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A More Powerful Car is Not Always a Better One

Sometimes, it’s simply more powerful

My British wife enjoys living in America but she’s also properly cynical about many aspects of our over-the-top society. I’m regularly reminded by my lovely bride that more isn’t always better—many times it’s simply more. In the world of cars, the ever-increasing horsepower of each new version has no international boundaries. No matter what country an automobile originates from, the latest generation usually carries more power. I don’t believe that needs to be the case.

My dad’s old 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI only had 90 hp. I had my first proper go in the wonderful hot hatch as a drivers permit-carrying 15-year old. The black two-door felt fast and was wicked fun. The old man smartly sold the VW before I obtained my driver’s license, as I likely would have killed myself if I had daily access. But by today’s standards, the small hatchback was terribly slow. I drove one recently—how did I ever think it was fast? A big part of that surprising sensation is surely because today’s average sedan and SUV—even pickup truck—carries Rabbit GTI-annihilating speed and power.

Contrast that with the Four Seasons 2017 BMW M2, which is currently in my possession. I’m consistently blown away by what an insanely fast car it is—and it’s the company’s entry level M car. The dual-clutch gearbox adds to this sensation, making the small German coupe faster than the manual version. But does the M2 actually need to be that fast? I’d argue that BMW would be better off concentrating on reducing weight and offering a more focused and pure driving experience.

Supercar manufacturers are in the same boat. A friend of mine owns an early McLaren MP4-12C. I’ve driven the car many times and had some further seat time recently. To be honest, nobody needs a car faster than an MP4-12C. Its 616-hp engine never, ever stops pulling and I saw maximum velocity numbers at Grattan Raceway that I’ve never seen in other cars. And that early modern McLaren is a dinosaur in the evolution of cars—it’s the same age as an iPhone 4S.

The 650S replaced the MP4-12C and now there’s the new 720S. You can’t tell me that the majority of owners come remotely close to exploiting the full potential of the their daily-driver SUV or sedan let alone their crazy-fast McLaren. But like sex, horsepower sells and it’s rather tricky to market a new automobile to the upper crust if the latest model carries less output.

One possible alternative that still feeds the marketing department animal is the lap time. What the stopwatch displays at the famed north loop of the Nurburgring—the Nordschleife—is a benchmark that car geeks like to follow and manufacturers love to brag about. The updated 2018 Porsche 911 GT3 only carries 25 more horsepower than the outgoing rear-engined two seater yet its ‘Ring time of 7:12.7 is a rather impressive 12.3 seconds shorter. Remember that the ‘Ring is a daunting 12.9-miles around. But does that actually translate into something for the end user—the buyer?

There is no doubt development at the undulating German circuit is helpful but I’m not so sure the ultimate lap time is that important now that most performance cars have gotten so insanely quick. Yes, maybe it makes sense for track-rat cars like the 911 GT3 RS due to their extremely focused nature and the particular type of buyer, but I’d argue that the typical buyer of the GT3 changed with the arrival of the speed-enhancing PDK dual-clutch gearbox in 2013. It widened the appeal of the 911 GT3 to other less-hardcore buyers even though it’s much quicker around a circuit than the old manual versions.

I actually love that Porsche is offering the choice of the PDK or a 6-speed manual on the updated 2018 911 GT3, not that it’s a sound financial decision to go the row-your-own route. The 500-hp, naturally aspirated GT3 comes standard with the more sophisticated PDK. If you want to sacrifice speed, efficiency, and lap times, you can tick the box on your order form for the manual gearbox but you save no money. That doesn’t bother me at all and I wouldn’t buy the car any other way—Porsche understands there’s a market for people who care more about fun and involvement than the outright lap times. There is clearly hope for this world.

The manual gearbox option is only a baby step. Let’s just hope Porsche keeps building the 911 GT3 without the need to bump the horsepower each time a new version arrives. They’ll likely have to turn to turbocharging if the power creep continues and anybody with a brain doesn’t want that to happen. There are few more visceral experiences than revving Porsche’s flat-six engine to 9000 rpm.

Certain ego-centric buyers will always carry the ‘bigger is better’ mindset. They can’t remotely wrap their head around the fact that the Corvette Grand Sport is a better car than a Corvette Z06 or that the Mustang Boss 302 was far more fun and better balanced than the Shelby GT500. I sincerely hope the next generation of car geeks understand what makes cars great and helps foster a strong market for pure, focused driving machines. Plus, it’s always nice to reinforce that my wife was right all along.

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