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The American Auto Industry Horsepower Wars

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COMPARE: 400HP-650HP 2012 Coupes Sold in North America
COMPARE:400HP-650HP 2012 Sedans Sold in North America
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FIND: Perfect New Car Match

The American Horsepower Wars
By Larry Nutson Senior Editor
The Chicago Bureau
The Auto Channel

At about this time last year all the buzz was electric vehicles along with the various comparisons to hybrids. The new fuel economy must-have is 40 mpg, up from 30 mpg. And in the not-so-distant future, by 2025, the Feds want a 54.5 mpg fleet average.

As we kick-off the 2012 auto show season, EVs have become one of the many “players” from various car companies and to a certain extent are sitting on the sidelines ready to enter the game when called on.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from economy sits power and performance. And today, via the wizardry of technology, there are lots of high horsepower cars on the market. The 2012 L.A. Auto Show saw Ford introduce a Mustang Shelby GT500 with 650 HP coming from a 5.8-liter V8. It’ll do 200mph.

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Chevrolet took the cover off a new 580 HP Camaro ZL1 convertible. Chrysler has a 540 HP Hemi-V8 in the 300 sedan. And, their SRT in-house performance shop has stuffed 470 HP in the Charger and Challenger. It has resurrected the Super Bee name and has introduced the Yellow Jacket model.

Corvette, America’s sports car, offers high-performance Z06 and ZR1 models with 505HP and 638HP.

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I recently drove a Ford Mustang Boss 302 with 444HP mated to a wonderful-to-shift 6-speed manual. The Boss 302 I drove had the TracKey PCM software installed that adjusts 200 parameters to provide a complete race car calibration and turns everything loose the Mustang has to offer. Easily removable exhaust baffles provide the sound.

The Camaro SS with LT1 engine puts out 426HP. Cadillac offers its CTS-V with a supercharged 556 HP V8 in three body styles… a sedan, a coupe and a station wagon. Each equipped with either an automatic or a 6-speed manual. What a grocery-getter the CTS-V wagon makes!

Now if you aren’t quite satisfied with the factory horsepower and perhaps in need of greater bragging-rights or a sure-win in the quarter mile, don’t fret. Just look to Lingenfelter Performance Engineering (LPE). Lingenfelter modifies about 100 to 110 cars a year that either are brand new, purchased by the customer from a dealer or already owned. LPE offers a supercharger upgrade package for the 2009-2011 Corvette ZR1 LS9 boosting output to 710 HP and 680 lbs-ft of torque for $5295. 2010-2011 Camaro SS LS3 and L99 packages offer choices of 550, 600, 650 and 750 HP or up to a 427 CID-800 HP package. Pricing ranges from $8995 all the way to up to $64,995.

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You say you need a new ride for your lady. How about a LPE Cadillac CTS-V with over 700 HP in either of the three body styles I mentioned for $11,245. A milder package provides 630 HP and is priced at $2595, or a 650 HP package for $4895. All Lingenfelter packages are warranted, depending on the package, for one, two or three years with the typical annual mileage coverage.

Who owns these cars and how are they driven? Well, for the most part they are part of multiple-car household fleets or small collections. Not the daily driver but, the occasional use, go have some fun car. Often they are the third, fourth or fifth car in a household. Driven at the drag strip or as a member of an auto club with a track facility. Actually, my experience with these OEM high-horsepower, street-legal race cars basically leaves me with the thought of track-use only.

Step back in time to the early ‘60s and the beginning of the American Horsepower War. Chevy debuted its famous 409 in the winter of 1961. Pontiac was building a 421-inch motor. Chrysler wasn’t about to be left out and by September 1961 had a long-ram tube 426 cubic inch engine in a Dodge. Horsepower was in the 400-plus range. As development continued at Chevy, Pontiac, and Chrysler, Ford wasn’t about to stand-around and built a 427-cube engine. By 1963 everyone “advertised” engines with 425HP, targeted at drag racing because that was where the young audience was. NASCAR fans were older.

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In reality, Dodge and Plymouth max-wedge Ramcharger production engines made 435-450HP. A drag race prepared engine was pushing 490HP. Then came the Chrysler 426 Hemi in ‘65 and that engine was easily making 550+HP. Of note is that these engines were in cars intended to go fast in a straight line.

Fast forward back to today, and we have at our fingertips tremendous horsepower in various chassis’ with suspensions, steering, brakes, wheels and tires designed to go fast safely and securely on a multitude of road surfaces and configurations.

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And not unlike the mid-60s, today we have purpose-built, drag-race-only cars in the likes of the Dodge Challenger Drag Pak, the Ford Mustang Cobra Jet and the recently announced Chevy COPO Camaro. Pro or semi-Pro drag racers can compete in these cars that will cover the quarter mile in about 9.8 seconds at a speed in the mid-130mph range.

Fifty years later, the American Horsepower Wars continue.

Larry Nutson