"Upwards of 200 horsepower is practically expected today. And there are cars with 300 h.p., 400 h.p. and more. In my humble opinion, that’s crazy. There’s not a car on the road that truly needs more than 200 h.p. Most cars would be fine with a lot less."
"We’ve gone horsepower crazy." Ray Magliozzi, co-host of NPR’s "Car Talk."
These opinions appeared in a syndicated newspaper column this week in major newspapers across the U.S.A. The Magliozzis, better known as "Click and Clack–the Tappet Brothers" hold themselves out to be "expert" automobilists to millions of unsuspecting "non-car" people in print, radio and on the internet. (See http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=2100834 . See also http://www.cartalk.com/)
"Click and Clack" are a couple of aging MIT graduates from the 1960s hippie generation who parlayed their "Good News Garage" and Tom Magliozzi’s flare for marketing into a long-time auto repair and comedy gig on Boston public radio. Almost ten years ago, they became nationally-known through syndication.
Only in America can virtually anyone become an "expert."
Yet the Tappet Brothers are representative of that "automobiles-as-appliances" mentality which grips much of the elitist Coastal intellectual subculture in the U.S. (and all the little satellite pockets of it spread near colleges nationwide). The average "Car Talk" listener probably takes every syllable of the automotive articles in Consumer Reports (R) as the sine qua non on motoring. Similarly, Click and Clack seldom, if ever, recommend one of the Detroit 3's vehicles to any of their customers. They often wail on the profligate wastefulness of trucks and SUVs (of course there aren’t too many opportunities to haul hay, go rock crawling or tow a race car around Beantown).
But, as the lead quotes indicate, they save their sharpest criticism for anything that smacks of high-performance.
One only wonders what sarcastic vitriol they’d produce at the thought of Ford Motor Company’s 500-horsepower 2007 Shelby GT500. Or what one full-throttle blast in a GT500 would do to Click and Clack’s undoubtedly atrophied neck muscles–which are more tuned to putting around in "sensible" sub-200 h.p. economy cars while avoiding falling chunks of Boston's "Big Dig" fiasco (if their personal lifestyles match their rhetoric, that is)
Automotive News Executive Editor Edward M. Lapham (www.autonews.com) wrote this week that:
"Who in these United States would honestly prefer a wimpy car that can't get out of its own way, no matter how great the mileage is?"
Click and Clack seem to be the obvious answers to Edward Lapham’s rhetorical question.
Lapham continued: " Face it. Horsepower is like sex. Once you've experienced it, you want more. And you can't imagine doing without it."
Of course, this probably goes a long way in explaining the Magliozzi Brothers.
But let’s evaluate their argument.
(Think of this as the same sort of argument you got from the captain of the chess club in back in high school, who proudly scooted around in a wheezing VW Beetle or Fiat 124 or Geo Metro or bone-stock Honda Civic, while all the "irresponsible" kids hung out in V8 Mustangs, Camaros, GTOs and other "bitchin’" "hot rods, "muscle cars" or "tuner whips")
Click and Clack are correct that since the 1980s, increased weight in our cars and trucks has required escalation of horsepower outputs just to keep pace. Some of the weight increase is due to increased structural stiffness and the proliferation of active safety technologies (airbags, ABS, stability control, etc.), which actually improves safety over the willowy flyweight automobiles common in the 1980s. But Click and Clack correctly observe that much of the weight increase is driven by market demand for more luxury and convenience features.
Weight, of course, is a much greater enemy to fuel economy than horsepower. Not only is weight a larger influence on economy than engine output, it’s also ever-present. Horsepower potential, on the other hand, uses little extra fuel unless the "foot feed" is mostly or fully depressed (which is only about 3-4% of the time for most motorists). This ought to be obvious to anyone who has carefully studied the specifications of a 28-m.p.g. Chevrolet Corvette.
But in the modern context, is 200 horsepower the magic number, above which lies wretched excess? Could most cars safely get by with even less?
And why even 200? The aerodynamic efficiency of most cars and trucks is such that the "road load" is only about 15-30 h.p. in a steady-state cruise at highway speeds. In gridlocked, stop-and-go traffic, a five-horsepower riding lawn tractor could keep up.
And Henry Ford’s Model T only needed about 22 horsepower to put "America on wheels." Before the high-compression Kettering-style OHV V8 took over in the 1950s, American cars commonly had only 60-150 horsepower, while often weighing as much as two tons.
Could it be that even Click and Clack are also "crazy" about horsepower, albeit at a much more modest level? Or is the problem more complex than their simple sloganeering suggests.
Assume an average curb weight of 3300 pounds for a "sensible" sedan with enough interior volume for four American adults to comfortably travel more than an hour. If equipped with a 200 horsepower engine, the power-to-weight ratio is about 16.5 pounds for every horsepower. Such a car ought to be able to run a standing-start quarter mile in the low-fifteen second range at around 90-93 m.p.h. Zero-to-sixty will probably be in the 8-10 second range, depending on a number of factors.
Respectable, but nothing that will cause one to lie awake at nights.
But add in four 200-pound adults, a couple hundred pounds of luggage and 90 or so pounds of fuel and the power-to-weight ratio plummets to 22 pounds per horsepower. Quarter mile times may drop to as low as the seventeen second range, with the car struggling to reach the 80 m.p.h. mark in a reasonable distance.
Obviously, the loaded 200 h.p. car will be driveable, as such underpowered cars were in the 1970s. But the margin for acceleration in an emergency situation will precariously small. And many highway on-ramps and cloverleafs will have far too short of an acceleration area for this car to safely merge at the prevailing speed. This could force our loaded 200 h.p. car’s driver to take unnecessary risks, such as stopping at the end of the on-ramp or forcing his way into the flow of traffic at less than prevailing speeds.
Add in another thousand pounds of weight (as would be common with a number of current models) and the problem just gets worse.
To live under a "200 h.p. or less" cap, automobile engineers would either have to sacrifice performance or dramatically cut weight. Both options have potential adverse consequences for safety, durability and consumer choice.
In the hands of a properly-trained driver, a high-performance car is safer than an underpowered schlub of an appliance. That’s because more power creates more options to escape from potentially-dangerous situations. A driver of an underpowered car can only swerve, nail the brakes, and hope for the best. If someone running a stop sign is about to t-bone you while you’re in the middle of an intersection, hitting the brakes may not be your best option. The "Blessed Mother of Acceleration" gives you another meaningful choice, as millions have already discovered.
Moreover, a higher power-to-weight ratio gives a car more flexibility. Instead of having to "work" to keep up with traffic or to "make time" on a challenging drive, a more powerful car can allow a driver to arrive more refreshed and less fatigued. Over the course of a long motor trip, this may substantially increase the margin of safety.
A higher-power-to-weight ratio also makes a car more forgiving to drive. Low-powered cars require maximum attention to conservation of momentum in order to avoid unforseen bottlenecks and dangerously "getting hung out" in traffic. This is even more of a factor in manual transmission cars, which depend on the driver selecting the correct gear at the correct time. Sadly, not everyone pays full attention, and even the best drivers make mistakes. A more powerful car provides a reserve for a skilled driver to "drive out" of tense situations with minimal risks.
In summary, the choice as to whether one needs 200 or even 500 horsepower shouldn’t be made by bureaucrats, paternalistic environmentalists or even self-appointed know-it-alls babbling on public radio. It ought to be a market choice left up to consumers.