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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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Image credits: EPA

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Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
4 months ago

It is wild to me that my 2019 WRX is just average HP these days. These articles are awesome. Keep them coming!!!

Todd Woodward
Todd Woodward
4 months ago

As a serial VW owner, I’ve witnessed this first-hand. My 1976 Rabbit that I owned in 1985 had 70 HP and weighed about 1800 pounds. I currently drive a 2016 GTI that has 220 HP and weighs close to 3000 pounds. Air conditioning, gobs of safety systems, much larger wheels, and other tech have done this to most modern cars.

Elhigh
Elhigh
4 months ago

Ah, a data dump. Much love.

It’s hilarious to see that my Prius is quicker than a (smog-strangled, I readily confess) Mustang from the 80s.

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
4 months ago
Reply to  Elhigh

This kind of comparison is actually what i wanted to see when I look at the image showing the Cobra and the SRT Charger. I was hoping for one that showed exactly the kind of thing you descibe. Mustang vs. Prius vs. minivan or something. really show had sad things got there at the end of the 70s before they figured out efficiency AND power.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
4 months ago

So very interesting, thank you.

I have owned three mid 80ies Citroën BXes, always amazed how much you could get with such a light weight:
A 4-5 passenger cool looking hatchback car, with a huge trunk which could hold a baby buggy, easily capable of doing 100 mph, getting 35 mpg average, and only weighing 875kg (under 2000 lbs).
It even had the powerful air/gas suspension and braking system, used on many Rolls Royces and big Mercs.
Gotta find one again 🙂

Last edited 4 months ago by Jakob K's Garage
TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

My inner nerd want to see average wheel size and overall tire diameter graphed as well. We used to upsize wheels to fit larger brakes, but we are way past that particular need: now it’s vanity and upselling. And those larger wheels cost us in efficiency—it’s quite noticeable in EVs

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

That would be interesting to see. I’m gonna guess the average was 13s or 14s in 1975.

I’ve thought about how big rims actually need to be to clear brakes.

The Army’s heavy haul trucks use 20″ wheels that clear the brakes. So any wheels bigger than 20s are excessively large, always.

But the largest wheels that barely clear the brakes on any Class 2 light truck are 18s on newer Ford Super Dutys. That’s on a pickup that is rated to tow and stop like 20,000lb. So maybe 18s are okay, but not on smaller cars?

Well…… Up through 2006 model year, f350s had 16″ wheels. That is apparently big enough to clear brakes that are apparently sufficient for the 15,000lb towing capacity and 26,000lb GVWR.

So any car that has less than 26,000lb GCWR but bigger than 16″ wheels is for pure vanity(or track use). I utterly abhor the factory 24s on Escalades now.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

One of the reasons I moved away from 80s Subarus was how difficult it was to find affordable 13” tires by the late 2000s. Now I understand that is the case for 14”. There isn’t that much of a choice on TireRack in 16” for my early wrx, even.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Umm…. There are plenty of cheap 13s at Discount Tire in 2024. Still tons of Civics and Geos on the road that use them. In the late 2000s these cars were barely 5 years old.

Obviously your only choices are all seasons and winter tires, not gonna find all terrains or performance tires or anything in a 175/75r13.

People have told me that it would be more difficult to find 15″ tires than 16s, especially in all terrains. And….. That’s just not the case. I can get 15″ tires in any size, as all seasons, winter tires, or several flavors of all terrains, and in several widths. At any tire store.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I should have noted that, in my Subaru phase, I was a single father and bought used for my $150-300 beaters. I often would buy a car, grab the tires, and then sell it on with the ones off my daily

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

That’s fair, not gonna find used 13″ tires.

Elhigh
Elhigh
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

13s were pretty common up until the 80s. My 87 truck came with 14s, which aren’t the easiest to find tires for anymore. I shudder to think what it would take to find something even slightly different from absolutely barebones average for a 13 anymore.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago

An average car in 1975 weighed 4000lb? And this is a total average, taking into account all the N600s and Beetles and Corollas and Pintos and Chevettes? In 1975 half ton fullsize pickups were consistently under 4000lb, and cars under 2000lb were everywhere. I don’t understand what’s bringing the average up so high. Were there really so many 5000lb+ sedans so as to cancel out all the 1700lb cars?

