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The Death of the Muscle Car As We Know It Isn’t Necessarily Good News

10:18 AM EDT on August 18, 2022

Two of the most notoriously dangerous muscle cars are being retired — but probably just to make room for heavier, bigger, and more dangerous greenwashed models.

On Wednesday, automaker Dodge announced that it would discontinue production of the Challenger and Charger, at least after releasing a whopping seven special edition "farewell" models to capitalize upon the end of the era. Made famous by racist, violent TV shows and movies like Dukes of Hazzard and the Fast and the Furious — and made infamous for their involvement in deadly crashes, like the Charlottesville vehicle-ramming attack that killed protester Heather Heyer — the two models have been icons of American automotive violence and toxic masculinity for more than five decades.

The news was greeted with hesitant enthusiasm by some street safety advocates, who have long flagged Dodge's particularly aggressive advertising campaigns as an understudied and under-regulated factor in the U.S. traffic violence crisis, even as evidence has emerged that simply watching ads like theirs that depict dangerous driving makes motorists more likely to actually drive dangerously.

That enthusiasm was tempered, though, by the news that the Challenger and Charger may not actually go away — because Dodge will likely re-release electric versions of them.

At first, the invention of the electric muscle car might seem like a win for the planet, or at least a decent compromise that could lure some gearheads to swap a gas guzzler for a Charger with a charger. Don't get us wrong; muscle car gas tanks, like all gas tanks, do have to go.

Without accompanying regulatory reform, though, the entry of clean cars like the hypothetical e-Challenger, could actually make U.S. skies dirtier over time — at least if Dodge complements its new zero-emissions models with a slew of more-popular megacars that leave the internal combustion engine in place.

Thanks to the infamous light truck loophole, U.S. automakers are only required to maintain minimum fuel economy standard averages across all models they offer, which means individual cars within that fleet can legally pollute a lot more. Even worse, because of some weird quirks in the formula that NTHSA uses to calculate this stuff, automakers that make a lot of light trucks — which, by now, are pretty much all of them — can sell even dirtier cars than ones who sell a greater proportion of sedans.

It's also important to note that even federal emissions standards don't adjust for how many low-emitting cars U.S. residents actually buy. And that means that even if no one purchases an e-muscle car — which a lot of people won't, at least if they truly love that aggro gas-powered engine sound — electric models will still drive down Dodge's fleetwide average enough to allow the company to sell more fuel-intensive models, like its massive RAM pick-up, which is currently the second-best selling new car in America.

Even if Dodge electrifies all its cars, though, that will still have a dangerous downside for U.S. communities, at least without accompanying regulation. That's because electric cars are about 16 percent heavier than their gas-burning counterparts, and vehicle weight is a significant determinant of crash severity — and that's even before those heavy cars reach the lethal 203 miles per hour maximum speed of a 2022 Challenger, which Dodge brags makes it the single fastest muscle car on the road. (A specc'ed-out 2022 Dodge Charger isn't much slower at 196 mph).

Despite their aggressive reputation, though, muscle car drivers aren't actually the deadliest motorists on the road, thanks in part to their vehicle's relatively small footprint and low front-end design, which is less likely to strike a person at the head or neck level than a light truck. Challengers and Chargers were only involved in about 0.67 percent of fatal crashes in between 2016 and 2020 per federal data, which isn't bad considering that insurance comparison website Insurify says they currently comprise about 1.45 percent of all cars in the U.S. fleet, based on their annual analysis of more than 4.6 million car insurance applications.

That gap might start to close, though, as muscle cars get heavier with the addition of batteries. Used and new Dodge RAM 1500s, for instance, collectively constitute just 0.7 percent of the U.S. fleet, but were involved in 1.76 percent of fatal crashes between 2016 and 2020 — more than twice what they should have been if fatalities were proportionate to vehicle ubiquity. If the Dodge Charger with a higher trim level really does get 17 percent heavier when it goes electric, it will actually weigh more than some lower-end Dodge RAMs.

At the end of the day, sunsetting the gas-powered Challenger and Charger changes literally nothing about Dodge's violent vision for U.S. roadways — and without new regulations, the move to electric vehicles may actually empower that vision.

The unfortunate truth is, removing two particularly notorious models from their roster simply makes room for Dodge to make even more deadly cars. Even if those cars run on batteries, they will likely still be sold using the company's same old style of hyper-violent commercials, which advertising professional and street safety advocate Tom Flood once pointed out are carefully crafted "to exploit primal, toxic, testosterone-aggression-fueled fantasies of strength and speed." And as Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis once told CNBC, even though the days of the "iron block supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 are numbered ... the performance that those vehicles generate is not numbered" when they transition to electric — because they'll still be able to go at unthinkably deadly speeds that no U.S. regulator has yet made serious moves to cap.

Kuniskis has also said that rather than bringing his macho, gas-hungry company's reputation down, the EV age may actually create what he calls the new “Golden Age of muscle cars,” where consumers can buy greenwashed, deadly vehicles without guilt. Unless regulators take steps to close the light truck loophole, hold automakers accountable for deadly advertising tactics, and implement safety standards like speed governors that will be appropriate for an age when vehicles weigh more than they ever have before, he may well be right.

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