The car industry remains in the grips of a horsepower war, obsessed with one-upsmanship which has overshadowed the things that make a truly great car. For example, when the Ford Mustang debuted, the base six cylinder engine created just 101 hp and Carol Shelby called it “A nice little secretaries car.” Then he turned it into a stripped out 300hp Shelby GT 350. But today the base V6 Mustang offers 300hp and the full fire breathing Shelby is a 200mph monster with 660 horsepower.
The numbers have exploded. In the 1990s 400hp was the realm of supercars, today you can find more than 400hp in a luxury sedan. 500hp used to bring whispers of awe, but now that requires over 1,000hp. It has begun to lose all reality and meaning.
YouTube comments and forum postings abound with people throwing stats back and forth like darts. Tuners brag about taking factory quick cars and dropping their 0-60 times into the two second range with ¼ mile speeds once reserved for designated drag machines.
The result of this horse-power-palooza is the misconception that a more powerful car is always a more fun car. While it’s true that a powerful car offers a rollercoaster style launch whenever the mood strikes, most huge horsepower machines are also just plain huge. Their power is so immense that using the upper reaches of these cars is impossible even on a race-track. So the thrill comes in bragging rights and two or three seconds of full throttle, like starting a rocket just long enough to light a birthday candle.
The problem seems rooted in the stats themselves, especially 0-60 times and top speed ratings. While these figures make for easy side by side comparison of two models, they actually tell very little about how a car feels to drive:
0-60: Probably the best known measure of a cars performance. People who barely know cars will ask the 0-60 time of an exotic while acting like they understand what it all means. In truth, normal driving almost never requires a quick 0-60. Even freeway on-ramps rarely give enough room or necessity to probe a cars ability in this area, especially with traffic congestion and the fact that 18-wheelers and mini-vans must be accommodated alongside those who want to see how fast they can go. A more useful figure would measure the passing speeds of 30-50, or 60-80. Knowing how quickly you can pass a truck on a two-lane road is vital information for every one of us, yet those numbers are rarely tested or archived.
Top Speed: This is the ultimate bragging right number and as useful as a retiree telling you he ran a 4 minute mile fifty years ago. Most people I’ve met have barely driven into triple digits and the vast majority have never broken 120mph. Meanwhile, the quickly shrinking unrestricted sections of the Autobahn don’t offer traffic flow or enough clear road for even the Germans to regularly reach 150. Yet, the measure of modern supercar is the ability to break 200mph. Achieving these speeds requires special locations and meticulous care, and even standing mile events around the country rarely see a stock 200mph+ car reach those speeds in the space provided.
Over the course of this show I’ve found myself more drawn to small cars with low weight and low power. I enjoyed the Corvette ZR1, for example, but much prefer the Lotus Elise. The draw for me is the intimate involvement provided by a smaller car and the ability to feel the vehicle move with the tiniest input. Because there’s nowhere to exploit a wickedly powerful car, most drives offer only a tease. A less-powerful and well balanced machine allows you to take it all the way to its limits with only a twisty road and a Sunday drive at your disposal. The old cliché applies here: It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than drive a fast car slow.
This problem has come into extreme focus with the release of the Subaru BRZ and Scion FRS. These are incredibly fun cars to drive, but the statistics are pretty embarrassing. A measly 200hp is available with torque so low that it doesn’t even make an appearance until the engine is screaming. They remind us of the departed Honda S2000, which was difficult in traffic but nearly a Lotus Elise on a back road.
Yes, these cars need more power in the same way as the Mazda MX5. They can handle more power and in high altitude or a freeway passing situation a driver will find them lacking. But like the Miata, they offer fun at any speed and the ability to drive a car at the limit while staying in the confines of most people’s existence. I guarantee you that a FRS will feel more rewarding on a twisting mountain road than any 600hp beast. It won’t be faster. It won’t scare you. Instead you’ll be able to push the car to your limits and then, like test pilot, go searching for the edges of the car’s capability without fear.
When a car is light and well balanced you can feel it moving with you, flowing like a dance partner. Heavy or imbalanced cars feel like they are going to do something you didn’t ask for, slip, bite, or step on your toes. Unfortunately, most powerful cars are also heavy cars and either feel like they might kill you, or have so many electronic aids to keep them in check that it may as well be a limo.
If you only use your car to commute, or blast down a mostly straight freeway in search of a gap between other cars, then small and light aren’t for you. A 500hp weapon can spear through traffic and create passing zones anywhere there’s daylight between bumpers. For some, this is the only interaction they have behind the wheel, but it’s actually business travel instead of driving.
Driving requires corners, weight shift, and speed maintenance. It shifts you in the seat and engages your sense of balance. A perfect corner offers the same satisfaction as nailing a dance move, dunking a basketball, or pulling a skate trick. Graceful and satisfying movement isn’t anchored in speed or even power, but in balance.
So the Awarning is this: Driving bliss isn’t measured in 0-60, top speed, or horsepower and torque… heaven is found in the feel of tire-grip through your fingers, the angle of slip you feel through your seat, and the smile that grows on your face when a great car accepts your offer to dance.
Your thoughts on the Horsepower war? How much power is enough? And do you judge a car by the 0-60 stat? Tell us in the Comments below!