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Automakers eagerly feed drivers' addiction to speed

Industry is going full throttle for powerful engines, some rated at well over 400 horsepower. Even safety symbol Volvo has a 300-horsepower sedan.

May 07, 2003|Warren Brown | Washington Post

For drivers who love full-throttle engines, the auto industry's lengthy Dark Ages began in the early 1970s with the fuel crises that ended the horsepower races of the 1950s and 1960s.

But today the fast crowd rules once again.

Volvo provides some evidence of the transformation of one-time economy cars into mini-rockets.

Once an automotive symbol of all things safe and sensible, Volvo has become a swaggering street fighter. Witness the company's new 300-horsepower R series, including the Volvo S60 R sedan and V70 R wagon.

The sedan, which I drove on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, can move from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. The wagon nearly matches the sedan's speed.

Volvo joins a gang of formerly strait-laced, entry-level luxury models that have traded propriety for muscle.

America remains hooked on speed. It's an addiction as old as the 117-year history of the gasoline-powered automobile.

Gasoline price hikes might bring moments of sobriety. Federal regulators and public-interest advocates might hold speed and power momentarily in check. But recovery in this matter is illusory in a land of long highways and plentiful service stations that, despite occasional price increases, still pump the cheapest gasoline in the developed world.

Speed advocates always are goading the auto industry to produce faster, stronger, higher-revving engines, and they're willing to pay big bucks to get them.

If car companies refuse to give the speed freaks what they want, they dig into their pockets to build it themselves. Such people are called "tuners" in the auto industry, and the cash they're willing to spend, often $10,000 or more to turn a slug into a hot rod, is hard to ignore.

One addiction feeds another. Subaru developed a subcompact Impreza WRX sedan that boasts 227 horsepower and moves from 0 to 60 mph in barely six seconds. It's selling fast at prices starting at $25,045.

Subaru discovered that buyers wanted something even faster. So it rolled out a super-fast STi model of the Impreza WRX that offers 276 horsepower -- this in a car that began life as an economobile. And the thing sells for nearly $29,000.

Well, the folks at Mitsubishi Motors and Honda Motor Co. couldn't ignore that. So, Mitsubishi brought forth a little Lancer Evolution VIII with a 271-horsepower, 2-liter, turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine that also ran like a bat out of hell. People lined up to pay nearly $30,000 for the thing.

Honda, another sensible company, smelled money, too. It took its extremely practical Honda Civic, souped it up and turned it into a 160-horsepower Honda Civic Si pocket rocket at a price of about $20,000.

All that high-powered competition from the lower end of the market threatened the pride and pocketbooks of traditional muscle-car purveyors and premium luxury-car manufacturers.

Thus, it isn't surprising that General Motors Corp. planned to introduce a born-again version of its famed Pontiac GTO -- a 2004 model equipped with a Corvette-derived, 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower V-8. Nor is it surprising that the Infiniti luxury division of Nissan Motor Co. would enter the game with its "intelligent muscle car" -- the M45 sedan, equipped with an exceptionally responsive 4.5-liter, 340-horsepower V-8.

The surprise was in the apparent willingness of the car companies to offer engines that go well beyond 300 or 400 horsepower.

The biggest hit this year at auto shows in Detroit and New York was the galloping, voluptuous Cadillac 16 prototype car. It's a massive thing with a huge 13.6-liter, V-16 engine that develops 1,000 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 1,000 pound-feet of torque at 4,300 rpm.

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the Detroit-based Web site Car Connection, got a rare chance to drive the car. "It's unbelievable," he said. "It sounds like a jet engine at ignition."

That is the kind of talk that makers of fast and furious cars enjoy hearing. But even they say there are limits.

Robert Lutz, GM vice chairman of product development and chairman of GM North America, said the Cadillac 16, at the moment, "is just a concept." Realistically, maximum horsepower for regular production cars probably will remain "somewhere south of 700," Lutz said.

There is, for example, the Audi RS6, a stunning high-performance car with a twin-turbo, 450-horsepower V-8 engine. It does 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. And if that isn't enough, there is the elegantly fast 6-liter, twin-turbo, 550-horsepower Bentley Continental GT and the raw-muscled 500-horsepower Dodge Viper SRT-10.

Power is a "premium credential" necessary to compete in today's luxury marketplace, said Mark Fields, chief executive of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group, which includes Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo.

Jaguar is a case in point. On the racetrack, the company is regarded as a fierce competitor. But in the marketplace, it is known primarily for producing beautifully sculpted automobiles. Both attributes are necessary for Jaguar's success. "At Jaguar, we build beautiful, fast cars," Fields said, referring to models such as the 390-horsepower Jaguar XJR.

None of this is to suggest that practical cars are going away. They form the core of the U.S. and global automotive markets.

But practicality yields neither inspiration nor lust. It is anti-fantasy in a world desperately in need of diversion.

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