TCS Daily

That's What Makes Horse Races

By Brock Yates - October 16, 2003 12:00 AM

As the national media blabs endlessly about Honda's advances in fuel-cell technology while thousands of high-minded customers line up to purchase Toyota Prius hybrid sedans, another major automotive trend looms on the horizon.


It is called horsepower; monster, road-crushing eyeball-watering, breath-stopping horsepower, that is to the environmental movement what salary caps are to the New York Stock Exchange.


We pontificate about the need to save energy and congratulate the automobile industry for gestures on behalf of hybrids and fuel cells. Yet the realities of the business are the antithesis of such lofty goals. Power and performance remain elemental, despite all the posturing in behalf of fuel economy.


Example: Mercedes-Benz is producing a CL65 AMG coupe and an SLR two-seater that develop over 600 horsepower. They match up nicely with Porsche's Carrera GT V10 rated at 604 horsepower. Ferrari's mid-engine Enzo makes 650 horsepower, costs $650,000 and runs 218 miles per hour. Lamborghini's Gallardo is also a 200 mph runner, as is the expected Audi LeMans Quattro with a claimed top speed of 214 mph.


But those numbers are positively feeble when compared to the Audi-built Bugatti Veyron that will roll out next year at $1 million a copy with a 16-cylinder engine rated at 987 hp. Not to be outdone, General Motors displayed a 16 cylinder super-sedan at the Detroit auto show last January that generates over 1000 hp. Executives have made veiled suggestions that the car might actually be produced.


But we speak not only of super-exotics priced in the mega-hundreds of thousands, but ordinary iron that also makes shocking power. Chevrolet's Corvette, Dodge's SRT10 Viper and Ford's GT super-coupe all produce over 400 horsepower and will nudge 200 miles an hour -- all for well under $100,000. Cadillac's new CTS-V sedan offers a 400 hp V8 for under 50 grand that is designed to challenge BMW's 394 hp M5 for supremacy in the world of hot four-doors.


Looking for some real steam under the hood of your SUV? Try the Porsche Cayenne, the Cadillac SRX, the Volkswagen Toureg or the Infiniti FX45, all of which offer over 300 horsepower. Dozens more can be purchased with 200 or more horses, while even midgets like the BMW-built John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S and the Subaru Impreza WRX, to name but two, will give 200 or more horses for under $30,000.


The point is, for all the chatter about gas-sipping Green machines, the automobile industry is on a power bridge: Any number of sedans and sports cars capable of top speeds at or beyond 200 miles an hour and lumpy sport-utility vehicles with enough power to haul over large-building.


This is hardly the clean-air Utopia about which enviros and their media hand-maidens rhapsodize. This seems more like tire-smoking hell on wheels.


Not quite. This horsepower madness is rather a simple reflection of technology meeting the demand for performance -- at least on paper. Much of this mega-power is pure muscle flexing on the part of manufacturers who understand that promotional glitz and glamour centers, as always, on power and speed even if it is essentially useless in the real world.


How, for example is one going to drive a 200 mph super car in the United States, even at half throttle? The American Interstates are crowded, coast to coast, Police radar and laser are fiendishly effective, meaning that even in the so-called wide-open western states, speeds are essentially held to little more than 80 mph.


In Europe only the German autobahns offer some areas with no speed limits, but increasing traffic density yielded many heavily enforced 100 kilometer (60mph) sections.


Aside from weekends spent ripping around private race tracks, the owner of a Ferrari Enzo, Viper, Corvette, etc. has little or no opportunity to run his or her car anywhere near its potential. So ownership is reduced to bragging about the car's performance but never actually demonstrating it, other than in short stop-light bursts.


Want to go fast? Buy a video game. Want to save the world? Take a bus. Want a super car? Buy it and keep it the garage to impress your friends.


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