for some legacy brands.
Take Dodge, for example.
The performance brand has built its current lineup on V-8-powered Challenger and Charger muscle cars that hark to the company's 1960s muscle-car roots. Dodge's earthshaking 700-horsepower Hellcat engines have pulled buyers into showrooms. Even the three-row Durango family hauler has a Hellcat option.
But can Dodge convince customers to buy battery-powered machines that announce themselves on cat's paws instead of with thunder?
"We're not going to be able to change it — electrification is the future," Dodge marketing chief Matt McAlear said at the Hellcat's media debut in November. "And that's what gets us out of bed: to continue to build this brand and make sure it evolves. Who knows where we are going to go? Maybe sound is piped in, maybe it's a more modular design on skateboard architectures."
Sound is a big challenge. The distinctive melody of the supercharger-fed Hellcat engine is the soundtrack to Dodge's marketing pitch. But Dodge could broadcast the roar of a lusty V-8 into the cockpit via the cars' sound systems.
Government and cultural trends in the past decade have pushed automakers to tout their fuel-efficient hybrids and safety qualifications. Dodge has achieved its success, analysts say, by positioning itself as a counterculture brand that thumbs its nose at politeness. Dodge's 459,000 U.S. unit sales in 2019 dwarfed the 242,000 of all EVs combined.
"They have cultivated a position that goes against general trends," said Karl Brauer, executive analyst with ISeeCars.com. "It has created a brand with very strong identity, with good results in sales and consumer quality ratings."
But states like California are moving counter to the trend. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order ending sales of new cars with internal-combustion engines by 2035. A Biden White House is expected to move toward a carbon-neutral policy.
"Brands like Dodge will be the most threatened," Brauer said.
Mustangs testing a solution
Ford's Mustang muscle-car brand already is experimenting with the transition. It has targeted Tesla's bestselling Model Y in the compact EV segment with the Mustang Mach-E SUV.
Mustang's signature V-8 bark always has set it apart from wispy European turbo-6s. V-8 means Yankee muscle.
The electric Mustang Mach-E seeks to replicate some of that bark. In addition to the eerie thrum that all EVs must emit by federal regulation in order to alert pedestrians to their presence, the Mach-E's drive modes (Whisper, Engage and Unbridled) pipe in noise through the stereo system to simulate an exhaust note. Unbridled's low roar is the most distinct.
But no recorded sound can match the hair-raising shriek of a V-8 at full throttle. The absence of that sound has turned off some early reviewers.
"A Mustang is supposed to be exuberant, unbridled. It's supposed to make driving an occasion of joy," wrote Road & Track. The magazine called the experience of driving the Mach-E "about as exhilarating as shopping for chest freezers."
Brauer said electric powertrains have inherent qualities — face-flattening acceleration, low center of gravity — that dovetail nicely with performance. Those attributes could help the transition.
"The reality is those platforms and that technology we used does need to move on," said Fiat Chrysler chief Mike Manley. "They can't exist as you get into the middle-2020s."