Never mind the '60s: Today's the heyday for horsepower

By Jayson Jacoby February 17, 2012 08:39 am

Wasn't so long ago that "hybrid" was used most often to describe either certain canines of a wolf-like nature, or fast-growing poplar trees.

Today, of course, when we see that word we think first of cars.

Many of these, including the ubiquitous Toyota Prius, are thrifty runabouts. They sport cute little carbon footprints and are festooned with badges and decals invariably rendered in green and incorporating, in some fashion, the prefix "eco."

Conspicuously absent, or understated, in the advertisements for these models is a measurement that used to be foremost in many customers' minds.

Horsepower.

Automakers, ever conscious of their image, are increasingly reluctant even to acknowledge that their products produce, and therefore consume, power.

Particularly since the vast majority of automobiles built since Karl Benz was in the business rely on non-renewable sources of energy to get around.

It's better to imply that cars merely waft along, propelled by the clean breeze and expelling from their tailpipes only pure spring water.

This tendency to emphasize the benign, responsible nature of the modern car might suggest that a bygone era, when many drivers relished their ride's ability to burn rubber rather than kilowatts, is well and truly gone.

To this notion the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 thumbs its 580-horsepower supercharged V-8 engine.

And Ford's Shelby GT500 chimes in with the internal combustion equivalent of flipping the bird — revving to redline the 650-horsepower mill that'll push this mightiest Mustang to 202 mph.

Because here's the thing: The current trend toward automotive meekness is shadowed by a menacing doppelganger.

This delinquent wears black leather, smokes unfiltered Camels and hangs around pool halls.

Or, more aptly, drag strips and road-racing courses.

It is a testament to the advanced state of the carmakers' art that, at the same time the industry is rushing to prop new models above the 40 mpg bar, teams of engineers in corporate offices from Detroit to Munich, Dearborn to Yokohama, conceive vehicles that make the speediest models of past decades seem downright sluggish.

The Car and Driver magazine that arrived in my mailbox recently brandished this headline: "The Horsepower Ain't Dead Issue."

Cars, in fact, have never been so lively, as far as horsepower goes.

Consider that Camaro.

Thirty years ago the brawniest version of Chevy's pony car boasted 165 horsepower. That's 28 percent the output of the ZL1's engine.

Today the base models of pedestrian family sedans such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry make more than 165 horsepower.

They'd beat that wheezy '82 Camaro down the quarter-mile.

And they'd burn less gas on the way.

This last feat, by the way, probably ranks as the most impressive the carbuilders have pulled off during this horsepower renaissance.

Building a powerful engine is comparatively simple.

Detroit put millions of torque-rich V-8s into everything from muscle cars to station wagons during the 1950s, '60s and early '70s.

Those cars had another thing in common beside cylinder count and overhead valves: a prodigious thirst for high-test.

During that era, no one expected to get 20 miles to the gallon.

And no one cared, what with gas going for about 35 cents a gallon.

That period is sometimes celebrated, with the pall of murkiness that nostalgia often casts, as an apex of automotive performance — those halcyon days before OPEC and the EPA and assorted other alphabet soup entities hobbled America with catalytic converters and $25 fill-ups.

These rosy memories were accurate enough for quite a few years.

From the mid-1970s through Reagan's first term, American cars were indeed weaklings.

Their dismal performance was especially disappointing because many models that earned their tire-shredding reputation in years past carried their name forward. It was rather like an aging boxer, his once-taut muscles gone to flab, who totters into the ring wearing silk trunks of the identical color he donned when he held the title.

The aforementioned Camaro is but one of the famous monikers that endured many years of embarrassment.

(Check out what had happened to the Chevy Nova by the Bicentennial if you're skeptical.)

But the horsepower slide ended about the time disco reached its zenith (coincidence? I think not).

In the past 30 years, average horsepower has climbed steadily and, some years back, surpassed the late '60s benchmark.

A 2012 Corvette will embarrass any of that era's legendary muscle cars in a drag race.

Or any race, come to that.

Yet this dynamometer duel has been leavened by more than a dash of ecological awareness.

That new Vette can also squeeze up to 30 highway miles from a gallon of unleaded.

And it's quiet enough, when you're gentle with the throttle, that you can enjoy your MP3 collection.

Good luck plugging your iPod into the 8-track player in a Hemi Cuda.

When it comes to the automotive landscape here in the second decade of the 21st century, my advice is to forget about congested urban freeways.

(They're especially easy to forget when the nearest one is 120 miles away.)

Ignore the prospect of 4-buck gas slinking back.

This is the best time in history to have a driver's license.

The crop of cars parked on dealers' lots today constitute the safest, fastest, most reliable and efficient fleet ever.

The breadth of options is very nearly sinful.

Looking for an unobtrusive transportation appliance that is frugal with finite resources but can take you across the country in comfort?

Buy a Prius.

Or a Volt.

Or any of a host of models with similar attributes.

They're great cars, all of them.

But if you care as much about how a car makes you feel as you do its ability to haul you from here to there, your palette of choices is equally wide.

This is a wonderful thing.

For most of us, and I include myself, something along the prosaic lines of the Prius is the ideal tool for most jobs.

(Which is why Toyota can hardly build the things fast enough.)

Of course a plain screwdriver is a useful device too. Yet sometimes, while I'm engaged in some sort of assembly that requires a good deal of twisting, I daydream of swapping the effective, but boring, implement for something with a little more heart.

A variable-speed drill driver, for instance.

Or a Camaro ZL1, if I could figure out how to fit a Phillips head attachment to its flywheel.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.