The end of the prior decade brought an odd wind of change to the auto industry, with consumers demanding simpler cars and better fuel efficiency from the gas-guzzling SUVs and large sedans that they'd been used to driving before the Great Recession. Now, five years removed from that recession, it appears that consumer sentiment has shifted once again.
What we're seeing today in the auto industry is a drastic bifurcation with eco-friendly and fuel-efficient vehicles in one corner (i.e., diesel-powered engines, hybrids, and electric vehicles), and high-performance and/or muscle cars in the other. With the unemployment rate falling, the U.S. economy continuing to improve, and home values rising once again, the U.S. consumer is out in full force searching for ways to enjoy the fruits of their hard work -- and the high-performance vehicles have been one avenue that automakers have turned to in an attempt to boost sales.
With automakers catering these high performance machines to both younger crowds that are all about 0-to-60 times, and older crowds that can relive the history of their childhood through redesigned muscle cars, these domestic and overseas manufacturers have uncovered a possible rapid growth opportunity.
Of course, muscle cars and high-performance vehicles aren't for everyone. Even if you want one, affording one can sometimes feel as if it costs an arm and a leg. The majority of high-performance vehicles that put out over 300 horsepower or more will start well into the $30,000 or $40,000 price bracket and head higher, pricing a number of would-be consumers out of the market. But that isn't the case for all models. In fact, there are six cars the need-for-speed enthusiast can buy right now that will give you at least 300 HP and can be purchased for less than $30,000 MSRP -- and they just might offer a unique opportunity for investors depending on the brand.
Today we'll take a closer look at those models, because they obviously hold a comparative pricing advantage over their peers, which these manufacturers may be able to exploit in order to boost their own profits. For the sake of argument, I left trucks, SUVs, and crossovers off this list and decided to strictly stick with cars because it represents the best apples-to-apples comparison of muscle cars then (i.e., from the 1960s/1970s) and now. We'll also only be considering new cars for 2014 for this discussion.
Here are the six cars you can buy for less than $30,000 that will put out 300 or more HP.
Ford Mustang: 305 HP, MSRP from $22,510
The Mustang is a big reason Ford (NYSE:F) was a dominant force in the U.S. throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but it's been more of a drag than a benefit in recent years. Sales of Ford's iconic Mustang have dropped from a recent peak of 166,530 units in 2006 to a mere 77,186 units last year and really haven't recovered since the recession. J.D. Power & Associates automotive analyst Jeff Schuster in 2011 noted that the decline is due to increased competition, specifically from the Chevy Camaro, which "has a more modern feel and seems to draw attention from a younger age group." In other words, the Mustang is no longer driving solo in the fast lane.
But not all hope is lost for Ford's 300-plus horsepower beast. Pound for pound, there's simply not a cheaper car based on MSRP that you buy and get 300 horsepower from. This gives the Mustang an advantage that could sit well with younger car buyers and help push sales higher. In addition, Ford's styling across its product line, coupled with its improved fuel-efficiency in a majority of its vehicles, helped push total company unit sales up 11% last year. Ford's Mustang may be in a funk now, but a recently introduced next-generation model, which Fool auto analyst John Rosevear witnessed the unveiling of firsthand, could be the spark that fuels a surge in sales.
Dodge Challenger SXT: 305 HP, MSRP from $26,295
It took only about 35 years, but patient enthusiasts of the Dodge Challenger finally got their wish in December 2007, when Dodge unveiled its newly designed muscle car to the world. Dodge, which is now under the umbrella of Fiat (NASDAQOTH:FIATY), has delivered largely mixed results with the blockier Challenger in the early going, noting strong sales gains out of the gate but seeing sales tumble by more than 50% year over year between 2010 and 2011. By contrast, 2013 saw more than 51,000 Challengers sold, marking its second straight year of gains.
Despite impressive gains from Dodge as a whole, which improved sales by 14% for the full year in 2013, the Challenger has remained well behind both the Camaro and Mustang for years in total sales. Of the three, it does offer the highest base model price and the worst gas mileage, so that combination could be putting off the on-the-fence muscle-car buyer. However, I'd also point to a strong trend of sales improvement in the Challenger since 2011 and its rapid growth in Mexico as a reason it's going to play in an integral role in Chrysler Group and Fiat's overall success moving forward.
