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Posted on Fri, Jan. 07, 2005​

Automakers in overdrive

Horsepower is in vogue at L.A., Detroit shows

By JONATHAN WELSH The Wall Street Journal​

After years of trying to sell cars by touting creature comforts such as quiet interiors, heated leather steering wheels and electronic gadgetry, carmakers are shifting their attention. The new focus is brute force.

The result will be an influx in coming months of new models with giant engines and 0-to-60 mph acceleration times that as recently as a few years ago would have been available only to people driving, say, a Ferrari.

As the North American International Automobile Show opens this weekend in Detroit, engine envy will be a dominant theme. Cadillac plans to unveil the STS-V, a souped-up version of its top-of-the-line luxury sedan featuring big wheels, wide tires and a supercharged engine. Mercedes will show its coming CLS55, a big four-door with a 469-horsepower engine. Ford Motor Co. unit Land Rover will introduce a 2006 Range Rover sport-utility vehicle with 38 percent more power than the current model.

Certainly there are other production models and show vehicles to be seen in Detroit and at this week's Los Angeles Auto Show. Although demand in the U.S. market is expected to be relatively stable this year, the number of new models vying for consumer attention will expand rapidly as Japanese automakers continue their push into truck and SUV markets once dominated by Detroit and as the traditional Detroit brands fight to be taken seriously again in the sedan market.

Among the models that will be displayed in Detroit are the B9X, a seven-passenger vehicle from Subaru, a division of Fuji Heavy Industries; a Saturn roadster designed to spice up that General Motors Corp. brand's stodgy image; and a Mini, made by BMW, aimed at the vast majority of Americans that only know how to drive a car with an automatic transmission.

But horsepower will be the common denominator at the shows. BMW will unveil its 10-cylinder, 507-horsepower M5 sedan at the Detroit show and plans to use the same engine in next year's M6, a hopped-up version of its 645i coupe. The Dodge and Chrysler divisions of DaimlerChrysler AG are expected to show four new models, including a station wagon, with engines that generate more than 400 horsepower. The company is unveiling a concept car, the Firepower, a 425-horsepower two-seater that a company official described as a possible rival to the Chevrolet Corvette in a year or so.

The current popularity of high-powered cars is particularly notable amid higher gasoline prices and the accompanying slippage in the popularity of other fuel-thirsty vehicles, such as SUVs. Official mileage numbers for many of the new cars aren't available yet, but don't be surprised if some get only eight or nine miles to the gallon around town. That also exposes some of these vehicles to gas-guzzler surcharges.

One important force driving the trend toward more power is consumer demand for cars that have more safety technology, such as side-curtain air bags, and more entertainment gadgets, such as onboard video systems. The cushier the car, the heavier it tends to be.

The Bentley Continental GT's weight of more than 5,200 pounds (more than two Honda Civics) makes its 552-horsepower engine seem like nothing special.

When even some entry-level cars offer heated seats and satellite navigation systems, power and speed are the closest things carmakers have to a guarantee of attracting attention. Engine technology allows them to set their products apart from rivals. The latest alloys and electronic engine controls let engines run faster, longer and more efficiently while generating previously unheard-of levels of power.

Entering the horsepower arms race can also be done quickly — by putting bigger engines in existing models, as Chrysler has done with the 300C sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon. It takes far less time and money than designing a new car from scratch.

“Adding horsepower is a relatively cheap way” to sell cars, said Jeremy Anwyl, president of researcher Edmunds.com.

Other cars making their U.S. debuts in Detroit and Los Angeles show how what was considered a lot of power a few years ago isn't nearly enough today. Pontiac's GTO, a modern interpretation of a 1960s muscle car, flopped last year in part because its 350-horsepower V-8 didn't seem that impressive. This year, the GTO is getting a boost to 400 horsepower. Even Fiat unit Ferrari had to boost horsepower of its new model, the F430, to 480 from the mere 400 put out by its predecessor, the 360.

By the end of this year there will be at least 23 car and truck models on the U.S. market with 10- and 12-cylinder engines, more than double the number in 2003. At least 18 models will have 500 horsepower, compared with four in 2003. In 2003, cars with eight-cylinder engines made up 29 percent of the market, the highest percentage since 1985.

But it is the fastest and most powerful vehicles that automakers are pushing the hardest, because while they aren't necessarily manufactured in great numbers, they have a halo effect, generating interest and drawing potential customers into showrooms.

Many mainstream four- and six-cylinder cars are getting more power, too. The typical family car used to get by with 200 horsepower or less. Now 240 or more is the norm. And the main selling point for Honda's recently launched six-cylinder Accord hybrid gas-electric sedan isn't just the fuel economy. It is the vehicle's 255-horsepower output, compared with 240 for a regular Accord.

The escalation is likely to continue, because makers keep raising the bar.

“I think 1,000 horsepower seems to be the magic number now,” said Bruce Harrison, an analyst with research company Global Insight.

By contrast, a typical NASCAR race car is equipped with an engine that produces upward of 750 horsepower.

If all the one-upping in power among carmakers sounds familiar, it is because it has happened before. In the late 1960s — the muscle car era — U.S. manufacturers raced to see which could build the most powerful cars. The Chevrolet Chevelles, Plymouth Barracudas and Ford Fairlane GTs that competed for customers eventually got too powerful, too fuel-thirsty and, in the estimation of insurance companies, too dangerous.

By 1970, there were a number of street cars developing 500 horsepower and running 12-second quarter miles, but the following year horsepower began a long slide that ended about 1980. Some industry watchers say the same thing might happen to the current crop of fast machines.

“People think the muscle cars died out because of high fuel prices in the 1970s, but they were actually killed by skyrocketing insurance premiums,” said McKeel Hagerty, president of Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in policies for collectible and special-interest cars. “Looking at today's high-performance cars, I'd say it's just a matter of time before it happens again.”

But John Rollins, a consulting actuary specializing in auto insurance in Gainesville, Fla., says the insurance industry uses a different set of rules for setting premiums now compared with the 1970s, and that could give drivers a break, at least for a while.

“We no longer assume that a red Corvette with a big engine is inherently risky,” he said. Insurers have ratcheted up their reliance on statistical models instead of intuition.

Indeed, Rollins says companies in the past decade or so almost completely eliminated the old risk-assessment standards left over from the muscle car era.

The Chrysler Firepower concept car and
its 425-horsepower engine could be
a rival to the Corvette in another year.

Even some models of the once-staid
station wagon have gone high-powered.
This year's Dodge Magnum R/T comes in
a souped-up version costing about $40,000.
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