We take power and speed for granted these days. Any supercar isn’t worth the lease you signed for it if it’s packing less than 600PS (441kW). Likewise, many vaguely performance-orientated family EVs can crack 62mph in less than four seconds, when once the three-second range was the preserve of the most exclusive bleeding-edge supercars. Progress is relentless and, truthfully, has been for some time, as was exemplified in what was colloquially referred to as the ‘horsepower wars’. This was a race between manufacturers year-on-year over the past 30 years especially, to outdo rival performance models in terms of power. The result is where we are today, in a world of 400PS (294kW) hot hatches, 600PS (441kW) super saloons and 800PS (588PS) supercars, but there were a few key watershed moments along the way. We thought we’d count them down, albeit with only a couple of real top-end exotics that stand out in terms of power.
14 cars that stoked the horsepower race
1. Lotus Carlton
A car so powerful and fast that the legality of its potency was debated in Parliament. The Lotus Carlton perhaps defined the idea of a ‘sleeper’ – a car unassuming relative to its performance output. It’s not exactly subtle, with a mighty aggressive front bumper, stubby arches and a sturdy wing, but even this smattering of performance pretence didn’t set us up for what lay within. The 3.6-litre twin-turbo straight-six, developed by Lotus, produced a monster 382PS (280kW) and made the Carlton good for 177mph. In 1990, when the contemporary BMW M5 and Porsche 911 Turbo had 315 (231kW) and 320PS (235kW) respectively, that was terrifyingly fast and powerful. Truly, the first time we had to ask if enough was enough.
2. Ford Focus RS
In the 1980s and 1990s, hot hatches had power figures that started with a 1 and had two figures thereafter, and we were damn grateful for them. Golf GTI, 205 GTI, Clio Williams and more offered real performance to the people. So how did we over double their output within 30 years? Incrementally, albeit with some important moments, one of them being the 2002 Ford Focus RS. Okay, the Escort Cosworth was more powerful, but that was a four-wheel-drive homologation special that really was without equal or imitation. The Focus on the other hand set the precedent for a decade-long hot hatch power struggle, with its 215PS (158kW) four-cylinder turbocharged engine, putting power exclusively to the front wheels, as a traditional hot hatch should. It also upped the tech spec with the power rise, adding a hardcore Quaife torque-biasing diff to control the fury. The RS is a divisive car, remembered for its raw, spiky character.
3. Honda S2000
The Honda S2000 wasn’t remarkable in terms of outright power but it is a very important car in the history of horsepower generation. Its 2.0-litre F20C inline four-cylinder twin-cam engine developed 250PS (183kW) and could rev to 9,000rpm. More importantly, it produced 125PS (91kW) per litre… in 1999. That’s a figure only just beaten by the Ferrari 458 Italia of 2009 and only just matched by the Porsche 911 GT3 as recently as 2013. It retains its place on a list of naturally-aspirated horsepower per-litre heroes that includes the Ferrari LaFerrari, the Porsche 918 Spyder, GMA T.50 and Aston Martin Valkyrie.
4. Mercedes CL65 AMG
But when you want real power, there’s no replacement for displacement… in combination with a whacking great set of turbochargers. That’s why the Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG was able to boast a simply warp-spec 612PS (450kW) all the way back in 2003, thanks to its 6.0-litre twin-turbo V12. It was, with ease, the most powerful production (non-limited) car in the world. This was hypercar-level power at the time and, frankly, it was just too much, as exemplified by the fit the traction control would have any time you tried to deploy all that power to the rear wheels. It’s happiest when cruising at speed, accelerating from 70mph to 140mph with the urgency any normal performance car would demonstrate getting to 70 in the first place.
5. Bugatti Veyron
We couldn’t not include it, could we? The ultimate exercise in raw horsepower has always been the Bugatti Veyron. Even though its successors push past 1,600PS (1,176kW), the 1,000PS (735kW) of the Veyron was an utter hammer blow in 2005 and the signal to all performance car marques that where power is concerned, all bets were off. A monster engineering achievement that cost the VW group so much money that it’s possible not even the run of Chirons (which let’s face it used a development of that engine) covered the expense. You’ve seen it a thousand times and yet it never gets any less crazy: 8.0 litres, 16 cylinders, four turbochargers. Madness.
6. BMW M5
The M5 as a model was always at the centre of what we’d traditionally call the ‘horsepower wars’. But the race between it and Mercedes to bump the figures with each successive generation reached a moment of clarity in 2004, when BMW debuted the E60. Boasting a howling 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated V10, it packed no more capacity, two extra cylinders and wait for it, 100 more horsepower than the E39 it replaced. Quite the bump as it stands but the headline figure was the kicker: a cool 507PS (372kW). For context, it took almost 15 years for the M5 to jump another 100PS (73kW) like the E60 did from the E39, with the release of the 2018 M5 Competition that packed 625PS (459kW).
