THE HISTORY OF POWER
Will these power wars ever end? If the past four decades are anything to go by, probably not. But how exactly did we get to this age of 350bhp-plus hot hatches and 1500bhp hypercars?
The measure of power over the years
Walk into a BMW dealership asking for a 200-horsepower car in 2017 and the salesperson will probably hand you the key to a 320d. If you did the same back in 1979 they’d have put you behind the wheel of an E12generation M535i, packing six cylinders and 3.5 litres, and sitting below only the M1 in BMW’s hierarchy.
WHEN IT ARRIVES LATER THIS YEAR, THE M535i’s descendant – the G30-generation M5 – will make something north of 600bhp, enabling it to compete in a segment where such figures are becoming the norm, having long ago climbed above 300, 400 and even 500bhp.
It’s the same story in virtually every other sector in the performance-car market: cars now make three times (or more) the power that their contemporaries did just four decades ago, but do so with greater reliability and astounding ease of use. In the last decade in particular, technological advancements have resulted in some astonishing numbers, aided by sophisticated electroniccontrol systems, tyre advancements and, in some cases, electric motors – to assist or even power the car outright.
Hot hatchbacks have brought some of these developments within reach of the greatest number of people. Time was when you could dethrone traditional sports cars with a small three- or five-door model by simply dropping in a larger engine – preferably with fuel-injection, though forced induction briefly found favour in the 1980s, with blue-collar heroes such as the Escort RS Turbo and MG Maestro Turbo outpunching their naturally aspirated counterparts. Sixteen-valve heads soon put a stop to that, and variable valve timing (and lift, as in Honda’s VTEC engines) took things further still – in 1999, 170bhp seemed an astonishing amount in a car as small as a Renault Clio. The first Focus RS set the template for the modern era, though, making over 210bhp from its turbocharged fourcylinder: today’s equivalents now send another 50 per cent to the front wheels alone.
A history of sports saloons is ostensibly a history of BMW’s M5, with both cylinder count and capacity increases ensuring outputs have climbed steadily since the mid-1970s. Forced induction features in this category too. Both the Lotus Carlton and the supercharged Jaguar XJR knocked BMW off its perch in power terms, but the E60 M5’s staggering 5-litre naturally aspirated V10 lifted the class straight into supercar territory in 2004. Since then, turbocharging has been the go-to when reaching for the 600bhp mark, but cars such as the 671bhp Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid and 595bhp Tesla Model S P100D have shown the potential of electric power – and not just to reduce emissions.
Electric power has also come to define the supercar class. It didn’t start that way – back in the 1970s, Lamborghini needed nothing more than a 3.9-litre V12 to make its cars among the fastest on the planet. Ferrari countered with the turbocharged 288 GTO, but it was 1987’s F40 that moved the game on: 2.9 litres, eight cylinders and a pair of turbochargers made for a mighty (and conservatively quoted) 471bhp. Bugatti took things further with the quadturbocharged EB110, but neither could compare with what upstart McLaren had in store. Its BMW-supplied, naturally aspirated V12 produced 627bhp, helping to make the F1 it resided in arguably the first example of what we now call a hypercar. Just over a decade later Bugatti’s Veyron breached the 1000 PS (986bhp) mark with its 8-litre, quadturbo W16. Since then, the race towards 1500bhp has been rapid, with either electric power or turbocharging – normally both – taking hypercars to new heights.
By contrast, sports cars have moved at a slower pace. Porsche’s Boxster provides a good indication of two-seaters in recent times, starting with 201bhp in 1996 and rising to a turbocharged 345bhp in the new 718 Boxster S, but weight, as well as power, has influenced performance in this category. The 82bhp Morgan 3 Wheeler is less potent than a 1974 MGB but a great deal faster, while Alfa’s 4C Spider makes less power than a TVR Griffith from 1992, but still gets to 100kmph a few tenths quicker.
And what about performance coupes? These could also be traced through a Porsche lineage in the form of the 911, but with the likes of Nissan’s GT-R, Audi’s R8 V8 and, of course, BMW’s M3, it certainly hasn’t completely dominated this class – on paper, at least.
Turn the page to see in more detail how outputs have progressed over the last 40 years as we chart the power figures of 100 key evo models. Then maybe take a moment to ponder where those lines are heading…