You Only Need 50 HP To Get By Even In Modern Traffic

Provewrong 50hp

Feeling a little spicy, a little argumentative? Spoiling for a bit of a fight to break that mid-week monotony? Then, buddy, are you in luck, because you’re currently reading the latest installment of the Autopian’s most combative series, Prove Me Wrong! We’ve covered BMW Bangle designs and James Garner v. Steve McQueen and Sedans v. Wagons before, and now we’re going to tackle something that I feel strongly about: power. Well, really, probably lack of power. Because I honestly believe that you can get by just fine, even in our modern world of laser hats and cellular HAM radios, with just 50 horsepower.

I know this to be true because I’ve done it, for decades, even, in a variety of cities across America. I lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years, a city full of highways and freeways and overpasses and interchanges and hills and assholes, and my primary daily driver for that whole time was a 50 hp 1973 VW Beetle.Vw50

More recently my daily driver for the past few years has been my 1990 Nissan Pao, and that car’s little 987cc engine only makes 52 hp, and, again, I get by just fine.

I don’t avoid any driving situations, either: I merge onto highways with no problem, I can hold 70 to 75 mph for long highway trips, I can break speed limits in probably 75% of my normal driving situations (especially around schools), and I’ve never once been late or had to avoid going somewhere because my car has about a quarter the horsepower of the average car on the road today.


It’s simply a non-issue.

I’m not saying more horsepower isn’t fun – of course it’s fun, that’s why I have my monster Yugo GV Plus, which makes a face-melting 67 hp around! I get the appeal of speed, but I also get the appeal of feeling like your going fast, but in reality you’re just not.

But, that’s a slightly different point – right now I’m just talking about practical concerns, and less about fun. I’m just saying that I personally have driven cars with about 50 horsepower, and I have yet to have that ever be a limiting factor in what I can do or where I can go. Well, I mean, not counting, say, towing a camper full of marble statues. I mean in normal, day-to-day use.

Now, I can already hear some of you: Jay-jay, you’re screaming, stop being an idiot! Those cars you’re talking about weigh, what, 1600 pounds?

Damn, disembodied voice, you’re pretty dead on! Both the Beetle and the Pao clock in right around 1600 pounds or so, and I get that if you want, say, a more modern car with actual safety features besides floormats that will hold your expelled organs without spillage, then sure, what I drive isn’t for you.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the power-to-weight ratio of the Pao, which is about 30 pounds per horsepower. If we say that a modern car with safety features needs to be at least 3,000 pounds, then I think we can say the equivalent yes-you-can-get-by-just-fine horsepower number is 100 hp.

A 3,500 pound car would need 116 hp, a 4,000 pound car wants 133 hp, and so on. These are still tiny power numbers by modern standards, and yet I still maintain that you can get by just fine.

Maybe that’s the metric I should use: if you have a car that makes at least one horsepower per 30 pounds, I know, empirically, that you can get by just fine in almost any normal traffic situation out there. Will you be able to pass everyone? No. Will you sometimes need to merge or change lanes by ducking behind someone instead of darting out in front? Yes.

But will you be able to merge onto a modern highway? Absolutely. Will you get where you need to go in roughly the same amount of time as anyone else in higher-horsepower cars? Damn right you will.

Again, I’m not saying that power is bad or not fun, because duh. What I am saying is that anyone who thinks they need 300 hp to comfortably merge onto a highway is deluding themselves. Get a car with more power because you want it, but I’m not buying that you need it.

Plus, look at the world outside of America; a VW Up!, a very modern car by any estimation, makes 60 horsepower and is right about 2,000 pounds, which is about 33 pounds per horsepower. But an Up! is admittedly pretty small. A Skoda Fabia is a bigger car, and you can get those with as little as 65 hp, and weighs about 2,568 pounds, which is 39 pounds per hp, and people manage to get by with that. It’s not just me!

Again, I know all this because I live that 50 hp life, and I’m a happy man who can merge onto highways, drive legally on any road in America, and get where I need to go.

So there.


Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

157 Responses

  1. While you can definitely be just fine with 30 hp/lb, and I do everyday. The average SUV loving suburbanite wouldn’t love it. Their full size SUV would need full throttle and a tailwind to maintain 70 mph up a 6% interstate grade with only two small-mid sized adults.

