America’s Cars Are Suddenly Getting Faster and More Efficient
Half of today’s vehicles blow away the baddest rides of the 1970s. But the reasons are more complicated than you might think.
Sometime in the next couple of months, the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon and its 808 horsepower will show up in dealership windows like some kind of tiny, red, tire-melting factory. Yes, 808 horsepower. There’s no typo.
Teenage boys will lose their minds. Some older ones, too. But beyond the Vin Diesel fan club, it’s actually not such a big deal anymore. Last year, U.S. drivers on the hunt for more than 600 horsepower had 18 models to choose from, including a Cadillac sedan that looks more swanky than angry. Meanwhile, even boring commuter sedans are posting power specifications that would have been unheard of during the Ford Administration.
The horses in the auto industry are running free.
We crunched four decades of data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s emission tests and arrived at a simple conclusion: All of the cars these days are fast and furious—even the trucks.
If a 1976 driver were to somehow get his hands on a car from 2017, he’d be at grave risk of whiplash. Since those days, horsepower in the U.S. has almost doubled, with the median model climbing from 145 to 283 stallions. Not surprisingly, the entire U.S. fleet grew more game for a drag-race: The median time it took for a vehicle to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour was halved, from almost 14 seconds to seven.
Four decades ago, there was one production car in America that made 285 horsepower–the Aston Martin DBS. It had a gaping maw of a hood vent and 75 more ponies than a Chevrolet Corvette. Today, more than half of the cars and trucks for sale boast as much power or more, including the milquetoast Kia Sorento. An Aston Martin Vanquish, meanwhile, makes 568 horsepower, almost double the grunt of its ancestor.
Sure, one would expect automobile engineering to advance over the decades just like any technology, but its acceleration of late would impress Don Garlits.
“It’s been wildly exciting,” said Bob Fascetti, head of powertrain engineering at Ford Motor Co. “If you go back and look at the degree of change in the last five or six years compared to the five or six before that or the five or six before that, it’s dramatic.”
Speed, of course, is a human condition, hard-wired into human DNA. The same atavistic spark that kept our ancestors safe among woolly mammoths also cooked up Dodge’s “Demon.” What’s even more remarkable, however, is that this combustion arms-race has occurred under ever increasing efficiency standards.
While vehicles have been getting more powerful, their engines have been shrinking. Moreover, the entire fleet is stretching a gallon of gas farther, thanks in part to electric engines.
Combustion engines on America’s roads are about 42 percent smaller than they were 40 years ago. At the same time, the EPA’s median measurement of miles-per-gallon has doubled, from 15 to 30. Most of those gains were made under pressure from federal efficiency mandates. The great power push began in 1985 just after the industry had hit a threshold of 27.5 miles-per-gallon.
Vehicles made another efficiency leap starting in 2007, when a new energy bill set a 35 miles-per-gallon threshold. This time, however, carmakers kept adding power.
How did engineers manage this sorcery? It wasn’t a single manufacturing breakthrough; it was about six of them. Consider the contemporary Chevrolet Camaro, which can be had with one of three different engines, each highlighting a major advancement in the race for efficient power.
The top-of-the-line V8, which makes 455 horsepower, is programmed to shut down four of its cylinders when they aren’t needed. Cylinder deactivation debuted about 10 years ago and is now standard in every eight-cylinder engine General Motors Co. makes.
It’s also put to use in the Camaro V6, the middle-of-the pack, Goldilocks choice that makes 335 horsepower. This machine highlights one of the most critical things in engine evolution: direct fuel injection. Carburetors that mixed fuel with air disappeared from assembly lines long ago. But it was only in the 21st century that engineers perfected the practice of shooting a mist of gasoline directly into the cylinder. Less fuel is wasted and the engine is more powerful because it stays cooler. (The gas actually evaporates before it explodes, cooling the cylinder in the same way that sweat cools the skin of an athlete.)
“Today, we can model it, we can visualize it, and we can make sure the fuel ends up in the air, not on the cylinder wall,” said Prabjot Nanua, director of Detroit-based GM’s advanced engine and racing engineering.
Meanwhile, engineers figured out how to slightly speed up or delay when an engine’s valves open, alternatively offering more power or lower emissions, depending on how much the driver is stomping the pedal.
“Even if you have that old, muscle-car philosophy, your fuel efficiency is pretty much a given these days,” Nanua said.
The real miracles come in the smallest Camaro engine, a little four-cylinder package that makes 275 horsepower. Most small engines today have a turbo unit, one that bears little resemblance to the versions in 1980s Saabs. The Camaro turbo draws air via two channels, eliminating much of the notorious lag between when a driver requests a boost and when one arrives.
Finally, cars on a relative basis have become far lighter. Even as it was stuffed with computers, airbags, sensors, and bulky infotainment unit, the baseline Camaro went from roughly 4,000 pounds in 1976 to about 3,400 pounds in 2017. Almost every part of the car had a heavy material swapped for something lighter. Engine blocks and body panels evolved from iron and steel to lightweight aluminum alloys while intake manifolds and oil pans were poured out of advanced plastics. Meanwhile, more expensive cars–like the Camaro’s sibling, the Corvette—are veined with carbon fiber.
And make no mistake, the same swapping has gone on across the industry’s socioeconomic spectrum, from Rolls Royce to the Kia Rio.
In short: We are all faster now than we were 40 years ago, but only because some of us got a lot more clever.