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

A full sized Chevy like a Caprice weighed 4300 pounds. They sold a lot of full sized American cars back then, pulling the average way up I guess. I too was pretty surprised at the average weight in 1975. First wave of federal smog and safety was in effect too, adding weight with the big battering ram 5 mph bumpers.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

Yeah I guess. I know they sold a lot of fullsize cars then, and many were over 4000lb, but few were over 4500lb. I guess Caprice really outsold Beetles and Corollas and Pintos enough to keep the average that high?

Cerberus
Cerberus
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I think they picked that year to start the stats as that was the tail end of the real land barges (also the first year for mandated catalytic converters—not a coincidence) as the big cars started to downsize right after then. Because it is an industry average, you can see two things reflected in the rapid drop shown in the graph: the increased adoption of smaller cars and the downsizing of the land barges.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

They were shockingly massive, and sold in such large numbers. For some reason there are 3-4 early ’70s cars in my hood and it’s pretty funny to see them in the context of 2024 cars.

Elhigh
Elhigh
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Considering the take rate on those little imports vs. big-boat Americans, that sounds about right actually.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  Elhigh

I’m not sure what the take rate actually was on those little imports. I do know that Japanese car sales blew up in 1974, and I do know that as early as 1960, the Volkswagen was a thorn in the side of the Big Three. Did yachts really outsell small cars by that overwhelming a difference? I guess they did.

Vee
Vee
4 months ago

I think a lot of this data is skewed, and very heavily at that. A minivan can be anything from a Dodge Caravan to a Ford C-Max, but almost all are car-based, versus actual panel vans that are essentially cab forward SUVs since they’re truck-based.
The other thing is that it doesn’t cut off the low end for low trim or small vehicles to match the conditions of today, where those just plain don’t exist (I have many angry words for those responsible for that eradication as well), meaning that modern data will trend massively higher. There’s no Plymouth Challenger Sapporo or Ford Escort equivalent these days, and almost all vehicles are forcibly sold at higher trim levels with the higher level options, giving them more power and weight.

There’s also the issue that this seemingly only takes in data from American sources. Plenty of European and Japanese vehicles were still pushing limits to be as powerful as possible while the U.S. was dealing with lowering emissions. For example a 1983 Nissan Skyline RS was making 150HP from two unboosted liters, while an ’83 Mustang GT 5.0 made 140HP from an engine two and a half times as big, and Ford’s own ’93 Sierra XR4 made 144HP from a 2.6L engine. Those are power to displacement figures U.S. manufacturers wouldn’t make common until the early 1990s.

Also, 1980s Italian exotics were sloooooow. And the manfucturers did not give a shit, because people would still buy them. An ’85 Testarossa did a 13.5 second quarter mile, while a fuckin’ L-Body Charger Turbo did it in 15.2, and the fabled ’87 Grand National GNX did it in a comparable 13.5 seconds. There’s a reason why the Honda/Acura NSX, Dodge Viper, and Jaguar XJ-R 15 scared the shit out of the Italians in 1990.

V10omous
V10omous
4 months ago

Some of the weird combos from the engine chart are what I want to know more about:

#4 – TBI, fixed valve timing, multivalve. A few cars and zero trucks.

#7 – Port injected, VVT, 2 valve. I actually own this combo in a car, but that little blob around 2010 can’t all be Dodge Vipers.

#11 – DI, fixed timing, multivalve. A few of both cars and trucks.

What are these vehicles?

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

TBI and multivalve describes almost all Hondas for a few years in the 80s, not sure of any others.

VVT and 2 valve sure is weird. I also don’t know of any non-Viper car to have this combination.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
4 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

The last generation of GM 60 degree pushrod V6 engines had VVT, and sold at considerable volume. Those were the 3.5 and 3.9 liter V6’s that replaced the 3800 Buick engine in the full size FWD cars. I suspect that is the blip of ‘7’ in the car category that you see in the mid 00’s. The VVT version of the LS v8 in GM trucks are the cause of the stripe of ‘7’ in the truck graph. They put the VVT V8’s in some cars as well, but at less volume than the V6’s.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
4 months ago

The GR Corolla makes 300hp from 1.5 liters. That’s double the hp of a 1975 5.7 liter Chevy small-block. I believe it’s not impossible to get a usable 100hp out of a 750cc engine. Even with all the tech, a subcompact can still be under 3000lb. But nobody wants to do that, not at scale.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

A 1,700 lb streamliner sports car with a high-revving 660cc inline-4 making 120-ish horsepower could both perform well and get excellent fuel economy.

If it had a frontal area of 1.6 m^2 and a Cd value of 0.20, 100 horsepower would be enough to exceed 150 mph top end, the car would have competitive acceleration with a Miata, and the fuel economy would exceed 70 mpg highway. It could have its power reduced to be sold in Japan as a Kei car. It wouldn’t cost a lot to build and the weight could be achieved with conventional materials. If the 1,900 lb Mitsubishi Mirage with space for 5 and a bigger engine could pass safety standards, it should be doable for something like this, if only barely.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

Well considering sportbikes get 100+ horsepower out of 750cc or smaller all the time, I’d say you’re right. However, torque curves, gearing, and weight start to get complicated, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get 100+ horsepower from 750cc usable for a 1000lb+ vehicle without forced induction.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

So what’s wrong with forced induction?

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

Well it’s a contrast to the sportbikes I just used as an example, and I wasn’t sure if you were thinking forced induction. Especially because 100hp from 750cc is conservative if we’re talking forced induction, 100 very usable boosted horsepower is very possible from 500cc.

In general though, I don’t like forced induction in many applications. I don’t think forced induction is the best option for daily driver appliance types of cars, because the extra cost and complexity, much increased stress on all engines components, increased sensitivity to oil quality, increased sensitivity to fuel quality, are all detrimental in this use case and just aren’t worth the power to weight improvement and questionable fuel economy benefit. A larger naturally aspirated engine is much simpler and more durable, and often delivers the same fuel economy.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago

This data begs the question, Could we reduce the power, increase efficiency, decrease emissions, and still have drivable cars? Like do we really need 350 hp in a small car?

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

I don’t. I thought 90 hp in a 1980’s VW was plenty of fun.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

I agree. My 78 rabbit was an absolute blast to drive.

Space
Space
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

Probably, the weight drop from a smaller engine would increase efficiency slightly and sometimes pull better mpg depending on how hard you will run the new smaller engine.
But there is much lower hanging fruit, aerodynamics and wheel size making a large difference. Mild hybrid or forced induction could also be considered with added cost and complexity.
I guess automakers just assume everyone wants more power? Or maybe it’s easier to just make the baseline engine powerful so they have less engines in the lineup.

JDE
JDE
4 months ago

How much does the BEV portlyness skew the average weight quotient in the last decade?

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago

Can you do vehicle density in that cars today are smaller than the big cars of the 70s but bigger than the 80-90 econoboxes? I would love to see mass/volume graphs.

Also, old people bitch about how bad cars are today and that all that government regulation and pollution control stuff killed cars when in reality the data backs that the electronic controls of ICE motors have yielded fantastic returns on power and efficiency.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

Yeah, just imagine how good it could be if we had modern electronic engine controls but no catalytic converters, exhaust particulate filters, hybrids, or fuel economy regulation?

AlterId
AlterId
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Asthmatically good. I reckon.

Hotdoughnutsnow
Hotdoughnutsnow
4 months ago

This is indeed fascinating @Lewin! Now do safety! We’re all most like familiar with the crash test with the 59 Bel Air vs 2009 Malibu… I’d like to see some more data about modern safety and survivability (especially given some recent data about increase in deaths). Cars are bigger and heavier for safety reasons, right?

Fjord
Fjord
4 months ago

I would argue not. A couple years ago I compared stats of a Chevy Spark or similar against an ’80s hatch. The Spark met current safety requirements and had more standard features but was only 500 lb heavier than the ’80s car. My takeaway is that modern safety ‘costs’ 500 lb. The rest is due to people wanting more luxury stuff for comfort and status, people getting fat, and cheap credit.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  Fjord

Maybe 500lb, I think it’s less than that. Look at the weight difference between a 1992 Miata and a 2024 Miata that meets safety requirements. It’s less than a 500lb difference, and that’s without taking into account all the equipment that the ND has that the NA doesn’t.

Fjord
Fjord
4 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Sure but I think that’s a best case scenario when a manufacturer is trying really hard to meet a specific goal. I was thinking of an econobox situation where the manufacturer is doing the bare minimum for compliance without getting fancy or trying to do anything smart.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  Fjord

That’s fair

SteveR
SteveR
4 months ago

And yet every morning I have to commute, I get stuck behind a bunch of idiots merging onto the highway going 45.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago
Reply to  SteveR

Right! I want to stay in the right lane as I do not really speed but the right lane is where people merge going 20+ mph UNDER the speed limit.

Chronometric
Chronometric
4 months ago

My primary three vehicles weigh under 2700 lbs, measure less than 15′ long, and tally under 130 hp. Yet somehow I manage to get around comfortably, average mid 20s mpg, haul stuff and people, and even have some fun doing it – all while avoiding the environmental impact of new car manufacturing.

Progress isn’t always progressive.

Livinglavidadidas
Livinglavidadidas
4 months ago

Forgive my reading comprehension if this is addressed, I got distracted by the pictures. Are these averages by models available or models sold?

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago

Of note, these figures are based specifically on the make/model/years of cars sold.

The fuel economy per unit of displacement may not have gone down much, but consider the vehicles these big engines are going into. They’re overweight things with aerodynamics that tend to be worse than your average car. A car with more mass and a higher CdA is going to inevitably consume more fuel for an engine with a given BSFC graph, a given wheel size, a given driveline efficiency, and a given set of gear ratios.

If you were to account for vehicle mass and CdA values, I think the fuel economy per unit of engine displacement would show a more dramatic drop.

Consider the Corvette C5, weighing in at about 1,500 kg, with a Cd of 0.28 and a frontal area about 1.9 m^2, with its massive 5.7L LS1 V8, can eek out 30 mpg at a steady 70 mph. Its overall CdA value is comparable to a 2nd gen Toyota Prius, which gets about 40 mpg at a steady 70 mph, using a more efficient Atkinson cycle engine and a hybrid drive system.

It’s not so much that V8s are inherently greatly more thirsty than turbocharged inline-4s, so much as it is V8s tend to get placed into bigger, heavier, less aerodynamic vehicles.

I think it is possible to build a streamlined V8 musclecar exceeding 40 mpg highway, and a streamlined TVR-like V8 sports car exceeding 60 mpg highway.

JDE
JDE
4 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

I have a 392 and manual trans in a reportedly portly Dodge vehicle that gets 24 mpg all day on the freeway at 75 mph. I had the same or better fuel economy from a much sleeker 5.7 F-Body, also with a 6 speed and probably close enough gearing. But almost 200 fewer ponies. The real difference is the final drive ratio, or maybe torque of the engines. the newer car is barely idling at 75, so I assume that is why it is as efficient as it is.

I know one gear in the two motorcycles I have which are both around 1700 CC, (one Metric one US) results in 10 MPG difference in Fuel economy, but honestly I don’t notice it much in ride and feel.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  JDE

The taller gear lowers the operating RPM of the engine at a given speed, and ICE engines tend to have peak efficiency at about 2/3 of full torque output and 1/3 of max RPM. This is not the case for all ICE engines, but is a good general rule of thumb.

The closer your engine operates to its most thermally efficient operating point, wherever it is, the higher its thermal efficiency in use tends to be. There are lots of chemical and mechanical reasons for this that will vary based upon the engine’s design, fuel type, and operating temperature, among other things.

When you shift to a higher gear, your engine’s operating point is now at a reduced RPM and higher torque output from the pervious gear. In both of your cases, it then runs at a more thermally efficient operating point, resulting in increased fuel economy.

Last edited 4 months ago by Toecutter
Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago
Reply to  JDE

Highway fuel economy is really complicated. Drag from air and from tires is the most important factor, but then the brake specific fuel consumption of the engine and how well the gearing optimizes for maximum brake specific fuel consumption comes into play.

Cam.man67
Cam.man67
4 months ago

This is a great article, thanks. I’d like to comment particularly on trucks, which have gotten so profligate and massive, they’ve become aesthetic train wrecks.