7. Audi RS6
The biggest leap on the way to that new M5 however, was ironically, the C6 Audi RS 6. While the Mercedes-AMG E63 took a good swing, it was Audi that landed the haymaker. Launched in 2009, the C6 RS 6 packed a 5.2-litre, twin-turbocharged V10, producing no less than 580PS – simply extraordinary at the time for what was a family wagon. This was the last leap in power of this size where it came to super-execs, at least where internal combustion is concerned. Everything launched since has pushed the 570-625PS (419-459kW) range and not much more. It wasn’t a very good car, the C6 RS 6, given its hefty two-tonne kerb weight and dull chassis dynamics, but it was a definitive Top Trumps titan.
8. Corvette ZR1
It’s not just German Bahn-stormers that pumped the power up during this period and how could we have a roundup of horsepower heroes without a nod to our friends across the pond? We thought the C6 Corvette Z06 was a monster with 505PS (371kW) when it launched in 2006. Then this came along in 2008, the Corvette ZR1. Out went the naturally-aspirated 7.0-litre LS7 V8, in came the 6.2-litre, supercharged LS9, good for a simply titanic 647PS (475kW). The ‘Blue Devil’ Corvette leapt the confines of America and made waves in Europe, setting record Nürburgring production car lap times and blistering supercar rivals in performance tests. Sure, the C7 ZR1 kicked out 765PS (562kW) but at the time of its debut, you could get a Dodge Challenger with more power. The C6 was at the time, the most powerful production car (not limited) on sale in the world.
9. Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Of course, Ford wasn't going to take this lying down. How so? By sticking more power than that supercar slayer had, in a Mustang with a live rear axle. Packing a full 671PS (493kW) was the 2013 Mustang GT500, which used a special 5.8-litre Trinity V8 engine – a lump shared with nothing else in the Ford group. The TVS supercharger alone had more displacement than the entire engine of most hot hatchbacks, at 2.3 litres. This thing was good for over 200mph and yet a limited-slip differential was optional – you’ve got to love America. The next GT500 had almost 800PS (588kW), but didn’t come as much of a shock at launch as this thing did.
10. Ferrari F12 Berlinetta
At this point you may be thinking, “yeah the F12 is powerful, but the 812 is more powerfuller”, and you’d be right, but let’s be clear, the 812 was not the moment of shock that the F12 was. In 2012, only the latest greatest hypercars – and Bugattis – had anything over 700PS (514kW). The Lamborghini Aventador and Pagani Huayra were just-launched carbon-tubbed flagships, junior only to the Veyron. Then along comes a leggy front-engined GT, Cavalino-clad and comfy, with punch to match and beat them. Specifically, 740PS (544kW) courtesy of a 6.3-litre naturally-aspirated V12 engine, developed from the lump first seen in the Ferrari Enzo. The 812, while more powerful, didn’t match, let alone beat, the hybrid hypercars that came before it on power. The Berlinetta put itself some 80PS (58kW) ahead of the Enzo and some 120PS (88kW) ahead of the Porsche Carrera GT. When this thing came out, it was a proper shock to the establishment and was a shock to drive too.
11. Koenigsegg One:1
A Koenigsegg? Bloody powerful? Not new information, but the One:1 gets a spot here only in the same context that the Veyron does, in that it smashes a milestone. While the Veyron hit the 1,000PS (735kW) barrier, the One:1 hit the 1,000kW (1,360PS) barrier, or one megawatt, which is why Koenigsegg themselves refer to this as a megacar. It also weighed as many kilograms as it had horsepower on tap, hence the One:1 ratio making the name.
12. Dodge Challenger Demon
Okay, here’s our last American lump to enter. Yes, there are ZR1s, GT500s and the like which are 700PS+ (514kW) heroes but their figures weren’t shocking and truly, in the world of American drag racing, the Challenger Demon’s figure is impressive if not mind-blowing. From an OEM and to European sensibilities however, even a drag-prepped muscle car is its own moment in time when it packs 819PS (602kW).
13. Lotus Evija
And we arrive at today, with what is currently the most powerful production car (including limited series) in the world. Packing over three times the potency of the McLaren F1, the Lotus Evija, with its four electric motors and 2,000PS (1,470kW) punch. It’s here the horsepower wars end, not with a hypercar, but with electric motors, with 0-62mph times under two seconds that in practice, feel like they’re doing physical damage to your body. Will there be 5,000PS (3,677kW) hypercars in 10 years’ time? Maybe. Do we care and can we conceive of or imagine that? No. The graph showing horsepower gained versus the measurable improvement in the experience is at this point at nil on the latter axis.
14. Mercedes-AMG C63
Still, there are definitive moments still happening in the lower ranks, at least for now, though the new Mercedes-AMG C63 S E-Performance is perhaps a lesson on why absolute power, personality be damned, isn’t the way to go. Where once V8s roared, now a four-cylinder turbocharged engine parps. A horsepower hero on its own given it produces 476PS (350kW), or roughly the output of the old 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 in basic trim, it’s augmented by a high-performance two-speed electric motor on the rear axle, for a 680PS (500kW) total system output. That’s a 170PS (125kW) bump on the S-spec car it replaces, though it also happens to weigh over 2,100kg, or some 350kg heavier than the new BMW M3 CS. A moment in time? Yes. Necessarily for the better? We have our doubts…
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