July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Muscle cars offer power trips beyond racetrack

Pumped-up muscle cars becoming more common, affordable

Race car drivers like to say you can never have too much power. By contrast, regular motorists are supposed to be a bit more practical, accepting that 150-300 horsepower, depending on your vehicle type, is good enough.

Sounds logical, except for one thing; we aren’t that logical. When it comes to cars, what we need and what we want can be two very different considerations.

Sure, the horsepower arms race between exotic sports carmakers has been ramping up dramatically for several years, with extreme examples like the 1,184 horsepower Bugatti Veyron Super Sport arriving on the scene in 2010.

But recently, the horsepower surge has trickled down to more accessible market segments.

Detroit’s home brands have been sending their muscle cars back to the gym to bulk up. Witness Dodge’s just announced Challenger SRT Hellcat. With 707 horsepower, the Hellcat ranks as the most powerful “off-the-showroom floor” muscle car in history. But you can be sure Dodge’s rivals won’t let that title go uncontested for long.

For instance, we already have the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 weighing in with 662 horsepower and that’s a model based on the outgoing Mustang, not the new one coming this year. Over at General Motors, one of the most recognized horsepower kings is the Corvette, which kicks out 455 horsepower in standard form and around 650 horsepower in the forthcoming Z06 high performance version.

Horsepower numbers in the 600-700 range like these used to be the preserve of top level Formula One and Indy race cars and considered far out of reach by most consumers. Not any more.

Now a buyer with less than $60,000 can pick up a car with more than 700 horsepower, as is the case with the Dodge. Chevy’s Corvette costs about the same but though its power output is less, the ’Vette is a dedicated sports car, lighter and better handling than the Dodge.

Speaking of weight, cars have put on a lot of poundage as a result of all the safety and convenience features on today’s vehicles, versus those of a few decades ago. Added weight blunts performance, so just because a car today has twice the horsepower of its predecessor from 30 years ago does not necessarily make it twice as fast.

That said, major advances in aerodynamic efficiency, suspension design and tire performance have allowed current cars to handle the extra power with relative ease. What’s more, automakers have done a remarkable job, albeit under government pressure, of improving fuel economy in concert with the additional horsepower.

So the good news for performance-oriented car consumers is that despite significantly higher gas prices and stiffer government fuel efficiency targets on the horizon, automakers have not abandoned the quest for more power. Indeed, car buyers in various market segments are pushing for extra horsepower as well as better fuel economy.

This trend has translated into remarkably attractive propositions for average buyers; fuel-efficient family sedans with surprisingly peppy engines and for the sporty minded, blisteringly fast models like the latest Corvette which can still return more than 30 miles per gallon when driven gently.

It’s likely that more automakers will add electric motors to their propulsion systems to meet emissions regulations. At some point we may all be talking about kilowatts instead of horsepower, but regardless of the terminology we will still want more power.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com