Performance models long have been a part of European automakers' playbooks. But as U.S. automakers improve their balance sheets, the trend is picking up speed anew in Detroit, says Larry Dominique, executive vice president of industry solutions for TrueCar.
"Some brands like BMW, Mercedes and Audi have had a long history of these derivatives. For the domestics, it is more of a 'rediscovery.'"
Quantifying the trend can be problematic.
"Sales of the specific variants are hard to discern because most of them are trims or derivatives of the core model," Dominique said.
Automakers often decline to provide trim-level sales metrics. But given the growing number of variants, Dominique believes "we can assume these variants are selling well and actually accelerating."
Sales of premium high-performance cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette and Jaguar F-Type have risen through April. Growth in 2014 was driven by the new seventh-generation Corvette (up 101 percent over 2013), but even aging models were up. Nissan's GT-R saw a 16 percent sales uptick, and the Dodge Viper climbed 29 percent, in part because of a price cut.
In larger-volume sales waters, American pony cars likewise enjoyed a solid 2014. Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro sales both climbed 7.1 percent, and the Dodge Challenger eked out a 0.3 percent gain. This is despite the sixth-generation Mustang and Hellcat Challenger models not going on sale until the end of the year.
"Those [cars] are always a pretty good barometer of performance cars in the larger market," notes Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at Kelley Blue Book.
According to Ford's Pericak, the Blue Oval's high-performance buyers "are younger and better educated than the average buyer." In particular, Ford's Fiesta ST and Focus ST have done an impressive job of conquesting young buyers from other companies. "Over 65 percent of ST customers come from outside the Ford brand," with millennial buyers purchasing ST models at twice the rate of other Blue Oval products, Pericak notes.
They're also more affluent, with 30 percent of ST buyers having household incomes in excess of $100,000. Those strong numbers have helped Ford build a case to bring the Focus RS, which debuted in March at the Geneva auto show, to the U.S.
Just how much these sporty versions of mainstream products cost to develop remains a closely guarded secret. But analysts say the effort is well worth it. As Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights for TrueCar, notes: "The incremental cost to develop a performance variant is a very cost-effective way for automakers to drive revenue."
A typical list of improvements for performance variants includes power upgrades, firmer suspension and bigger wheels and tires. Aesthetic changes typically include body kits, special badges and unique paint colors.
But automakers don't necessarily have to touch the powertrain to court performance buyers.
In milder sports models such as the Nismo variant of the Nissan Juke, a few bolt-on parts and special trim pieces can still add thousands to the bottom line. The Nismo features retuned suspension and steering, along with 18-inch wheels and a body kit, and costs $25,655 with shipping -- a 22 percent increase over the $21,075 Juke S upon which it's based. Both are powered by the Nissan 1.6-liter, inline-four engine with turbo-charging and direct injection, making 188 hp and 177 pounds-feet of torque.
The Juke Nismo RS adds 27 hp and includes bigger front brakes and Recaro seats for $28,845 with shipping, a 37 percent increase over the base Juke S.
The margins tend to get even thicker as the vehicles get more luxurious. BMW's X6 crossover starts at $60,550 with shipping for its 300-hp X6 sDrive35i model; its 567-hp X6 M sibling costs $103,050 with shipping, a 70 percent increase.
"It's very inexpensive to develop a performance model," says Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for industry research firm AutoPacific. "The development time and the cost of tooling is far less [than the rest of the vehicle]. It's too easy to not do, too easy to ignore."