Home » Here’s How Much Faster, Heavier, And More Powerful Cars Have Gotten Over The Last 50 Years

Here’s How Much Faster, Heavier, And More Powerful Cars Have Gotten Over The Last 50 Years

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Automobiles are a great representation of the world’s state of technology. Once, our society relied upon paper maps and simple mechanical contrivances to send gasoline into our engines. We now ride around in vehicles filled with advanced computers managing everything from engine output to navigating to our destination. Our cars have changed greatly over time, and as it turns out, the EPA has some excellent data on precisely how. Let’s look at weight, horsepower, and 0-60 times over the years.

It’s all thanks to the 2023 EPA Automotive Trends report. It’s bursting with metrics on how cars have changed. It’ll tell you when multi-valve engines and multi-port injection became a big deal, and it’ll tell you when automatics took over from manuals in the efficiency stakes. But what we’re interested in here is how much faster, heavier, and more powerful cars have gotten over the years.

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Faster? Oh yes indeed. Modern cars are lightning fast compared to those of yesteryear. The EPA has data bearing that out all the way back to model year 1978. Now, we say faster, but pedants might suggest we say quicker here, as we’re precisely interested in acceleration. Let’s dive into the 0-60 mph acceleration stats for vehicles from the last five decades or so.

Today’s Average 0-60 Time Is As Fast As An Old Ferrari

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EPA data on zero-to-60 mph times. Interestingly, the agency notes that these figures are not directly submitted to the EPA. Instead, for most vehicles, the numbers “are calculated for most vehicles using vehicle attributes and calculation methods developed by MacKenzie and Heywood (2012).” EVs and hybrids have their times sourced externally as their power delivery means they don’t work with these methods.

Right away, we can see an interesting trend in these times. Cars got much slower in the late 70s and early 1980s — no surprise given the Malaise Era was in full swing. Engines were choked by emissions equipment and everything was just blah. I mean, just look at this LTD try to get through the quarter mile:


Eventually, manufacturers learned to work with emissions regulations and started building cleaner, more powerful engines. A downward trend in zero-to-60 times kicked off in the early 1980s and continues to this day.

Interestingly, the trend is very consistent across all types of vehicles. Sedans and wagons have seen a 44% drop in zero-to-60 times since 1978. Car-based SUVs have dropped 46%, while truck-based SUVs and minivans have dropped by 42%. For pickup trucks, times have improved the most, by 48%. The EPA notes that much of this is down to increased power seen in all vehicles across the board. In pickup trucks, this is often touted as a way to increase towing and payload capacity, for example, but it also has a side benefit in making trucks faster.

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There’s also the fact that EVs have completely changed the game. With full torque available from zero RPM, they’re capable of devastatingly quick zero-to-60 mph times compared to internal combustion vehicles with similar power outputs.


It’s funny to think that the average zero-to-60 mph time is now 7.6 seconds. That’s as quick as a 1980 Ferrari 308 GTSi, and just a hair slower than a 1988 Porsche 944 S or a 1985 Buick Regal Grand National. Overall, it’s less than half the average time posted in the early 1980s.

Cars Got Lighter, Then Heavier

The funny thing is that vehicles have gotten much quicker despite their increasing heft over the years. However, the story since 1975 is actually quite an interesting one. We first see cars getting much lighter, with average vehicle weights dropping from 4,060 pounds to 3,200 pounds from 1975 to 1981. That’s a full 21%—imagine chopping a fifth off every vehicle’s weight!  Since then, weights started to rise, slowly but surely, to their highest point ever in model year 2022, of 4,303 pounds per vehicle.

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Cars are heavier today, but not as much as you’d think. Or, compared to 1975 at least. The early 1980s did see a dip in average weights, but it’s been uphill since there. Overall though, the average vehicle is only up 6%. Sedans and wagons are actually lighter by 11%, and car-based SUVs down 3%. Truck-based SUVs are 7% higher, though, and minivans are up 9%. Most of all, though, it’s all about trucks, with pickups 29% heavier since 1975.

Broken down by vehicle type, we see interesting trends, too. Back in 1975, sedans and wagons outweighed the average pickup by around 45 pounds. That’s not surprising, given that trucks used to be spartan machines and sedans and wagons had full, plush interiors. Today, the story is quite the opposite, with pickups a full 1,575 pounds heavier than sedans and wagons on average. That’s even accounting for recent weight loss in the pickup class. Weight saving measures by some automakers, such as by using aluminum in truck bodies, has seen pickups shrink from their 2014 peak average weight of 5,484 pounds.


Heavier Cars With Better 0-60 Times? You Know That Means More POWER

As you might expect by the acceleration figures, automakers have made up for this added weight with more power. The last five decades have been a bumper harvest for horsepower, ignoring a dip in the late 1970s as Malaise Era regulations saw average horsepower dip into the low 100s. Since then, it’s been a strong upward trend overall with only a few dips along the way.

