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…

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