Monday, June 14, 2004

The End of Power -- Rich Ceppos has an interesting column about his mother's '67 GTO v. the new one. His bottom line is hard to argue with: today's average car takes a smaller bite out of an average family's yearly income and delivers a lot more than the average car of yesteryear.

But, he makes two errors. First, he equates his mother's Goat with the current model. Okay, every column needs a hook, but in 1967, Ma Ceppos bought a plain-jane family sedan with a big motor. Today's GTO is a premium personal luxury coupe. Only the nameplate's the same.

The second error is more consequential. He closes with this sentence, "Power, it seems, is one thing almost everyone’s looking to invest in." Wrong. Today's cheap power herald's the end of power as a meaningful car-buying criterion.

Herewith the Downshift Limits of Power Theory: Car buyers will not pay a premium for power beyond 13.0 pounds per horsepower.

At 13.0 lbs/bhp, you get 0-60 performance of about 5.5 seconds. Apart from buyers of low-volume specials like the BMW M-series, the Audi RS6, the big 12-cylinder luxobarges, there's no use for more power than that. Actually, there's really no need for more power than what will get you from 0-60 in about 12 seconds (enough to merge you and your Toyota Prius on the interstate safely). But the Downshift Limit of Power Theory (henceforth "LPT") posits that the average consumer won't perceive any marginal benefit beyond 13.0 lbs/bhp and will shift power down or off his or her list of comparative features.

How's this going to play out in real life? Subaru has introduced the 2005 Outback 2.5 XT Wagon and is touting a 0-60 time of 5.9. At Downshift Central, that's mind-boggling. A family wagon, from Subaru no less, that is as quick as or quicker than a Boxster or an RX-8. That doesn't turn the Outback XT into a sports car -- we are not blind to the fact that there are lots of other qualities that distinguish the Boxster from an Outback -- but that's an interesting benchmark. For the record, the Subaru's 250 bhp haul around 3400 lbs, or 13.66 lbs/bhp.

Cheap power and still relatively cheap gas will mean that Subaru's competitors will offer more ponies, too. But, beyond a certain point, the average car buyer won't feel an appreciable difference in performance. Then, power will yield to price, economy, reliability, styling, features, etc. We think that certain point is 13.0 lbs/bhp, though we could be on the low side.

The LPT is heresy to those who, like Ceppos apparently, believe that power always matters. But, clearly it already doesn't. The Camry and Accord are not the most powerful cars on the planet. And, almost every nameplate has a tiered strategy with lower-powered versions that outsell the more powerful and more expensive. What the LPT means is that there is a point at which more power will not matter at all at even the upper tier. Nobody's clamoring for a 250 bhp Camry (with a curb weight of 3046, 13.0 lbs/bhp means a 237 bhp motor is enough).

A corollary to the Downshift Limit of Power Theory is that engines will become commoditized. The economics are such that it probably still makes sense for the big automakers to design and build proprietary engines (though those engines are increasingly being used across more and more brands). But, at a certain point, the engine won't matter any more than the tires.

Is it time to start thinking about the virtues of an open-source 2.0L I4 or 3.0L V-6?