If you wanted to pick a point in time when you could say that cars were becoming a little too powerful, you could probably go with the mid 2010s. This was the time when the current generation Mercedes-AMG E63S and BMW M5 were being launched, and with them came a statement that shook the enthusiast market to the core: we need all-wheel drive to put the power down.
Granted, other manufacturers have been doing this for a while. Audi has long championed all-wheel drive systems, and Porsche has all-wheel drive in a couple of their performance models as well. But Mercedes-AMG and BMW were stalwarts of the front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout and their move to package their cars with all-wheel drive did not go unnoticed.
You might be wondering why this move is so significant. Perhaps Jaguar put it most succinctly when they introduced all-wheel drive to their F-Type: the amount of power cars have is overwhelming the current tyre technology on the market. If you imagine it as a race between the amount of power a car has and how grippy tyres are, power has finally overtaken grip.
Even beyond that, let’s look simply at how cars have evolved in terms of power outputs. The humble Toyota Corolla will be an example here – back in the 1980s the most common powertrain was a 1.3-litre carburetted OHV engine that made a paltry 58 hp, but it was adequate for the time. Fast forward to the year 2000, and the most common 1.8-litre DOHC powertrain made 122 hp – a rough jump of around 60 hp for 20 years.
Volvo seems to echo this sentiment as well – at least, before they announced a 180 km/h hard limit on their cars globally. The most powerful variant of the XC90 packed 311 hp from a naturally aspirated V8 back when it was launched in 2001, and just 13 years later the XC90 T8 came to blow the world away with 400 hp or so from its hybrid powertrain. For now the steps are more minor – roughly 12 hp every 3 to 4 years if you do a bit of maths – but that output will steadily creep onwards and upwards.
This is what consumers have come to expect, and while the rate of increase of power also depends on the kind of car you’re looking at, this is the general trend. What’s more impressive is that manufacturers have had to increase the power outputs of their cars while also meeting stricter emissions and fuel efficiency regulations.
One of the fastest evolving cars on the market is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. We like to use this as an example because each generation (with the exception of the last) is a consistent evolution upon the previous generation models – and it also comes with a (usually) singular powertrain which makes it easy to compare. If you look at this graph, you get an idea of how performance has increased with each passing generation of model.
The most current example of mass market cars packing heavy amounts of power is quite simply the Audi RS3. This fire breathing hot hatchback is the more practical alternative to the TT RS, and its turbocharged 2.5-litre 5-cylinder engine makes a not insignificant 400 PS following its 2017 facelift. With a kerb weight of 1,520 kg, it has almost the same power to weight ratio as a Ferrari 360 from the early 2000s (400 PS, 1553 kg) – and it manages to fit four, with room for luggage as well.
Do you think that someone buying a Ferrari 360 would think they might lose to a hot hatchback from a little over a decade later? It’s pretty insane if you think about it, and yet it is also one element that the majority of consumers compare on paper but rarely make use of in the real world. For that, mid-range torque is the most important figure – but that’s a discussion for another time.