December 4, 2012

You Don't Need A Lot of Horsepower

Imagine yourself driving a genuine vintage 1960's American muscle car with a big rumbling V8 engine.   When you push down the gas pedal you can feel it rumble as the the entire shudders.  The growl of the engine sounds like a caged monster.   You couldn't possibly need more power than that could you?   Now imagine yourself getting beat in a race with a Toyota Sienna minivan.   Because that could happen.   ( before anyone take me wrong, I'm not saying all minivans today can beat any muscle car from the 60's but a V6 Sienna could beat a 60's era muscle car with one of the smaller V8 engine options.)

Todays Minivan : Faster than a Muscle car
That was me driving the 1960's era car with a V8 when I was 17 years old.   At the time back in the 1980's I had one of the fastest cars in school.  I remember timing myself doing 0 to sixty at around 8 or 9 seconds.   But that Sienna minivan goes 0 to 60 in under 8 seconds.   At least according to the site Zero to 60 Times as well as Edmunds testing at 7.9s.

I like watching Motorweek on TV and I've been casually shopping around for my next car.   I'm struck how talk of performance and horse power has shifted over the years.   If a car has under 200 horsepower it seems as if its deemed lacking and going 0 to 60 over 9 seconds is considered poor performance.   Yet just 20 or 30 years ago these numbers would be considered good for a performance sports car.

Do we need more horsepower today than we did when I was in high school?   I don't think so.   In fact I can only recall twice in my life that I really felt I needed more horse power.   Once was driving a 1980s Dodge hatchback with a 1.7L Volkswagen engine that put out a whopping 75 horsepower.   I was trying to merge on the freeway after stopping on the shoulder and had trouble getting up to speed without getting run over.
75 horses just couldn't do it.     The other time was driving a 1996 Kia Sportage as a rental car up a hill on the freeway.   That Kia had 130 horses.     By comparison I drove a lighter Dodge Neon for many years with 132 horses and it was plenty fast and had more then enough power to sprint up that same hill at highway speeds.  My thoroughly average 2004 Toyota Camry has 157 horsepower and gets along just fine. 

That 60's muscle car had plenty of horses and in fact it felt at times like it had too much.  Yet todays modern cars are faster with more and more power.  

This report from the EPA titled Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2011 points out that as of 2010 the average horsepower was 214.   And here's an illustration from the document of the longer term trends :

As you can see cars have gotten more and more powerful and the performance has gone up at the same pace.   Todays supposedly  'sluggish' Toyota Prius would be far faster than the average car of the early 1980's in a 0 to 60 race.

Why do we need more power today?    Simply put : we don't.  People want more power but in general we do not need it. Sure its fun to drive around in a fast car with a big engine, I'm not denying that, but the idea that we 'need' more power is wrong.   Your typical subcompact or hybrid is actually plenty powerful for normal daily driving uses.

Now of course there are exceptions where more power is of real use such as heavy duty trucks for construction or towing a big boat or something like that.   But I'm thinking of the typical driver in a family sedan with over 200 horses like the 2013 Hyundai Sonata that boasts 274 horses.   Thats about 75% more power than my 2004 Camry, which is simply unnecessary.

Next time you're looking to buy a car don't get stuck in the idea that you 'need' a more powerful car.  Todays average cars have more than enough power and in fact the below average cars do too.

Personally I think the 155 hp in my Camry is just fine.    How much horse power do you think you need? 

Toyota Sienna photo by MSVG 

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