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Horsepower race raging among automakers (US story)

The fact that Volkswagen has a new 270-horsepower eight-cylinder Passat model shows that the horsepower race is on again--with a vengeance. It's beginning to make the hot muscle car era of the 1960s seem almost tame.

For instance, the new Dodge Viper sports car has a 500 horsepower V-10 engine. And you can get the 2003 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra with a supercharged 390-horsepower V-8. Ford even is building a low-slung coupe similar to the 1960s GT40 model that beat Ferrari at the famous Le Mans race in France. Horsepower of the GT40? Probably more than 500.

"Every automaker is jealous of BMW, which is the top-selling luxury car. BMW's image is heavily built around high performance, and it seemingly can do no wrong,'' said analyst Jim Wangers of California's Automotive Marketing Con******ts.

Pontiac is bringing back its legendary GTO muscle car next year. The original GTO kicked off the big muscle car sales boom when introduced for 1964 and was dropped 10 years later because new federal regulations killed high-horsepower cars in the early 1970s. The technology just didn't exist to make powerful cars with low pollution and good fuel economy.

"But the time now is right to reintroduce the GTO,'' said Pontiac General Manager Lynn Myers. "People of all ages--even kids--know about the GTO, and we've received many requests to bring it back over the years. But we didn't want to reintroduce a modern version unless we could make it a truly exciting V-8, rear-drive car (like the original) with the safety and comfort expected from today's autos.''

But models with extremely high horsepower don't tell the whole story about the horsepower race.

Rather, a large number of conventional new cars and trucks are being introduced with more powerful engines. They include economy cars such as the Toyota Corolla to small sport-utility vehicles including the Honda CR-V, which has only a four-cylinder engine but a horsepower increase from 146 to 160.

"People have wanted more horsepower since the car was invented, but it's no longer like, say, the muscle car era of the 1960s,'' said John Middlebrook, a General Motors vice president who is that automaker's general manager of vehicle brand marketing and corporate advertising.

"Many folks want high horsepower from larger engines, which no longer need to be as big as the old ones. But there's a growing number of automakers--and young drivers--who extract lots of power from small engines by doing such things as modifying a motor's computer chips. The individuals work with laptop computers and never even get their hands dirty, as the old car buffs did when modifying engines.''

Middlebrook said technology allows high-horsepower engines to have very low emissions. And he said that the search for more power is enabling automakers to get more fuel economy.

"The higher the horsepower, the more efficient the engine,'' Middlebrook said. "Also, the more efficient the engine, the more fuel economy you can squeeze from it. When working with very efficient new engines, there's a point where you can trade off some horsepower for better fuel economy. For instance, our 405-horsepower Chevrolet Corvette Z06 gets an EPA-estimated 28 mpg on the highway despite fantastic performance from a 350-cubic-inch V-8 that's small by 1960s muscle car standards.''

Light trucks, which account for nearly half of vehicles sales, also figure fairly heavily in the booming high-horsepower performance market. For instance, an increasing number of sport-utilities are being offered with muscular engines. One example is Cadillac's posh Escalade sport-ute, which is popular partly because it has a 345-horsepower V-8 that provides neck-snapping acceleration.

A strong selling point of General Motors' new mid-size sport-utes, which include the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, is its BMW-style, 270-horsepower six-cylinder engine. The TrailBlazer's predecessor had an old-style 190-horsepower V-6.

Even Volkswagen's upcoming, oddly named Touareg sport-utility, which is similar to the new, blindingly fast Porsche Cayenne sport-ute, will be offered with a 395-horsepower 12-cylinder engine. That engine also will be in Volkswagen's new high-line Phaeton sedan.

Volkswagens with 12 cylinders? What's going on here?

"The auto business has been cyclical since I got into it 56 years ago,'' said analyst Ray Windecker of Michigan's American Autodatum. "We went through a period after the fuel crunch of the 1970s when it was a sin to enjoy your car. Then we got higher fuel economy and replaced econobox auto styling with sleek styling. Now, people are looking for something else. Hence, we have a horsepower race, which we experienced in the 1950s and to a larger degree in the 1960s.''

Wangers characterizes the new high-horsepower, high-performance market as "incredible--and somewhat irresponsible because some vehicles in it only represent one-upmanship among automakers.

"But, generally, high-performance vehicles are made to bring excitement and personality to a vehicle producer, as in the 1960s,'' Wangers said. "BMW sells some cars that don't qualify as high-performance models, but offers autos with up to 394 horsepower. The popular BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle can be had with up to 340 horsepower.''

