Cars and Concepts

A new golden age for high performance

In the CLA45 AMG, Mercedes-Benz's 2.0-liter, four-cylinder twin-turbo engine is rated at 355 hp and moves the car to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds.

Sometimes you can’t really see something for what it is when you are in the middle of it.

Right now, we are truly in the golden age of high-performance cars, be they gasoline, electric or hybrid.

Who knows how long it will last?

The original muscle car era spanned from 1964 -- when Pontiac dumped a big engine in a midsize car (a V-8 in the Tempest) and created the GTO -- to the end of the decade.

Pontiac’s GTO ignited a horsepower and cubic-inch war that lasted until emissions regulations, oil embargos, high insurance rates and consumers’ desire for higher fuel economy killed the muscle car.

It’s taken awhile, but engineers have solved all the problems that prevented high horsepower AND good fuel economy. And they’re not done yet. More power is coming.

“I do not think we have reached the limit for power density in production engines for performance-oriented vehicles,” says Prabjot Nanua, General Motors’ global director for advanced and racing engine engineering.

“Advances in engine technology, computing power and control methods are enabling us to push the boundaries on the power density for performance engines,” he told Automotive News.

One measurement of engine output -- horsepower per liter -- shows how dramatically engineers have boosted performance.

Between 1968 and 1970, the heyday of the muscle car, you could buy a 426-cubic-inch Hemi engine from Chrysler in a number of cars. The 7.0-liter engine was rated by Chrysler at 425 hp. That works out to 60.7 hp per liter.

A nicely equipped Hellcat Challenger sells for about $65,000, perhaps making it the bargain of the century in terms of horsepower per dollar.

The output of today’s engines blows away that old 426 monster, one of the strongest Detroit ever made.

Ford offers a 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder engine with more than twice the power per liter, 123 hp, than the 426 hemi. In the CLA45 AMG, Mercedes-Benz’s 2.0-liter, four-cylinder twin-turbo engine is rated at 355 hp and moves the car to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds.

Today’s fastest -- non-exotic -- cars often avoid the gas-guzzler tax. The previous generation 550-hp Mustang Shelby Cobra outran the gas-guzzler tax. The current 455-hp Chevrolet Corvette gets higher highway fuel economy -- 29 mpg -- than most economy cars did a decade ago.

Delphi Automotive is one of the suppliers whose products are helping improve engine output. One of Delphi’s specialties is direct fuel injection. Over the years, Delphi has continually increased the pressure of gasoline that is forced through fuel injectors. The fuel-injection system on the 464-hp Cadillac ATS-V, for example, runs at 2,900 bar, or more than 42,000 pounds per square inch. That helps atomize the fuel into smaller drops.

“Where horsepower is going depends more on OEM strategy,” said John E. Kirwan, Delphi’s chief engineer for advanced r&d in the company’s powertrain systems division. “We are not at any limit based, for example, on fuel octane,” he adds.

And let’s not forget about electric cars. Tesla’s Model S is capable of reaching 60 mph in 3.1 seconds, the company says. And Acura is launching the new NSX later this year that will have three electric motors along with a powerful V-6.

For some automakers, such as Porsche, vehicles have to do more than just accelerate quickly.

“It’s not only horsepower. It’s not only horsepower per liter. And it’s not only 0 to 100 kilometers,” Porsche CEO Mattias Mueller told Automotive News.

Analyst Dave Sullivan at AutoPacific says some automakers have been finding ways to boost performance without increasing power. He’s not convinced horsepower will continue to increase, though performance likely will.

“If we can shave more weight, we won’t need crazy horsepower. Also, look at what Porsche has done with dual-clutch automatics. Software is making cars faster without having to add more power.

“If cars go on a diet, we might not need all that power. A 1995 Mustang GT had 215 hp from a V-8. Now, we have the base engine in a Mustang making a lot more than that,” he added.

The staff of Automotive News recently tested a Dodge Challenger SRT with the 707-hp Hellcat engine. One editor used two words describe the car’s acceleration: “breathtaking” and “hair-raising.”

A nicely equipped Hellcat Challenger sells for about $65,000. That may be the bargain of the century in terms of horsepower per dollar. Fiat Chrysler has stopped taking orders for the Hellcat this year because it can’t build them fast enough.

Five years ago, few people could have predicted the incredible performance today’s sports and muscle cars are capable of.

If you ever wanted to go fast, this is the time to do it.

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