An EPA-inspired muscle car renaissance
New automotive “legends,” like the 707 horsepower Dodge Hellcat twins, happily convert rubber into smoke, noise and an aroma only gearheads can love, by way of a 6.2 liter, supercharged motor. New car types are driving the trend toward enhanced muscle.
Consider the Mercedes-Benz CLA AMG. The swooping lines of this Teutonic sedan don’t scream “power!” like the current crop of American offerings, yet it generates 355 horsepower with a 2.0 liter, turbocharged motor, less than one-third of the Hellcats’ displacement.
Got up market and even Ferrari, which intends to make the most driver-focused cars on the road, has succumbed to the trend of forced-induction and used it to squeeze more power (and much more torque) out of a smaller and more efficient engine. Thus, while the 458 Italia had a 4.5 liter naturally-aspirated V8 making 562 horsepower and 398 pound feet of torque, the next iteration of the vehicle out of Maranello, the 488, by contrast, has a 3.9 liter turbocharged V8 making 661 horsepower and 561 pound feet of torque.
Last month, the National Automobile Dealers Association released full-year sales projections showing the industry will sell 17.2 million vehicles in 2015, the first time sales have topped 17 million since 2001. June figures from Autodata Corp. show the Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang all saw gains, with the Mustang having its best June since 2007.
Growing popularity of new, more powerful cars is not what you’d expect in an era of high gas taxes, federal emissions regulations and so-called “combined fleet average efficiency standards.” In fact, we can thank America’s environmental stewards, the Environmental Protection Agency, for this power revolution and for the attendant interest in driving it has generated.
It may be surprising to some, but the interests of gearheads and the EPA are fundamentally aligned. Both want motors that are more capable. Granted, the EPA wants motors that are capable of doing more with less fuel, while the enthusiast community simply wants motors that are capable of more power. But for automotive engineers, the technical route to each destination runs through a series of the same stops.
For instance, higher engine-compression ratios allow fuel to be burned at higher temperatures which creates more power per-piston stroke. The environmentally conscious get smaller and smaller displacement motors capable of going further and further distances, while driving enthusiasts get more power out of motors of all sizes. The EPA knows this full well and has floated the terrific idea of mandating higher-octane fuel at the pump, because it burns hotter and provides for higher compression.
That’s right, the EPA wants your car filled with something approaching racing fuel for the sake of the environment.
Even the EPA’s mileage requirements have unwittingly saved relatively unsophisticated large displacement motors. The introduction of cylinder deactivation technologies, coupled with ever more efficient transmissions, allow vehicles that truly are “gas guzzlers” to avoid the tariff. As a bonus, those automatic transmissions are capable of transferring an engine’s power to the road with less power lost in translation. The standard for a fast zero-to-60 time has dropped from five seconds a decade ago to just four seconds today.
Performance benefits have accrued from even less likely sources, like hybrid technology. When it isn’t powering a hit-parade of uninspiring vehicles like the Prius, the Volt or the i3, hybrid tech allows performance vehicles to embrace surges of instant torque hitherto unavailable with gasoline powertrains.
The point is that while the EPA can strive to constrict and constrain, it can’t ultimately change consumer preferences and behavior. The underlying American desire to go fast has not been diminished by the regulator’s desire to make us all better. As the EPA continues its push toward a green nirvana, driving enthusiasts will be along for the ride because, paradoxically, green tech is performance tech.