Like Windecker, Wangers looks at the horsepower race with a great deal of perspective. Former Chicagoan Wangers is a legendary figure in U.S. high-performance car history. He was the marketing genius behind the Pontiac GTO, which was introduced when most Americans had never heard of BMW.

Wangers' recent book--Glory Days--When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit--focuses on that era--and prominently mentions the Detroit area's Woodward Avenue.

Woodward Avenue stretched from Detroit to its affluent suburbs and was considered the street racing capital of the country for muscle cars in the 1960s.

Such cars were driven by young motorists and older auto factory personnel who wanted to learn more about the new "youth market.''

"I was even out on Woodward in the 1960s, and it was a lot of fun,'' Middlebrook said with a smile.

The racers are long gone from Woodward Avenue, but a nationally publicized annual "car cruise'' is held on that long, wide thoroughfare. It draws thousands of old muscle cars. Like the 1960s American muscle cars, Woodward Avenue has attained iconic status.

By the late 1960s, there were at least 36 muscle cars, including Ford's Torino GT and Mustang Mach I, Chevrolet's Chevelle SS 396 and Camaro Z-28, Dodge's Charger R/T, Plymouth's Road Runner, Buick's GS400, Oldsmobile's 4-4-2 and Mercury's Cyclone CJ and Marauder.

In fact, Mercury is bringing back the Marauder--this time as its rear-drive Grand Marquis modified with such things as a high-performance V-8 and sport suspension. The Marauder won't be a fuel-miser, but who cares?

"Gasoline didn't cost much in the 1960s and, relative to today's incomes, is cheap again,'' Windecker said.

Besides stricter federal emissions regulations, the muscle car market was killed in the early 1970s by soaring insurance premiums for such cars. Moreover, such cars became increasingly expensive and many of their initial buyers had married and were looking for more conservative models in the 1970s.

"But now, these aging baby boomers have paid off their house and their kids have left home,'' Middlebrook said. "And they're saying, 'Hey, I now can get the kind of high-horsepower car I couldn't buy when I was younger in the 1960s.'''

They're offered much better models. Most of today's high-horsepower cars are faster than the legendary 1960s muscle cars. And, as Myers noted, they have far better steering, handling and braking--not to mention safety features such as air bags and anti-lock brakes.

Most high-performance engines need not be as large as the old ones because the cars are lighter and their electronically controlled engines generate more horsepower per cubic inch.

Some current hot subcompact cars have engines that would be absolutely tiny by 1960s standards. Such autos include the Honda Civic Si and Ford Focus SVT. Middlebrook said GM plans to get more involved in the market for small fast cars.

There seems to be no end to the growing number of new high-performance vehicles from both American and foreign automakers, although fast American cars have a longer history than those from Europe or Japan.

The original hot American car was the 1955 Chrysler C-300 coupe, which had the country's first mass-produced 300 horsepower V-8.

There were a number of 1950s hot cars, including the 1956 Plymouth Fury and 1957 fuel-injected Chevrolet Bel Air. But it wasn't until the 1960s that a large number of baby boomers began getting their first driver's license and wanted fast, colorful cars. The few foreign automakers selling vehicles here offered no affordable high-performance models, so the only ticket to a hot car seat was stamped "American.''

While fast cars had been more desirable than slow ones almost since the auto was invented--at least to young and young-at-heart drivers--there was never a huge number of new drivers in an affluent era such as the 1960s to snap them up.

American automakers quickly picked up on the baby boomer trend and began offering high-horsepower versions of standard models in the early 1960s. Some, such as the 1962 Corvair Monza Spyder and Oldsmobile F-85 Deluxe Jetfire, had higher-horsepower, turbocharged versions of fairly small engines, along with such items as bucket seats and floor shifters. But most 1960s muscle cars had big V-8s, heavy duty suspensions, beefed up brakes and high-performance tires.

They also had bulging hood scoops and cosmetic cues such as racing stripes.

The first GTO was just a mid-size Pontiac LeMans with a souped-up Pontiac 389-cubic-inch V-8 that could be had with three carburetors and up to 348 horsepower. The GTO eventually got a 400-cubic-inch Ram Air V-8 with 370 horsepower, but had a much smaller, 200-horsepower V-8 when discontinued.

But, with high-horsepower the name of the game again, the upcoming GTO will have a V-8 that generates more than 300 horsepower. Nothing less would be expected.

You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen. It said, 'Parking Fine.'So that was nice.

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