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Muscle Car Wars: It's All About the Horsepower

Photo: Jonathan K. Li | CNBC.com

"Where's the Z/28?" asked 16-year-old Michael Kimberly as he wandered through the Jacob Javits convention center in New York on Saturday morning, tagging along on a tour his parents had signed up for at the New York International Auto Show.

The two older Kimberlys were there to check out all the "green cars,' including the new Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid and Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid models making their debut at the annual show. But younger Michael, about to get his driver's license, had something decidedly different in mind—the super-high-performance version of the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro that was the biggest surprise introduction at the 2013 show.

The 550-horsepower "pony car" has been drawing deep crowds to the Javits Center's somewhat isolated North Hall since the show opened its doors to the public last week. But it's not alone.

Even before they get through the turnstiles, showgoers can check out a 1,200-horsepower version of the Ford Mustang specially tuned by Las Vegas-based Shelby American, the company started by the late Carroll Shelby, who also lent his name to the only somewhat less ferocious Shelby GT500 Mustang.

(Read More: Highlights From the 2013 New York Auto Show)

Curiously, Ford's stand is relatively low-key at this year's New York show, though a look at the Mustang display hints at big news to come. Ford is counting down to April 2014, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the original American pony car—with many expecting to see the official unveiling of the next-generation Mustang at next year's show.

Rumors are rampant, and most well-placed observers anticipate big news, starting with Mustang's first-ever independent rear suspension. That should move it into contention with a number of global performance cars—but also help it catch up with Chevrolet, which adopted an independent rear suspension design when it re-launched the Camaro four years back after a near decade-long absence.

The two muscle cars have long been archrivals, and Chevy briefly gave up on the game before bringing the Camaro back into the market in 2010. It was an unexpectedly successful move, the coupe now solidly outselling Mustang.

But the segment is prone to radical shifts and that requires a steady roll-out of minor updates and more radical variants like the 2014 Camaro Z/28. The 550-horsepower bruiser brings back a name not seen on the American market since 2002.

While Ford and Chevrolet battle for leadership in the pony car segment, they aren't alone. Chrysler's Dodge division has continued amping up the performance of its own pony car, the Challenger coupe, as well as the 4-door Dodge Charger.

Indeed, notes analyst Joe Phillippi, while the media may put plenty of emphasis on all the new green machines coming to market, "horsepower is still big with consumers." Indeed, some of the biggest announcements on the auto show circuit this year, from Detroit to Geneva, have focused on performance.

At the extremes, Ferrari introduced its new flagship, the LaFerrari, McLaren launching its P1—both capable to speeds well in excess of 200 mph. Chrysler's new SRT Viper TA—short for Time Attack—isn't much slower.

Mercedes-Benz, which is racing to adapt to shifting global trends to smaller luxury models, is not backing away from its commitment to performance, its AMG brand-within-a-brand bringing the new CLA 45 AMG to New York. A fair bit smaller than the current Mercedes C-Class, it will blast out a hefty 355 horsepower through all four wheels.

(Read More: Lux for Less: Mercedes Reaches Out to Young US Buyers)

Indeed, horsepower is getting as much focus as fuel economy at the NY Auto Show. Audi is launching an assortment of beefed-up models bearing its mid-range "S" and track-ready "RS" badges, updating everything from its small A4 to the flagship A8 line.

Porsche's stand is a testament to muscle, no surprise considering it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic 911 with the launch of the Porsche 911 GT3. It punches out 475 horsepower and is capable of launching from 0 to 60 in 3.3 seconds—on the way to a 195 mph limit.

Even Volvo, a brand normally associated with safety, is muscling up with the introduction of three new R-Design performance models. That includes the all-new V60 R-Design, its first true station wagon entry in several years. Not to get too far from its roots, the 329-hp V60 R-Design also features a new camera-based system that can spot pedestrians and bicyclists and pedestrians and bring the car to a rapid halt if a collision seems imminent.

Then there's Subaru, which revealed a "concept" version of the next WRX, its "hot hatch." As with the majority of recent show cars, it's expected to go into production with only minor changes next year.

It's not just passenger cars getting the performance treatment. Shelby American also revealed a special version of the big Ford F-150 Raptor pickup, bumping its power from 411 to 575 hp.

The good news for those who disdain an assault on the environment is that despite adding power, most makers are also improving mileage. The latest version of the Porsche 911, for example, added about 15% more horsepower even as it delivered a roughly equal dip in fuel consumption.

Credit an emphasis on improved aerodynamics and what the industry likes to call "lightweighting," as well as powertrain breakthroughs such as 8- and 9-speed gearboxes, direct injection and turbocharging. Even electrification. The McLaren P1 and the new LaFerrari both rely on hybrid systems developed first for the Formula 1 racing series. This approach deliver better mileage under everyday driving but also throttles out several 100 more horsepower when called for.

So, while most industry surveys might suggest that mileage is the top concern for the average driver, industry planners know that muscle still matters. Pony cars and performance machines aren't going away. The good news is that they're both faster and more powerful than ever while still meeting tougher emissions and mileage mandates.

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