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Horsepower wars: When is it too much?

by Michael Volkmann on

As the dust starts to settle on the excitement over the new Challenger Hellcat, I began to wonder about the American obsession for the “Horsepower Wars.”

We live in a time where regulation is forcing big changes in gas mileage and emissions, yet we are in the golden age of super-efficient power.  It is absolutely amazing, but let’s take a step back.

By the end of the year, the Big Three will be producing no less than six vehicles that have over 550 horsepower:

  • Camaro ZL1
  • Mustang Shelby GT500
  • Corvette Z06
  • Challenger Hellcat (probably to be accompanied by a Charger Hellcat)
  • Cadillac CTS-V
  • Dodge Viper

But it gets better than that; worldwide, there are roughly 70 cars on sale today that make over 500hp.  When have we hit “horsepower” ceiling? When is enough, enough?

In 2004, I purchased a new Neon SRT-4, and to this day it is still one of my favorite cars.  I had a younger friend who purchased a 2004 Mustang Cobra at the same time.  After a few mods, this car was legitimately making well over 500hp to the rear wheels.  He was an okay driver, but young.  The car was more than he needed, probably more than he could handle, but he had money in his pocket.  I had a few opportunities to drive the car and I still vividly remember the night I was driving it and my friends were just amazed that I was able to handle the car in ways that owner was struggling with.  The car ended up head-on in the concrete divider of the interstate after the owner lost control; thankfully, he was not injured.

What’s the point of the story?  Do we really need cars with well over 550hp?  Heck, well over 400hp?  Look, I’m a diehard Mopar fanatic.  I love these cars.  I have road raced, drag raced, and autocrossed Mopars.  I’m all about performance, but 550+hp street cars???  For real?

I remember when 350-400hp street cars were monsters with big lopey idles and traction problems.  Even in the late 80s/early 90s, when the Fox-body Mustang was king, a high 13 second or faster car in the quarter was difficult to use as a street car.  They had dim headlights from under drive pulleys and had to constantly be tinkered with.  I’m having painful flash backs of burning EPROMs for Mustangs as you read this.  Flash forward to today and I drive a mildly modified, mid 12 second Challenger R/T to work every day with the A/C on and the Boston Acoustics playing Def Leopard as if it was a docile family sedan.   This car is easier to drive than my stone stock 1996 Neon ACR was when new.

Think I’m nuts?  The horsepower war has really been going since the mid-1980s.  Due to the gas crisis, the speed limit was lowered and the major auto companies downsized cars and engines starting in the late 1970s.  In 1980 the average car did 0-60 right at about 13.0 seconds.  If a car company offered a vehicle like that today, there would be riots in the street about how terribly slow and unsafe that is.

Starting about 1985, that average was moving slowly down as electronic fuel injection and other technologies became more widely used.  Performance cars were starting to flourish with Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros, turbo Dodges, and even a few performance imports getting popular.  By the early 2000s, the average was around 10 seconds.

Then, not long after Dominic Toretto told Brian O’Connor that he owed Dom a 10 second car, the crazy acceleration of the “Horsepower Wars” ignited like a bomb going off.  We are now in a world where 8 seconds is the average 0-60 time and the common mid-size family sedan and minivan now have 250-300hp (double the horsepower they had in the early 1990s and far above the average 1970s V8) with their base engines.

I just mentioned common mid-size family sedans… they are not muscle cars.  How can they be part of the horsepower wars?  Oh, but they are.  As our addiction to horsepower has grown in our muscle cars, it has also grown in our bread and butter cars and trucks, even minivans (the Caravan does 0-60 in 8 seconds or less).  The 180hp Dart has been criticized as being “too slow” (it isn’t!) and we now have pickup trucks being sold with 850ft-lb of torque.  I see it daily in Texas, big diesel Rams and Fords being used as “the family truckster.”   These turbocharged beasts can literally rip the asphalt, but rarely pull all of a few thousand pounds.  Kids buy these trucks used and drive them as if they were muscle cars, with black smoke pouring out of them every time they mash the gas.

The truth is, the average owner will never, ever really use the power these cars have… at least not legally, on the street.  For that matter, many of these cars will be sold to baby boomers reliving their youth, and that really is not a bad thing.  But when does reality hit?  When do we realize that this is getting a bit absurd?

The childish necessity to one-up each other and/or compare manhood is prevalent everywhere.  It is also one of the reasons why we have eight, nine, and now ten speed transmissions either today or available soon.  We do it all in the name of efficiency, right?  Suuuuurrrrre we do, wink wink.

I won’t lie; I’ll probably be one of the first in line to pick up a “gently used” Hellcat from someone who got in over their head.  Just remember, at the end of the day, we only need roughly 60-80hp to cruise up and down the highway at 65 mph.

Michael Volkmann, a mechanical engineer in the steel industry, has autocrossed, road-raced, and drag-raced his 1971 Duster 340, 2009 Challenger R/T, and Neons. He currently races sprint karts. 

Michael Volkmann, a mechanical engineer in the steel industry, autocrossed and road-raced Neons. Michael has drag raced his 1971 Duster 340, 2009 Challenger R/T, and Neons, of which he’s owned seven — one SRT4, three ACRs, and three Sport Coupes.

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