The Mile High Club

The 2006 Bugatti with the 1000 hp W18 engine.


The inexorable creep of maximum horsepower had been on my mind for some time so I had intended to write an article on this issue. But coincidentally, the Obama administration issued the final set of CAFÉ rules that sets the 2025 standard at 54.5mpg. This dovetailed very nicely with the original intent of my post since they are essentially two sides of a coin. 

It has been amply clear that since the end of the last fuel crisis in the seventies, cars have been getting steadily more powerful and heavier while keeping their fuel consumption constant or maybe even a little on the downward slope. So engineering advances have been used to boost power rather than reduce fuel consumption. This has happened mainly because

1.       The CAFÉ rules stayed stagnant in the eighties, nineties and early two thousands.
2.       Gas prices stayed relatively constant or crept up very slowly. There wasn’t much political appetite for reigning in fuel consumption nor increasing the gas tax.

Actual and projected fuel economy for new cars by country.
Source – marketingcharts.com


When gas prices suddenly peaked in 2008 sending gas prices over $4 per gallon, the American consumer suddenly woke up to the wisdom of conserving fuel. This is quite a contrast from the rest of the world, where fuel prices have been more realistic and in proportion to their real cost – including the cost of putting the byproducts of combustion into the atmosphere.  There is no doubt about it. Even at $3 ~ $4 per gallon, I doubt if it causes real pain to the American consumer. Anecdotally, I have seen drivers let their cars idle while they fuel up on the de rigueur Starbucks latte or while helicopter parents drop their rugrats to daycare. Looks at the cop cars too. American Police prefer a super sized V8 saloon while their counterparts across the pond are content to drive mid sized Opel Vectras or Ford Mondeos. 

Kudos to the current Obama administration for racheting up CAFE. The previous adminstration didn’t do much to improve CAFE. Well, it pretty hard to discipline someone who is in bed with you!
So how much power do you really need. Well, according to the marketing folks, it’s never enough. But the figures have reached absurd levels. Maybe they should take a page from the Rolls Royce brochure which used to say that horsepower was ‘adequate’. 

I remember, when I learned to drive twenty years back in a Premier Padmini née the 1967 Fiat 1100 D, the car made only 40 hp from an ancient pushrod four banger. Fast forward to the 21st century and I find most C segment cars making 160 hp plus. Over four times. I am sure I don’t reach my destination in a quarter of the time. Indeed, we have reached a point where the curve of diminishing returns has become asymptotic. This is just about the mundane everyman’s cars. In the case of sports cars, this orgy of wretched excess (horsepower) borders on the ridiculous. I am not surprised that the latest Ferrari makes in excess of 700 hp. But even the relatively more affordable Ford Mustang also breaches 400 hp. Oh – and I almost forgot about the Bugatti Veyron. It broke through the 1000 hp limit back in 2006. The 2012  Veyron 16.4 can muster only 1200 hp. 

Hp, curb weight, power to weight ratio and fuel economy trends for some popular vehicles in the US. Source – edmunds.com, kbb.com

Only the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Subaru BRZ make sense to me as sports cars. The rest all are about a man’s caveman instinct to boast that his club is bigger than the next guy’s.

It seemed to me that a person’s common sense would be the only real limit on horsepower and that has already been disproved time and again. Hallelujah!
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