    2022 Chevy Suburban
    Curb weight: 5616 lb (assuming fuel included)
    2x 150 lb passengers
    30 lb/hp = 187-197 hp depending on if you count the passengers
    15% drivetrain loses
    Coefficient of drag: 0.35
    Coefficient of rolling: 0.014 estimate using 35 psi recommended tire pressure

  2. I don’t understand most of what’s being written here about getting away from lights and people tailgating at speeds well over the posted limits…..where is this happening? I drive all over the US in a classic Mini with about 70 hp, I’m usually first away at a light and I have no one crowding me as I tool down the parkway. I also seem to be quicker down an on ramp than most drivers even with their modern high HP cars – they’re just not in that big of a hurry.
    Unless that poster’s Beetle is covered in Trump stickers or anti-American slogans or something, I can’t understand why someone would take issue with a slow car? Slow drivers do tend to bring out the aggression, but not perceived slow cars like a Beetle. Most people recognize that they’re not quick and just roll with it.
    I agree with Torch, we don’t need 400hp sedans. We LIKE them, but we sure don’t need them.
    My 2009 MINI clubman had 169 hp (when new) and the real saving grace on it is the turbo, that torque adder really helps, especially on mountain roads and such

    1. Tailgating like this happens in SoCal quite often. Some drivers get mad, but the VW scene is massive here so most people are familiar enough with old Beetles and Bus’s to know they’re slow.

    2. I agree with you. My Volvo 240 has about the power to weight ratio this article is talking about and I keep up with traffic fine. I do not seem to attract any more anger than you will normally find on NJ streets. It helps that its a manual and you pretty much accelerate at 1/2 to 3/4 throttle at all times, but I am generally even with every Hyundai and Subraru grocery getter at stoplights.

      The lack of horsepower is a disadvantage at highway speeds though. Sure I can cruise at 65-70 all day in the right lane. No one really cares, but I am well aware that the car really has nothing left if I need to accelerate. Modern highway traffic moves FAST. You can totally get by, but if you spend much time on congested fast moving freeways you would probably want more power. Although a lot of this could be solved we actually put a enforced cap of about 75 on freeways.

    3. Nope, no controversial stickers on the back. Just band stickers, local business stickers, parking permits that expired 30 years ago, stuff like that. It completely confuses me. I’ve confirmed that all my lights and everything works. I drive very carefully and never do anything sudden in the Beetle–I treat all the controls as if they’re made of glass and I’m well aware that I’m driving something only marginally safer than a motorcycle. I can drive the exact same way on the exact same roads in my Jetta and not experience the tailgating and the incessant need to pass at all costs. And it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough for me to notice it as a pattern that’s gotten worse in the past couple years.

      I do have a theory…I very much live in Trump country. Maybe those loonies see all the stickers and just assume “liberal” despite none of them actually being remotely political. I am a liberal, but I’m smart enough to not advertise that around here.

      1. “I do have a theory…I very much live in Trump country. Maybe those loonies see all the stickers and just assume “liberal” despite none of them actually being remotely political. I am a liberal, but I’m smart enough to not advertise that around here.”

        If that’s the case a ’72 Superbeetle is the ideal car with which to roll coal at tailgaters.

        1. Ha, nope! Actually all the band stickers are on a side window anyway. I just remembered that on my previous daily driver (2012 VW CC) I did have an anti-trump sticker. I only had one person react to that in any way in the nearly four years I had the sticker on that car.

            1. Heh…they’re nice if you pretend to be like them. As a gay couple, we can’t do a lot of pretending. But our neighborhood of 20 houses or so is very diverse and progressive despite the statistics for our area. I grew up in Kentucky but currently live in southern Indiana, which might as well be part of the South. I actually left the aforementioned VW CC parked in NYC for a week in early 2016 and was a little surprised nothing happened to it lol

  3. It’s enough to keep up for sure. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be enough for other drivers, especially in the past two years. I’ve got a 1972 Super Beetle and I used to drive it everywhere, across the city during rush hour, didn’t matter. But people have gotten very aggressive here and just the perception that my car is slow seems to send people into a red rage. I’ve been tailgated, honked at and flipped off because I was “only” driving five over. I don’t get that behavior in my Sportwagen while going the same speed in the same places. But as soon as people see the Beetle it’s like it’s their mission to run me off the goddamn road. Even going 10 over on the highway in the slow lane, people rush up behind me, tailgate for no good reason for a minute or so, and then blow past me. Again, I don’t get this kind of behavior in my Jetta, people just go around without a pause. It’s getting to where I only use my Beetle for in town errands, but even then, there’s been a sharp increase in aggressive behavior directed specifically at me in my car. I got a “the closer you get the slower I drive” sticker as an experiment.

    Problem is the road rage is beyond just the finger and yelling. Someone tried to cut my fiancee off in traffic a couple months back, but my fiancee wouldn’t let him. The guy pulled out a tire iron and was trying to hit my fiancees car as they were driving along next to each other on the damn highway. With 50 horsepower, you can’t get away from lunatics like that.

    Fifty horsepower used to be enough and I really miss when it was.

    1. “I got a “the closer you get the slower I drive” sticker as an experiment.”

      I LOVE those people. It’s so entertaining getting right on their ass. They think they’re pissing you off, but you can just laugh and laugh at how mad they’re getting.

      Just make sure you have good brakes before you try it.

