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Sizzle is back in the car biz

Rick Newman
Columnist

Even the bantamweights are fighting horsepower wars these days.

Honda executives are hinting that a new performance version of the Civic going on sale soon will reclaim bragging rights lost to Volkswagen in 2016. Last May, a specially designed Volkswagen Golf GTI set a new record for front-wheel-drive cars on Germany’s famed Nurburgring, the 13-mile race course that winds trough the Eifel mountains. The Golf bested the Civic Type R, which held the prior record. But there’s a new Type R in town, and Honda says it’s been designed to wrest the title back, with a turbocharged, 306-horsepower engine, working spoilers and some aggressive weight loss. And the Type R will be available in America, for around $35,000, while the fancy GTI isn’t.

Yeah – these are compact cars we’re talking about. Utilitarian boringmobiles, at heart. But sizzle is back in the auto industry, at least for a while, and with sales strong, carmakers are splurging on everything they can think of to keep buyers interested and outflash competitors.

Dodge just unveiled the Dodge Challenger Demon, an 840-horsepower drag racer the car maker calls the fastest production car in the world. Lincoln is out with a reformulated version of Navigator, the giant SUV that debuted in the late 1990s and nearly died when gas hit $4 per gallon in 2008. The car-buying public digs it. Crossovers and SUVs now outsell sedans and other passenger cars, with big SUVs being one of the fastest-growing categories. Sales of luxury SUVs costing well over $50,000 are up nearly 20% over last year’s pace.

There are more categories of cars than ever before, as well. Another hot category is the subcompact crossover, which includes models such as the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V and newly shrunken Jeep Renegade. Toyota, Ford and other automakers don’t even have models in this category, but they’re on the way.

Who wins front-wheel drive bragging rights on the Nurburgring matters not a whit to the ordinary motoring public. But the fact that automakers care tells you things in the industry are a little crazy. Good crazy, maybe. But this might not last.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman