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To hell with horsepower

The horsepower wars are bad for almost everyone. Where does it end?

FCA

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

The horsepower wars are killing sports cars.

There is an unwritten mandate that every time a new car model arrives, it has to have more horsepower and torque than its predecessor. It should also ideally have a spec sheet that makes its direct competitor look wimpy. If the Mustang Shelby GT350R has 526 hp, then expect the new Camaro ZL1 to have even more. (It does, at 640.)

Frankly, it’s exhausting.

And mostly pointless. Because you know what’s really, really hard to use on a normal road? Six hundred and forty horsepower. The upcoming Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport (460 hp) will touch 100 miles per hour in third gear. (I know, I’ve done it.) Awesome as an idea, but less ideal on a real road, where you must preserve both public safety and your driver’s license.

And, ultimately, that makes the cars less fun. You’re only using a small fraction of a car’s capability most of the time — or really, ever — unless you’re lucky enough to get it on a racetrack. We’re talking about Mustangs and Camaros and BMWs, not supercars. Plunge into a modern sports car’s full power, and you could go to jail. The entire point of a sports car is to be entertained, and going to jail is not entertaining.

Bugatti Chiron additional photos
(Bugatti)

Which, in my opinion, means that many carmakers have lost sight of the point, taking on the myopic view that a sports car is defined by its power. I’ve driven the Bugatti Veyron several times, and let’s just say its 1,001 hp was plenty sufficient. I’m not sure the follow-up, the Chiron, is going to be that much bigger of a kick in the pants with 1,500 hp.

Which is not to say that power isn’t important. (We’re also referring to torque, which is measured in units of pound-feet, and is the initial force that gets you moving quickly from a full stop.)

I often have to merge onto a section of Pennsylvania’s I-80 freeway with the world’s shortest on-ramp. It feeds directly onto a long straightaway where 18-wheelers and commuters barrel through at high velocity. Enter the fray in an underpowered 1960s VW Microbus at your own great peril. Nobody is going to pull over to let you in, and it takes minutes for a Microbus to reach 60 mph.

But these days, even an eco-conscious Ford Edge crossover makes 245 hp and 275 pound-feet of torque from its sprightly turbo EcoBoost four cylinder — ample oomph to get up to speed on that freeway ramp. And the up-rated 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 gets 315 hp and 350 lb-ft, which is more than many older sports cars. (A 1979 Corvette with a fat 5.7-liter V-8 was good for a pitiable 195 hp.)

The issue, oddly, is technology

Five hundred horsepower used to be the Rubicon which few automakers dared to cross. The 2003 Dodge Viper made exactly 500 hp, and people thought that was absolutely crazy balls. But now that number is old hat. There’s a Range Rover with 510, the BMW X5 M SUV with 567, and a Cadillac CTS-V sedan with 640. Dodge eradicated any last bit of sanity when it released the 707-hp Challenger Hellcat.

The issue, oddly, is technology. As cars have gotten heavier because of safety equipment and infotainment systems and massaging seats, automakers have simply made up for those added pounds by adding power. Huge strides in gas engines — namely turbocharging — have allowed the engine displacement to drop while power increases.

The good news is that turbos are usually more efficient than naturally-breathing engines. That power and efficiency is the reason why automakers from Porsche to Ferrari are switching to them. The downside is they sound less interesting, rev much lower, and are generally less exciting. I’d prefer a base 911 with an old-school, naturally aspirated flat six engine good for 300 hp over the new 370-hp turbo power plant, extra power be damned.

singer-911-verge-Jessica-Walker-01
(Jessica Walker)

But the thing is, drive any base 911 made in the last decade on a public road, and it’s just too fast. It’s effortless to zing down even a tricky and winding road at 100 mph. You want to get your blood pumping, but the cars are so good at speed, you still feel like you’re just cruising along.

I’ve also driven a 1974 Carrera, with a 2.7-liter, air-cooled flat six, with maybe 150 hp. Same type of winding road, and I rarely got above 60. And I felt like I was flying. It was light and low to the ground, and had no electronic aids. It was thrilling.

You can get the same sensation in a modern Mazda Miata MX-5 (155 hp). The MX-5 is focused on supreme handling and light weight. It comes in at around 2,300-plus pounds, so it doesn't need that much power to sling it down the road. It is old-school.

Added pounds make any car less fun

Which isn’t to say that technology is the enemy — or that you have to go buy yourself an old 911 that reeks of petrol. One of the most entertaining back-road cars I’ve driven in years is BMW’s super-advanced i8 coupe. It is a plug-in hybrid uses both a small 3-cylinder gas engine and an electric engine. It can function in all-electric mode. At full tilt, both engines working together produce a modest 357 hp. It’s a very modern car, but it really isn’t all that fast by modern sports car standards. What’s important is that you can actually use all of its power on a regular road. Certainly it will go fast enough to get you a speeding ticket, but you’re unlikely to get to go-to-jail speeds without really working at it.

And when it comes to incredible zero-to-60 speeds, one only has to look to Ludicrous Mode in the Tesla Model S P90D. We all know by now that EVs can be very fast off the line, owing to the fact that an electric motor produces full torque on demand. But the Tesla changes the power paradigm. The bigger battery pack allows you to drive longer distances in a single charge — or get a 2.8-second run to 60 mph. (Which, by the way, you’ll only get to do a few times before using up your charge.) But that is different than the Dodge Hellcat, which has to lug around its 6.2-liter V-8 even when it’s idling around town. The Tesla’s approach to performance delivers mad performance with fewer downsides.

I’d like to see sports car makers turn their attentions from the constant adding of power to the constant deletion of weight. Added pounds make any car less fun, as heavier cars don’t go around tight corners nearly as well.

P85D

But making cars lighter is far more complicated and expensive than simply shoving in a turbocharger, so automakers have to truly commit to a new vision. Surprisingly, it is companies like Lamborghini which are taking up the call. The company is currently working on a new type of carbon-fiber technology using forged composites at its bespoke laboratory in Seattle. The new stamping process will allow many more parts of the car to be made in the tough-but-lightweight material.

Still, the latest top-of-the-line Lambo is the Aventador SV with 740 horses. I think we could have just as much fun with one that only makes 500.