Thursday, February 14, 2008

Adding Lightness

Mazda Miata

What a difference a few months make. Not too long ago I gushed over the horsepower wars currently going on in the auto industry. Fast forward to today and there is already talk of some serious changes. It seems like we're going through the same thing that happened in the late 60s and into the 70s. Back then cars were getting bigger and bigger and more and more powerful until the first energy crisis hit and led to the dark days of the mid 70s through the 80s. Days when "performance" cars, choked by emissions regulations and more fuel efficient engines were producing horsepower numbers between 150 and 200hp. Less than a decade earlier, you could get cars with around 500hp. This led to the rise of the Japanese manufacturers with their smaller, more fuel efficient models. It also led to the rise of the evil that is Front Wheel Drive.

Today, it's much the same. We are in another energy crisis. We have artificially inflated gas prices, (don't get me started on the oil company profits over the last few years), global warming paranoia and a war going on. Again there is talk that the days of big, high horsepower cars are over. New Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are calling for manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency in their models to an average of 35MPG within the next 10 years. This time around, the Japanese are players in the small car segment but so is Korea, India and China. They all stand to benefit from the impending trend toward smaller cars.

Already GM has cancelled some models under development such as a new rear wheel drive platform and a new DOHC V8 due to the new standards. Ford has begun development of new turbocharged 6 cylinder engines that they feel will replace the thirstier V8s. Insurance companies are also jumping on the bandwagon saying that the higher horsepower cars result in more accidents and more insurance claims, thus higher premiums. It appears that the end is near. Cars like the new 620HP Corvette ZR-1 may become endangered species very soon. What can be done?

It's inevitable that cars are going to be featuring smaller more fuel efficient engines. The only solution then, to maintain performance, will have to be smaller and/or lighter cars. The sports car market is going to go more in the direction of cars like the Lotus Elise and the Mazda MX5 Miata. Both are great pure sports cars and they don't need to have 500HP. It's all about power to weight ratio and handling. Even Ferrari has stated that future developments will be lighter, smaller cars with less powerful engines. V8 muscle cars, unfortunately, are going to go bye bye once again. That sucks, they were just making a comeback. I just hope the current trend toward more rear wheel drive cars isn't reversed.

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