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Back on the trail: The pony car

It's going to be a long, cold, lonely winter for carmakers, but spring could be heavenly for hot rodders (if they have some dough).

An all-new Chevy Camaro and a refreshed Ford Mustang are about to make it to showrooms, with prices starting in the low- to mid-$20,000 range, along with a new sub-$30,000 car making more than 300 horsepower from a surprising place — South Korea.

Together, the offerings represent a revival of the pony car — the stylish, moderately priced rear-wheel-drive coupe exemplified by the 1960s Camaros and Mustangs that originated the class.

At the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, Mike Kaluza, 60, looked happier than an Obama backer on election night as he watched a 2010 Camaro rotating on a platform. "It's an amazing time, when you consider what's being offered by Ford, Chevy and Hyundai," he said.

Yes, Hyundai.

The South Korean automaker is joining the budget-performance-car party with its first rear-wheel-drive coupe, like the others due out by spring, though the manufacturers have not set firm release dates. Along with Dodge's recently released Challenger, that makes four rear-wheel-drive sporty cars in a segment that was pretty much solely occupied by the Mustang until this year.

Unlike in most years, when new models would command a premium over the sticker price, buyers may be able to snag the new ponies at bargain prices from dealers struggling to stay afloat during a time of stagnant sales. It also might not cost as much to run the cars if gas prices stay as low as they are now.

In the past, pony cars typically were derived from other model platforms — the first Mustang, for instance, was based on the Ford Falcon compact-car platform.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the dominance of front-wheel-drive auto platforms, high gasoline prices and tougher fuel economy standards dimmed the pony car segment. Engines became less powerful, and in the late 1970s the Dodge Challenger actually was a re-badged four-cylinder Mitsubishi. In 2002, General Motors stopped production of Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, leaving the Mustang the last horse on its feet.

There also was something of a demographic void, as baby-boom drivers shifted to roomier cars and minivans as they raised families. Young adults and teens still showed a need for speed, but their money and time went to souping up Honda Civics and other imported compacts.

Now, many original muscle-car fans are ready to get back into the kinds of cars they gave up long ago — and glad to see they'll be available. "We're old hot rodders. We're the market for this stuff," said Gary Kepner, 64, who also was eyeing the 2010 Camaro at the auto show.

Kepner had gone to the show to see the new Camaro and Mustang — neither car is yet in showrooms — with fellow muscle-car enthusiast Garry Blagg, 59.

Kepner said the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger reminded him of the cars in which he cruised as a young man in the 1960s. The new models also tug deep into Blagg's past. "My first brand-new car was a '69 Camaro. I bought it in 1970 for $3,600," he said. Adjusted for inflation, that's close to the expected $22,995 sticker price of the base 2010 Camaro with a V-6 engine.

Despite their strong visual connection to the original pony cars, the latest in the breed are no longer purely American. The Camaro and Challenger are built in Canada, and the Camaro's platform was created by GM's Australian subsidiary, Holden. The Mustang's base V-6 engine is imported from Germany.

The South Korean pony car distinguishes itself by taking more direct aim at younger drivers by offering a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

Hyundai is banking on younger drivers' eagerness to switch to rear-drive cars. Sending power through the rear wheels yields smoother handling with high-horsepower engines. Rear-drive vehicles are used in popular "drifting" competitions, in which drivers score points by gracefully sliding their rear wheels through turns.

Hyundai is offering two versions of the coupe — a 310-horsepower V-6 to compete with the Mustang for older buyers, and a 220-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder to lure younger car tuners.

Auto show visitor Gerardo Lamuza, 24, said he would buy the turbocharged-engine-equipped model for exactly the reason Hyundai intends — he wants to play with increasing the car's power by modifying the turbo.

Lamuza said he would trade in his Nissan 350Z to buy the Hyundai when it is released sometime early next year.

"I was planning on getting a new drift car next year," he said, sour economy be damned.