Would Toyota have introduced its highly customizable Scion brand in 2003 even if The Fast and The Furious wasn't released two years earlier? Probably.
Do Scion and competitors such as Kia that offer 150 different accessories for car buyers to choose from owe just a little something to The Fast and The Furious and the custom car culture that produced it? Absolutely. There's a reason the Scion's first models were introduced in California and Kia's Soul was conceived there, and it's the same reason The Fast and The Furious thrived in its West Coast surroundings. The custom scene there is well-established, and it and the California-based Special Equipment Market Association have been giving drivers choices big automakers hadn't in a long time.
"The tuner scene and custom scene is influential," says Angus Mackenzie, editor-in-chief of Motor Trend magazine. "I know car designers who go to SEMA shows to see if there are new colors or new trends to pick up on."
Those trends can add up to big money when offered a la carte, and automakers were quick to catch on. When BMW introduced the U.S. market to the Mini back in 2002, it provided a combination of colors and options that MacKenzie said made the average Mini buyer put roughly $4,000 worth of options into their car. That price tag gets a little larger when the car you're tuning up in the showroom is a Porsche 911, which has options such as gold crests on the wheels that drive buyers to spend $8,000 to $10,000 on options alone.
"The trend toward mass customization had been talked about in the industry for a long time, and there were a lot of very big proponents of it," Mackenzie says. "It's what Detroit used to do in the 1960s before it lost its way."
2. Big horsepower, small packages
In a country raised on big, muscly Barracudas, Trans-Ams and Grand Nationals, the sight of a nitro-fueled 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse on the line in a high-stakes street race may have been a bit much for the automotive old guard to stomach. Ten years later, when a Mini Cooper Clubman S gets 181 horsepower and a Subaru WRX STi gets a Mustang-like 305 horsepower, the idea of a small car putting on a big show isn't so foreign.
"If you look at the market right now, it's a golden age for horsepower and performance," Mackenzie says. "There are more cars available on the market with 400 horsepower or more than at any time in history."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average horsepower for cars in the U.S. in 1998 was 171. Back then, it took that field an average 10.9 seconds to get from zero to 60 miles per hour and only 1.4% of cars had a turbocharger there to help. Last year, average horsepower surged to 220 and 0-to-60 times averaged out to 9.5 seconds -- and 3.2% of vehicles are now turbocharged.
Instead of letting the little guys lap them, though, the U.S. automakers brought bigger, beefier performance cars to the starting line. GM (Stock Quote: GM) just unveiled a 550-horsepower Camaro and even GM's Cadillacs are getting brawnier, with the CTS-V sporting 556 horsepower. The difference is that they're doing it more efficiently, with the 305-horsepower Mustang also getting 31 miles per gallon. None of that was even imaginable among American automakers in 2001.
"American performance was a contradiction in terms," Mackenzie says. "You now have the Camaro, Mustang, Charger, Challenger and the Cadillac CTS-V with a manual transmission that are genuine, authentic American muscle cars with a level of performance that guys back in the alleged golden era of the '60s and '70s could never have even dreamed about."
3. A broader paint palette
There's a reason why even Ford's compact Fiesta and Hyundai's upcoming Veloster sports coupe look like Walker's lime Eclipse from the first film: Factory paint before The Fast and The Furious was pitiful.
"Manufacturing's gotten more flexible in terms of allowing people to do paint and trim options together," Mackenzie says. "Toyota drove the industry to a standardized mouse-gray interior because it was cheap and easy to do, but now Chevy has a new Malibu with a dark color pattern in a black or in a brown because customers are bored with gray."
Ford's palette for the Fiesta's exterior has nine colors, and even that seems a bit conservative. Automakers such as Audi are known for offering European customers a color-wheel's worth of choices for their rides. Struggling, once-bankrupted U.S. automakers are playing catch-up and making street-worthy colors and tricked-out trim a key portion of their sales pitch.
Chrysler's 300 C has a performance version where black chrome wheels are an option, as is a satin finish instead of chrome and two-tone leather. Chrysler's Fiat 500 has 14 exterior colors and 12 different interior color patterns, which Mackenzie says can add up to 500,000 different variations based on colors and options.
"If you went to a SEMA show four or five years ago, matte-finish paints were on all the cars -- matte black, matte orange and that sort of thing," Mackenzie says. "Now the industry's picked up these paints, so you can have a Lamborghini in matte white or a Mercedes-Benz in a color called alubeam, which is a matte silver that makes the car look like it's made out of metal."
4. Interior tech
Even though their interior LEDs may not be linked to tachometers or nitrous tank gauges, car buyers' center consoles are doing just as much multitasking as those installed in The Fast and the Furious street racers.
From Ford's Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT)-powered Sync entertainment system linking audio, GPS and Bluetooth to the Toyota Enform Safety system installed in its Lexus luxury brand, the all-in-one center console allows the average commuter to feel in touch with their ride without breaking any local traffic laws. For automakers such as Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen and others that like to restrict their racing personae to the big driving circuits and keep their consumer products as sensible as possible, it's a way to perform for buyers without giving them too much performance.
"I think the Japanese companies really struggle with brand, and both Toyota and Honda perceive themselves a certain way," Mackenzie says. "They've played around with performance cars, but they've always backed away."
5. Vin Diesel wannabes
When The Fast and the Furious was released in 2001, sales for compact-performance products totaled $2.86 billion, according to SEMA. A year later, sales jumped to $3 billion.
Mackenzie says hardcore gearheads have roundly ignored the films or see them as strictly entertainment, which means that surge came mostly from newbies who may have opened their car's hood a time or two to check the oil.
Unfortunately, much of that enthusiasm failed to trickle down through the sequels with any consistency. While performance parts companies such as Turbonetics saw enough of a bump from the films to invest in being featured in the sequels -- Turbonetics was in Fast & Furious, its logo featured on the front of Walker's Nissan Skyline -- Mackenzie doubts the franchise has converted any corporate drones into full-time tuners.
"The Fast and the Furious franchise is philosophically not a lot different from the hot rod movies of the early '60s," Mackenzie say. "They're picking on a cultural phenomenon or a subculture, as it were, and whether that inspired anyone new to go out and customize a car ... probably not."
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