Horsepower - How much do you need?

Horsepower - How much do you need?

Horsepower may be overrated, but everything's relative

Ask an enthusiast about preferences in a new vehicle, and the answer is likely to be two words: "more power." Like the power-crazed character played by Tim Allen on the old "Home Improvement" TV show, they're seldom satisfied.

Natural Progression

We tend to think the musclecar era ended three decades ago, but a modern-day "horsepower race" has been underway for years. It began not long after engine outputs hit their low points during the fuel-challenged Seventies. In 1984, for instance, the Corvette's V-8 developed 205 horsepower. This year's Corvette produces 350 hp, while the Z06 cranks out 405 horses. The 1984 Toyota Camry came with a four-cylinder engine that produced 92 horsepower. Today, the four-cylinder develops 157 hp, while the Camry's V-6 makes 192 hp.

In commercials, marketers continue to push horsepower of new models. Chevrolet reworked the subcompact 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier and killed the old 115-hp engine, making a 140-hp version standard. Dodge added a turbocharged R/T model to its Neon lineup this year, and is making a Hemi V-8 available in its Ram pickup. New SUVs pack brawny engines that seem more appropriate in high-end sports cars.

Import brands, in particular, favor high-performance offshoots. Mercedes-Benz has been introducing AMG variants of most models, with a lot more power. Nissan offers a Sentra SE/R Spec V with 49 more horses than a regular Sentra sedan. Mitsubishi is adding hotter renditions of its Lancer.

Are all these extra horses necessary? Do bigger engines make a car safer on the highway? That depends on how you're measuring performance.

When marketers and enthusiasts refer to performance, they almost invariably mean acceleration from a standstill to 60 miles per hour. But, does that really matter? Unless you're a police officer-or are attempting to escape from the law-when is it necessary to accelerate to 60 mph in neck-snapping haste?

Natural Selection

No, what's important is midrange acceleration: how long it takes to go from, say, 30 mph to 50 mph, or from 50 mph to 65 mph-speeds that you might need to reach quickly to pass or merge safely. Ability to traverse steep grades without strain is another useful measure.

Trucks typically offer plenty of engine choices. Many passenger cars have no alternative powertrain. Volvo is one exception. Buy an S60 sedan and you can choose from four engines, with a fifth one coming in the 2004 S60R. If you like the MINI, you can take a 115-hp engine, opt for the 163-hp Cooper S, or select the new John Cooper Works edition with 200 horses. Some family sedans still come with either a four-cylinder or a (bigger) V-6 engine. A larger, more powerful engine than you really need typically translates to less efficient gas mileage and more harmful emissions, though, not always-and the differences aren't always substantial.

For ordinary driving, only a few current vehicles might be considered seriously below par. If a pickup truck (or SUV) frequently carries heavy loads, especially through hilly terrain, a bigger, more powerful engine can indeed be the wiser choice. Struggling along with four cylinders under the hood of a heavyweight can produce unpleasant surprises in an emergency.

Mini-sized cars like the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio may lag in passing response, especially if equipped with an automatic transmission. Automatics don't necessarily impair performance of larger automobiles, but in a mini-compact they can drain enough energy to make a manual shift a far more sensible choice. Kia installed bigger engines in its Rios this year, with 10-percent more power, especially welcome in the wagon. Hyundai dropped the least-powerful engine from its Accent lineup.

While the Volkswagen Beetle performs adequately, the delightful new Beetle Convertible is a bit on the sluggish side, especially with automatic. Adding a convertible top, or offering a wagon with the same engine as a sedan, typically adds weight. On a small car, a few extra pounds can spell the difference between confidence and uncertainty. Beetle Convertible buyers soon will have the option of a turbocharged engine.

Clamoring for ferocious power might be understandable in an exotic sports car. Consider the Dodge Viper SRT-10 with its 500-hp V-10, and the Ferrari Enzo with a 660-hp V-12. These are specialty cars sold in limited numbers, so excess is part of the package.

If you're shopping in the mass market, don't automatically assume that you need all the power that can be bought. You need enough to get the daily job done, but not the kind of power that spins the wheels and raises a ruckus in the neighborhood. Unless you drive with a heavy foot at all times, or haul heavy loads, a milder powertrain might satisfy fully-especially at the pump.

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