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Across all cars, average power is up a full 88% to 259 horsepower from 1975 to 2022. Compared to the lows of 1981, though, the 2022 figure is a full 153% higher. According to EPA figures, over half of new vehicles have more than 250 hp, and the highest horsepower for an individual car is 1,600 hp (likely a Bugatti Chiron). Preliminary data for model year 2023 suggests the average could be even higher at 272 hp.

Interestingly, sedans and wagons showed the smallest growth of 64% compared to 1975, with their average power now sitting at around the 240 horsepower mark. Minivans and vans were higher at 68%, with truck-based SUVs up 74%. Car-based SUVs have jumped to 118% higher than their 1975 figure, but pickups have done best of all. The average pickup has just under 350 horsepower, a full 137% increase compared to 1975.

More Powerful, Quicker, And Heavier Cars, But Still Cleaner

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Despite all this, we haven’t necessarily paid for more horsepower with more CO2 emissions. The EPA’s data compares model year 1978 to 2022, and the results show engine technology has come a long way. As it turns out, a 1,600 horsepower hypercar outputs emissions similar to a late 1970s vehicle with less than 250 horsepower. Lower-powered vehicles are, by and large, far better performers. Meanwhile, EVs output zero carbon dioxide, regardless of horsepower output. They sit along the bottom of the graph, mocking their fossil-fueled brethren.

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Indeed, we see that technology has transformed the internal combustion engine greatly. Fuel consumption per horsepower has gone down by far, while horsepower per displacement has skyrocketed. In the latter case, much of those gains can be put down to the magic of forced induction. Interestingly, though, fuel consumption per displacement has only shrunk by a small degree. In other words, your 5.0-liter engine probably uses a bit less fuel than a 5.0-liter donk from 46 years ago, but it also probably makes way more horsepower.

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It’s interesting to see all of these statistics stuck together, too. We can see that fuel economy massively increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s, no surprise given the impact of multiple fuel crises on the nation. Weight has risen, but horsepower has risen more, and hence it’s no surprise today’s cars are so much quicker than before. The EPA has also started tracking vehicle footprints, noting that cars are getting larger, though it only has data stretching back to the mid-2000s. That’s something to watch in future.


We all have ideas about how cars have changed over time. What’s great is to see the trends actually laid bare with cold, hard numbers. With data to hand, it’s easy to see what’s really going on, and what’s just bluster!

[Ed Note: The EPA’s report dives into the engine technology that has gone into vehicles becoming more efficient. There’s discussion about start-stop technology, variable valve timing, hybrids, and different fuel delivery methods. This plot shows how engine fuel delivery, valve number, and valve timing has changed over the years. You can see that in the 1970s, pretty much all cars were carbureted, with just two valves per cylinder with fixed valve timing. Now we see lots of multi-valve engines with direct injection and variable valve timing:

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The EPA describes this a bit, saying:

Engines that use gasoline as a fuel (including hybrids and plug-in electric hybrids) are further divided based on three broad parameters for Figure 4.3: fuel delivery, valve timing, and number of valves per cylinder. These parameters enable better control of the combustion process, which in turn can allow for lower CO2 emissions, increased fuel economy, and/or more power. Fuel delivery refers to the method of creating an air and fuel mixture for combustion. The technology for fuel delivery has changed over time from carburetors to fuel injection systems located in the intake system, and more recently to gasoline direct injection (GDI) systems that spray gasoline directly into the engine cylinder. Figure 4.3 also breaks out engines that can use GDI or port fuel injection (GDPI) depending on the engine operating conditions.

The valves on each cylinder of the engine determine the amount and timing of air entering and exhaust gases exiting the cylinder during the combustion process. Valve timing has evolved from fixed timing to variable valve timing (VVT), which can allow for much more precise control. In addition, the number of valves per cylinder has generally increased, again offering more control of air and exhaust flows. Combined, these changes have led to modern engines with much more precise control of the combustion process.

Figure 4.3 shows many different engine designs as they have entered, and in many cases exited, the automotive market. Some fleetwide changes occurred gradually, but in some cases (for example trucks in the late 1980s), engine technology experienced widespread change in only a few years. Evolving technology offers opportunities to improve fuel economy, CO2 emissions, power, and other vehicle parameters. The following analysis will look at technology trends within gasoline engines (including hybrids), diesel engines, and will spotlight emerging trends in PHEVs and EVs, a rapidly growing segment of the market. Each of these categories of engine technologies has unique properties, metrics, and trends over time

Fascinating stuff! -DT]


Image credits: EPA

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3 months ago

It’s good to know we can stop criticizing people for having high HP vehicles. It’s amazing how far efficiency gains have come for everythung except toasters.

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