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Power to the people

January 17, 2005


High horsepower is back -- with a vengeance. It seems as if nobody wants to take the "slow lane'' anymore -- if a slow lane can even be found in a country where vehicles zip along at 70-75 mph once away from rush hour traffic.

Powerful cars and trucks are highlighted at this year's autos shows, including the big Chicago Auto Show, which runs Feb. 11-20.

"Market research and buying habits of motorists suggest that people want more horsepower for all types of vehicles, and they're being given what they want,'' said Mike Flynn, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

The horsepower race is reminiscent of the muscle car era of the 1960s and early 1970s, when American automakers continually increased horsepower of high-volume youth-oriented muscle cars to outdo rivals. Nearly all American automakers, including Buick, sold muscle cars.

This time around, horsepower increases are seen from both domestic and foreign automakers for both muscle and conventional vehicles

Many old muscle cars are considered classics and sell for shockingly high prices, considering the low amounts they went for just several years ago. For instance, 1960s Pontiac GTOs are topping $40,000 and 1960s Ford Shelby Mustangs cost more than $80,000. While such cars are colorful and especially attractive to older baby boomers who fondly remember them, their main attraction is powerful V-8s, because their suspensions, brakes and tires aren't up to modern standards.

For example, the new GTO coupe not only has a 400-horsepower V-8 -- up from 350 in last year's model -- but steers and handles much like a sports car.

The GTO costs about $32,000. But another new muscle car, the redesigned 300-horsepower Ford Mustang GT coupe, lists at $24,370 because it lacks such things as the GTO's independent rear suspension. But the Mustang GT is the least expensive 300-horsepower new car you can buy and is nearly as fast as the GTO to 100 mph --partly because it's lighter.

High-horsepower engines always were special because they were in the most costly, glamorous autos, such as Duesenbergs, until 1949, when American automakers began using new, high-compression V-8s.

The expensive 1955 Chrysler C300 had an awesome 300-horsepower "Hemi'' V-8, introduced in 1951. But that year's Chevrolet also was pretty fast with its smaller-but-potent new V-8, which Chevy heavily used as a marketing tool.

Then, as now, automakers utilize higher-horsepower engines to distinguish themselves from rivals.

"Automakers have run the distance with features, such as comfort and safety items,'' said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. "Higher horsepower draws attention and makes for safer performance when merging or passing.

"And, with such features as cylinder deactivation, when certain cylinders aren't needed to maintain a cruising speed, you no longer suffer the fuel-economy penalty of old high-horsepower engines, which lacked today's advanced electronics.''

Importantly, high-tech features such as skid- and traction-control systems are making high-horsepower cars much safer to drive than they once were. Some are offered with all-wheel drive for better road grip.

Chevrolet recently introduced a special 500-horsepower Corvette model that tops its standard new 400-horsepower model, which has 50 more horsepower than the 2004 Corvette.

A Corvette is expected to have lots of power, and even last year's 'Vette had sizzling acceleration. However, Chevy wasn't about to let rival DaimlerChrysler's 500-horsepower Dodge Viper outdo it.

Even Honda notes that its fuel-saving Accord Hybrid gasoline-electric sedan has 255 horsepower, compared with the 240-horsepower V-6 in its highest-horsepower regular Accord. While it gets better fuel economy, the hybrid Accord is faster than the regular Accord.

Even base four- and six-cylinder engines in mainstream cars and trucks are getting more power. For instance, the 2005 Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle has a standard 2.3-liter, 153-horsepower four-cylinder engine that replaces last year's 2-liter, 127-horsepower four-cylinder.

A strong selling feature of Nissan's redesigned 2002 Altima sedan was its 175-horsepower base four-cylinder engine, which had 20 more horsepower than its predecessor's four-cylinder. A 240-horsepower V-6 was offered, but those who didn't want to spend extra for the V-6 version had plenty of performance with the four-cylinder version, which looked the same as the more costly model.

"Smart marketers know the auto industry goes in waves, and good ones saw the move to higher horsepower some time ago,'' said auto analyst Ray Windecker of Michigan's American Autodatum.

"Everyone used to brag about such things as front-wheel drive. Today, everyone brags about 0-60 mph acceleration times'' Windecker said. ""People eventually tire of moving in a herd like lemmings and want something new. As for hybrids, people like their environmental aspects but don't want them to be underpowered and insipid. Honda obviously knows that.''

DaimlerChrysler is scoring big with its new Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, partly because it offers them with a modern 340-horsepower version of its 1955 Hemi V-8, which has power producing hemispherical combustion chambers.

The Hemi, which has a fuel-saving cylinder deactivation feature, provides striking performance -- although that's not stopping Chrysler from offering a 425-horsepower version of the engine later this year. It moves the big, two-ton 300 from 0-60 mph in merely 4.9 seconds.

Prestigious European automakers are especially concerned about having the highest horsepower ratings for their expensive four-seat production coupes and sedans -- not to mention their two-seat sports cars.

Jaguar offers a posh, supercharged 390-horsepower V-8 sedan, but Germany's BMW and Mercedes-Benz have special high-performance/race vehicle divisions that produce limited, extremely high horsepower versions of nearly all production models. It's a matter of national pride as to which German cars have the most power.

On the domestic front, Ford and Chrysler have similar high-performance vehicle divisions, and General Motors is busy developing high-horsepower versions of once-staid Cadillac production models to attract younger buyers. Even the Pontiac Bonneville finally has gotten a V-8 after years of having nothing but V-6s.

Not to be left behind, Japan's automakers are offering high-horsepower family cars. And, naturally, sports car producers from Mazda to Porsche and Ferrari are offering more power.

Where will it end? Insurance companies, which largely killed the old muscle cars, no longer strictly regard horsepower as a red flag that triggers higher rates -- at least not yet.

"The typical person can't afford most high-horsepower cars until they're in their 40s and 50s, when they're a much better risk than young drivers with muscle cars such as a GTO were in the 1960s,'' Taylor said.
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