Spannerhead Dot

Hoping for Détente

July 15, 2011 by Matt

HP Wars

“Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.”

—The President of the United Federation of Planets, Star Trek VI

Star Trek geekery meets car geekery. Worlds collide. And implode.

In all seriousness, this will be a rare instance of an admitted car junkie arguing for less power. You see, the so-called horsepower wars are really getting out of hand. The examples are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that the average high-end sports sedan nowadays needs at least at much power as the average supercar from 25 years ago just to be taken seriously. Case in point: The Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959 wowed the automotive world in the ’80s with mid 4-second 0-60 times and horsepower in the mid-400s. Now, a typical top-of-the-line sports sedan supposedly needs to post those numbers just to compete with its peers.

Great, you say. Technology is making it easier and easier to extract greater amounts of power from essentially the same weight and volume of material. What’s the downside?

Well, there are a few. First in my mind is the increasing isolation of the driver from any semblance of his car’s limits. What I mean is that with the growth in performance, be it in the areas of cornering, braking or acceleration, the car’s limits are pushed farther and farther from the realm of normal, everyday driving. So what’s the problem? Doesn’t it make a car safer in that it will finally lose control far beyond a point where most drivers will push it? Yes and no. While that might be true, when the limits do finally come, and they will, the car will be traveling at a far greater clip than it would otherwise, with a greater potential for damage and injury. Let’s not forget that part of what makes many cars fun to drive is the sense that we could stab the throttle and step the tail out just a little on a winding back-country road, coupled with the knowledge that the car is moving slow enough that we could reel it back in if we had to. The margin of safety that makes such an event fun as opposed to dangerous is thinner and thinner with each increase in tire width and power under the hood.

Next, in spite of the fact that we’ve seen a massive increase in horsepower, average gas mileage hasn’t risen nearly as dramatically. I’ll be the last person to argue for mileage standards imposed from the top down, but when the engineering and materials improvements are directed at increasing power as opposed to efficiency, it’s illustrative of where the automakers’ priorities are, namely raw numbers over efficiency and driver involvement.

That brings me to the last, greatest downside to the horsepower wars: The prioritization of the spec sheet over more intangible factors like engaging the driver. If I had grown up in the past 10 years or so, and only known and appreciated enthusiast cars from the era of big horsepower, I would wonder how on earth anyone in their right mind could have had fun driving, say, an ’85 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE, whose engine cranked out barely 134 hp. And yet, Car and Driver wrote about it:

Light of weight. Beautifully balanced. Absolutely pure in its purpose of rewarding the driver with unfiltered feedback. With modern tires and a little tweaking to engine and suspension, this is the ultimate ‘I’m going to blast some canyons and don’t try to stop me’ road carver. It won’t become a breathless collectible, but on a cool night when the world oppresses the spirit, this RX-7 revives the soul.

The reason they could write such plaudits is that Mazda, and many automakers before the horsepower wars, recognized, perhaps out of necessity, that there was more to a car than the amount of tire smoke it could generate on command. The limits of the cars were lower; there was less brute power to entice the driver away from becoming attuned to the way the steering felt, or the brakes responded. When the music is turned up to the point where it becomes a drone of white noise, subtleties and textures that give the music its character are much harder to discern. Same with cars.

I believe a “de-militarization” of the sports car arena is needed. Automakers need to take a deep breath and announce that the next iteration of a particular model will have *gulp* less power than the outgoing model. But in that same breath, they can hopefully also announce that its weight is lighter, it’s more efficient, and most significantly, that it’s more fun to drive. That lowering of the bandwidth would improve the cars we drive by bringing them back into focus for the average driver, and bring the driver up by encouraging and rewarding his involvement of in the act of driving. Win-win.

Editor’s note: H/t to Evan from for the inspiration for this article.

Filed under: Car Industry


  1. John D says:

    The day has finally come. It’s a sad day, a day of regret, a day of remorse. A day when I look ahead and ponder what could have been. This is the day when we, at long last, disagree. (Well…sort of.)

    I agree with most of your arguments as to why more horsepower is not necessarily a good thing. I see the logic. The mature me has experienced this phenomena when a car is almost too powerful, too quick to stab you in the back if driven anywhere near it’s limit on the street or track. In some ways a car can actually be more fun to drive when you can put the hammer down and not worry about the axe murderer that lives under the bonnet, disguised as an engine. And yet…I can never bring myself to assert that any car should have less horsepower than it does. To do so would be sacrilege. The tiny little part of my brain that thrills in knowing the fact that the merest twitch of the right foot could send the car to light speed (or into the nearest tree, depending on your judgement) will not let me concede the point. Ever. Hence, our disagreement.

    Part of me knows you are right, but the other part will never surrender (no matter how many valid points you make). So there we go. I am at an impasse with myself. I guess I can’t worry too much about our little disagreement. It’s not really between you and me…you just took sides in an internal conflict that I am perpetually having with myself. Apparently we are in agreement, as well. So I guess it’s not such a sad day after all. ;)

    • Matt says:

      Oh, we’ve disagreed before. I tried unsuccessfully to talk you out of the PFS whale-tail on your FD for years, as I recall. :)

      That said, I’m glad, um, a part of you agrees. :) And truth be told, my whole rant could all just be sour grapes, attributes made up and emphasized by those of us who can’t afford the big horsepower cars. So we all just shrug our shoulders and tell you high rollers you don’t know what you’re missing in driving a cheap, low HP car. :)

      But…there is a reason Mazda never increased the Miata’s HP nearly as much as it could have over the years. And that classic British sports cars still have a cult following even though most of them are biblically slow. Conscious decisions by their makers not to stuff as much power as they could under the hood, I’m convinced. There’s something to it.

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