I’ll compare 3 truck I’ve had or have.

The first was my ‘69 Chevy C10. It was a regular cab longbed with a Z/28 350 and a 3-on-the-floor. That’s about it, no power steering, 4-wheel-drums, and a heater that occasionally worked. It weighed 3600lbs empty and got 10mpg thanks mostly to 4.11s and a heavy foot.

My current daily is a ‘96 GMC K1500 ECSB, which is fully loaded (for ‘96) and weighs 5200 lbs. That’s a big jump from the ‘69, but keep in mind that’s the addition of 4wd, and extended cab, a/c, and other amenities. I average about 13mpg unloaded, but when I’m towing my cattle trailer it does 10mpg. I believe my truck, a Z71 is rated to tow 8800lbs though it routinely hauls hay wagons over 10k.

My wife’s truck is a ‘21 Silverado 1500. Her truck is, aside from A/C and the tow package, as base a truck as one can order. It’s even got the old 4.3, though it produces a healthy-ish 280hp, 25hp more than the 5.7 in my ‘96. It weighs 6400lbs IIRC, and unloaded it averages 16mpg. Loaded up with the same trailer as my ‘96, it also only can achieve 10mpg. I believe her truck is rated to tow 8200lbs. So, it’s 25 years newer, in the same basic configuration, has the same-ish amenities, a smaller engine, and weighs over 1000 pounds more. It also has dramatically worse ground clearance but I dont have hard numbers to compare them.

Her truck is quieter than mine for sure, but I actually prefer the ride of my ‘96, and the torque of my 5.7 means that even though it makes a few less hp than the 4.3, mine is the truck we prefer to tow with. On the highway hers is constantly trying to find the right gear, while mine just chugs along in OD. The thing I find most interesting is that loaded fuel economy between the two trucks is identical. So have trucks actually gotten better since the 90s? More comfortable, maybe. Better at doing work? I’m not so sure.

V10omous
V10omous
4 months ago
Reply to  Cam.man67

So have trucks actually gotten better since the 90s? More comfortable, maybe. Better at doing work? I’m not so sure.

Your analysis is IMO skewed somewhat by comparing the best truck of the 1990s with something that is far from the best modern truck.

I think you’d find if you compared a modern V8 truck to your V8 truck, you’d agree they are much better to tow with. I’ve never owned a modern V6 truck, but I have owned a lot of V8 trucks, from the 90s to my current 2019 and there is no comparison.

My 2019 F350 gasser has much more power and torque than my 1997 K2500 Chevy did, much better brakes, much higher payload, much more confident and stable behavior when towing, and gets about the same fuel mileage as the older truck both loaded and empty.

Last edited 4 months ago by V10omous
JumboG
JumboG
4 months ago
Reply to  Cam.man67

I had a 78 F-150 with a 400 and a 4 speed. It got about 12 mpg, less when towing. It could tow a lot (I don’t know the exact number, let’s say it was rated at around 8k.) I flipped it, and replaced it with a 88 F-250, 351W. It got 12 mpg, could tow 8k lbs and in general was slower than the F-150 (especially when towing.) I sold it and got a 2004 Lincoln Navigotor. It could tow 8k (again, you could really feel the trailer back there,) got 15 mpg and was a lot nicer inside. I now have a 2014 Hemi Ram 1500. It can tow almost 11k lbs, gets as high as 20 mpg and is a very comfortable ride. Also, you hardly know a trailer is back there. So yeah, trucks are better since the 90s. They are nicer, work better and are more efficient.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Cam.man67

Why is that newer truck so dang heavy?!?

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
4 months ago

the average truck from the 70s was a single cab with no frills and was rarely a commuter vehicle. The average truck now is a crew cab that is as nice as any modern entry luxury car. The larger cab, lots of electronics and things like sound dampening and large wheels and tires has added a lot of weight.

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
4 months ago

What “Car SUVs” were around in the 70s-80s?

Fjord
Fjord
4 months ago

AMC Eagle!

Black Peter
Black Peter
4 months ago
Reply to  Fjord

That’s a good point, maybe that’s a segment? Although, then what else, that wasn’t technically on a truck frame? Bronco, Scout, Blazer were all smaller than Suburbans, Travelalls etc, but not really cars.