Chevy Camaro: 323 HP, MSRP from $23,555
However, sitting at the head of the class when it comes to Detroit muscle is General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevy Camaro, which was reintroduced after an eight-year hiatus in 2009. Since its introduction, and compared with the Mustang and Challenger, no muscle car has sold better than the Camaro, with 395,974 delivered logged under its belt through the end of 2013. Last year, as we've seen in previous years, the Camaro left the Challenger in the dust, outselling it by 29,099 vehicles and topping Ford's Mustang by nearly 3,400 units -- not to mention that the Camaro is also tops among these three when it comes to resale value.
In terms of unbridled Detroit power, the Camaro is king with its 323 HP, and it's likely this extra power under the hood, along with its sleek styling, that's helping to push sales consistently above that of the Mustang -- at least over the past four years. Yet what really may be driving Americans back to the Camaro is General Motors' plans to move the Camaro's production back to the U.S., as it expects to lower its capital investment costs and improve production efficiencies. Put plainly, producing the Camaro in the U.S. may lead to quicker production and lower costs, which should result in beefier margins for GM. Only time will tell if this is the case, but as of now the Camaro looks like an unstoppable beast, and auto-savvy investors should take notice.
Dodge Charger SXT: 300 HP, MSRP from $29,925
Similar to the Mustang, sales for the Dodge Charger fell off a cliff during the recession, from a peak of more than 119,000 units in 2007 to a trough of just 60,651 units sold in the U.S. in 2009. The good news is that with the exception of 2011, sales have increased in each successive year and surpassed 98,000 total units sold in 2013 in the United States.
Although the Charger SXT barely squeaks onto this list with exactly 300 horsepower, it could offer even greater sales growth potential than the Challenger. The reason is that the Charger has a more subdued styling compared with the Challenger, which I believe will help it appeal to a broader audience and ultimately boost its sales. Although sales of the Charger began the year sluggishly, right alongside the Challenger, Fool John Rosevear reminds us that this beginning-of-the-year weakness isn't too surprising, since rear-wheel-drive vehicles are difficult to move off dealership lots in the winter. Looking forward, though, it's quite possible the Charger can reclaim the 100,000 unit mark in 2014 and provide added muscle to Chrysler and Fiat's bottom line.
Hyundai Genesis 3.8 R-Spec: 348 HP, MSRP from $29,350
Raise your hand if you thought that the car with the highest horsepower on this list would be manufactured by Hyundai (NASDAQOTH:HYMTF)? OK, if you raised your hand, your nose just grew a foot! To be clear, the Genesis R-Spec is not a muscle car in any way, shape, or form, but its sportiness and speed are designed to appeal to the driver wanting a more high-performance vehicle.
Introduced onto the market in 2008, sales of the Genesis (all models) soared through 2011 but have generally stalled since.
I believe there are three possible explanations for this lag in sales. First, I suspect that Americans, deep down, still prefer to purchase American-made over foreign cars when it comes to high-performance vehicles. Second, a rebounding economy is putting more money in consumers' pockets and allowing them to trade up to high-performance models well in excess of a $30,000 price tag. Finally, Hyundai really isn't known for producing cars with a lot of horsepower, so consumers may be having a hard time making that distinction.
Still, the Genesis fills a void that had previously been missing in Hyundai's lineup, and the diversity it provides could help reinvigorate its bottom line, which has been hampered by weaker sales in its home country of South Korea and by a stronger currency (the won). Expected to only see its U.S. market share tick higher by 0.1%, Hyundai could see the Genesis playing a key role in Hyundai's making a run toward 5% of the U.S. market.
Nissan 370Z Coupe: 332 HP, MSRP from $29,990
Last, but not least, we have Nissan's (NASDAQOTH:NSANY) 370Z Coupe, which is similar to the Genesis R-Spec Couple in that it is anything but a muscle car, but it still screams sportiness and puts out a whopping 332 HP. Unfortunately, it has been mired in a vicious sales slump over the past decade, with sales peaking in 2004 at 30,690 units and dipping to a comparatively minuscule 6,561 units last year. Making matters even tougher for Nissan, cold weather across much of the U.S. to start the year hasn't even allowed the 370Z to reach 1,000 units sold through two full months in 2014.
Unlike the previous five vehicles, which are either seeing sales rebound or have generally steady sales, the 370Z is in freefall. Nissan has had success in recapturing market share in the U.S. recently, but it looks as if the foreign automaker is perfectly content focusing on its everyday sellers, the Altima and Sentra, rather than putting a lot of effort into retooling the 370Z. I'm not certain, based on its sales trends, that the 370Z will last too much longer, but I doubt Nissan would miss it too much from a financial standpoint.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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