Powerful performance is back in a big way.
The stunning Cadillac Sixteen, introduced at the auto show in Detroit in early January, has a 1,000-horsepower V-16 engine under its long hood, upping the ante of last year’s V-12-powered Cien and the 315-horsepower XLR that comes to market this summer.
At DaimlerChrysler, the Dodge Tomahawk, a four-wheeled motorcycle concept, is built around the Viper’s V-0 engine for 500 horsepower, a top speed of 300 mph and a 0-to-60 time of a scant 2.5 seconds.
Ford’s 427 concept described as “tomorrow’s American family car” is outfitted with a 590-horsepower V-10, the same cubic-inch displacement as Ford’s landmark 427 engine in the 1960s.
Even Subaru, known for safe, durable, all-weather cars, has a 300-horsepower version of the compact WRX coming to market to go up against the tiny Honda Civics that young people are tuning in order to boost horsepower.
The race for more horsepower and in the case of trucks, increased torque seems endless. “Go back 15 years ago, and 150 horsepower was considered a big deal,” noted Chris Cedergren, analyst for Nextrend, a Los Angeles-based consulting and forecasting firm. Indeed, today, 150 horsepower is nearly the price of entry for even the smallest, cheapest subcompact. The new Saturn Ion, which starts at about $12,000, has a 140-horsepower engine. The Nissan Sentra SE-R, at $17,000, has a 165-horsepower engine.
In addition, virtually every major automaker has created or is establishing a line of performance vehicles within its product portfolio, from Mercedes-Benz’s AMG to an upcoming performance line for Saturn.
While the European automakers have long focused on performance with specialty lines, all three Detroit automakers have created or reorganized their performance groups in the past year to produce specialty vehicles for which they can charge premiums as the Europeans do.
Why, as the industry faces the prospect of stiffer fuel economy and more stringent emissions standards and is introducing environmentally friendly hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles, are they giving performance so much attention?
They want to charge premium prices, as the imports do, and boost their image and, besides, they can. Advances in electronics have made it technologically possible to boost more horsepower and torque from today’s engines. In some cases, it is done without significantly, if at all, diminishing fuel economy and increasing pollution.
As vehicles become increasingly similar, automakers seek ways to set their vehicles apart from the crowd. Performance is one way. For Detroit automakers, in particular, performance was a cornerstone of their heritage.
All are digging into their history books to find styling cues and vehicle attributes to apply to their current vehicles, and performance emerges as one of them. To that end, Chrysler brought back the famed Hemi engine this year. Ford revives the GT40, inspired by the race cars that won the Le Mans in the 1960s. Pontiac has resurrected the legendary GTO muscle car on a 300-plus horsepower Australian-built coupe.
“Performance is not new to GM,” said GM North America President Gary Cowger at the Specialty Equipment Market Association convention in November. “Throughout our history, we’ve produced famous performance vehicles like the Chevy 409, GTO and Chevelle SS.”
Mr. Cowger further announced last fall at SEMA that all of its brands would have a performance line the GXP for Pontiac, SS for Chevrolet, V-Series for Cadillac and even a line for Saturn.
The automaker introduced a number of performance cars and trucks built by GM’s newly formed Performance Division, including a Saturn Ion and Vue aimed at young drivers.
Ford, which recently created a performance group that combines SVT, racing and personalization parts into a single organization, says it plans more SVT Ford models and will develop special-edition versions for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands.
Chrysler’s new Performance Vehicle Operations launched its first performance car, the Neon-based Dodge SRT-4, in December.
Consumers, from thrill-seeking Gen Y-ers to bored baby boomers, are looking for more excitement in their lives, taking up extreme sports, traveling on adventure vacations attending or participating in racing and seeking performance in their daily drives.
“The new generation of consumer seems to want more and more excitement and thrill,” Mr. Cedergren said.
“Once you get all of the basic tangible things you need, you look to appease your emotional needs, and that’s true of cars.”