Black Peter
Black Peter
4 months ago

“SUV” wasn’t even a thing until the Explorer came out as far as I know..

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Black Peter

Nah, the Cherokee really started the modern SUV concept, though the term predates it by quite a margin.

Black Peter
Black Peter
4 months ago

I meant the first time I heard “SUV” was in relation to the Explorer, I see it goes back to 1974 (!!) maybe because I was more interested in sports cars?

Klone121
Klone121
4 months ago

I would imagine the decrease in Sedan and Wagon weight has a lot to do with the transition from Body on Frame to Unibody. I also imaging a driveshaft and solid rear axle weigh a lot more than having two CV joints (noting the transition from predominantly RWD to FWD in the 80’s/90’s.)

Frankencamry
Frankencamry
4 months ago

1600hp should be the Jesko. Bugatti never quite got up there.

If these are composites of vehicles sold, the main factor in truck weight and horsepower is likely the decline of the small truck. The ascendancy of the 1/2 ton as a family hauler has been well documented. Nobody wants to put 5 people in a Ranger, then or now.

VanGuy
VanGuy
4 months ago

The thing that always comes to my mind is from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The one bad guy touts some Rolls-Royce Phantom II as going from 0-100 km/h in 12.5 seconds, and I always think, hey! My ’97 van and my 2012 Prius v both beat that!

Sure, that’s a 30s model, but I’ll take my wins where I can get them.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
4 months ago
Reply to  VanGuy

It even happens concurrently – as a fan of Hardcastle and McCormick (“Driiiiiiive!”), I always notice how the Coyote X, a prototype street-legal race car, seemed to always have just slightly less power than whatever the bad guys were driving in a given chase. Which always seemed to be a stock ’80s big sedan.

Fjord
Fjord
4 months ago

Imagining that alternate reality where the focus was kept on light weight and fuel efficiency, and we’re all driving around in Miata-esque sedans that get 60 mpg…

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
4 months ago
Reply to  Fjord

I feel like you’ve now summoned Toecutter with that incantation. 😉

Data
Data
4 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

If you look in the rear view mirror and say Toecutter three times, he will appear and discuss drag coefficients.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Data

I’ll show up to discuss them with my axe of wisdom, while hauling ass on my Kawasaki KZ1000 with dustbin fairing.

https://youtu.be/c9TgxPZoP-g?t=106

Data
Data
4 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

I like people with knowledge and wisdom. It makes the comments interesting and informative. I miss Rootwyrm’s insights. I always imagined them as read like a Lewis Black rant.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Data

Hopefully he will return one day. He brought a lot of information here and I learned at least as much from his comments as the articles written on this site by its employees.

Pupmeow
Pupmeow
4 months ago

The vehicle weight graphs are interesting. If you remove pickups, you’re seeing very little increase in vehicle weights (which is reflected in 3.15).
Why are trucks so big now? So unnecessarily, dangerously, wildly big.

Fjord
Fjord
4 months ago
Reply to  Pupmeow

The male-with-low-self-esteem is a very lucrative market. Manufacturers locked onto that early and marketed the hell out of it.

Last edited 4 months ago by Fjord
Jack Trade
Jack Trade
4 months ago
Reply to  Fjord

I feel it was about the same time non-automotive stuff began to be marketed as “tactical”…

Genewich
Genewich
4 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

There is also the lack of tiny pickups to bring down the average. A Dodge D50 weighed like 57lbs. Ok, it was really around 2500, but still.

JumboG
JumboG
4 months ago
Reply to  Pupmeow

Largely because they can now carry 4-5 people comfortable, while older trucks could carry 2-3 uncomfortably. Lots of trucks back in the day were 2 door regular cab stripper models, with no AC, no power anything; while ones today are loaded 4 door vehicles and have full carpets and interiors.

Pupmeow
Pupmeow
4 months ago
Reply to  JumboG

You’re right. A lot of it is because they have become people movers.
Still not sure wtf happened to grill height in the last 5 years, but that’s a different discussion.

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
4 months ago

How many TRX’s and Raptors were sold?

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