      Um, I mean, de-escalate every situation! Don’t be aggressive! 🙂

      1. Doesn’t piss me off one bit lol. They can get as angry as they want, and pass me when they want. Its not like I’m crawling along under the speed limit, I do 5 over as a general rule. I love watching them get progressively more pissed off in my rearview mirror though!!

    2. My brother, you are have passed all the tests and are ready to ride a bicycle. For real, this is standard behavior when people see me on my bike. For some reason they absolutely must get ahead, even if we are approaching a stop sign in a 20MPH zone on a winding road with double-yellow line. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    3. I just take my foot off the throttle, If someone is tailgating me in one of my old unsafe cars. The logic being this: “Your braking distance is too short for the speed you are going, let me help you adjust the speed to the distance”. That usually makes them overtake very quickly, so you are free to drive your own speed again.

      I’ve got another one for giving people the high beam, when they overtake dangerously close in front of me: “Oh, so I’m obviously invisible? Maybe this will help you in seing me?”

  4. Having DD’d a Series IIa 88″, hard disagree. Can I do 65mph in it? Sure, but is it safe for me to take on the highway and interact with modern vehicles safely during rush hour? Absolutely not. It’s 67(ish)hp isn’t nearly enough to move it along on a highway safely and that is not even taking into account the act of driving a 54 year old British farm implement above 55 mph.

  5. My old Peugeot 206 made 60-something HP when new, but was probably down to around 50 or so when I owned it. That was more than enough. Getting up to motorway speed was always possible on motorway on-ramps, and it would cruise happily at 80mph. The only problem was getting from say 65 up to 90 would take almost a minute.
    It would just about keep up with Mike Smith’s comment above, of 65mph up a hill, fully laden.

    My current car is the most powerful vehicle I’ve ever owned, it’s a 2006 Polo making *one hundred and five* mighty horsepower, and weighs just over a ton. I have no need* for more power.

    * Hasn’t stopped me dreaming about turbo-ing it, wants and needs are different.

  6. My truck and trailer loaded with race car have a slightly better power:weight ratio than your daily drivers. In that framing it feels like a perfectly adequate amount, I suppose.

  7. I am going to add that the lower your horsepower is, or the slushier your slushbox is, the bigger your responsibility to GTFO of the way! It appears that my 21 lb./hp car can out drag most of the cars in my city. I think most low hp drivers know this. The ones who have adequate horsepower are the ones I’m going to start pushing through stoplights.

      1. I can think of quite a few roads, streets and highways where obeying the posted speed limit is remarkably dangerous, even if you’re all the way to the right. Especially those that are grossly underposted, or where the regular flow of everyday traffic is 20+ mph faster than the posted limit.

        For example, many highways in California move at 75 mph plus, even though the statewide speed limit if you’re towing *anything* is 55 mph. Thankfully, most truck drivers ignore the 55 mph speed limit most of the time.

      2. “Nah, man. Like every driver, my responsibility is to obey the laws, including the speed limit. You don’t like that, you can deal with it in therapy”

        Well said.

  8. An old driving instructor I had said a good bar for what he considered a “sports car” was 10 lb/hp. My Z is almost exactly on that point, and it feels perfect to me for that category of vehicle, so I’d agree with him.

    The slowest car I’ve had since highschool would be my recently-sold 2014 Mazda6. It was 182hp for 3250ish lbs. So about 18 lb/hp. It was absolutely fine around town, merging on the highway, etc. But honestly, it was not the best for passing either on two lane country roads or on the highway. It definitely required the go-fast pedal to be pinned to the floor and you needed to give yourself a bit of time to get a head start.

    Obviously the whole gearing caveat applies, but I couldn’t imagine driving a car that’s 30 hp/lb in any sort of busy downtown area. You could probably merge onto the highway but I’d be terrified to drive it on an urban expressway during rush hour.

    1. “Nah, man. Like every driver, my responsibility is to obey the laws, including the speed limit. You don’t like that, you can deal with it in therapy”

      Well said.

        1. Damnit my reply went to the wrong post again!!

          You might want to get tested – you might have contracted a case of Kinjavitis! Fortunately, it’s rarely fatal, just massively annoying & inconvenient.

    2. “The slowest car I’ve had since highschool would be my recently-sold 2014 Mazda6. It was 182hp for 3250ish lbs. So about 18 lb/hp. It was absolutely fine around town, merging on the highway, etc. But honestly, it was not the best for passing either on two lane country roads or on the highway. It definitely required the go-fast pedal to be pinned to the floor and you needed to give yourself a bit of time to get a head start.”

      I dunno. My Mazda5 has 153 HP to move it’s 3422 lbs of heft for a ratio of 22lbs/hp and I find it more than adequate, even passing on two lane country roads, passing/merging onto the freeway up a ramp loaded to the gills with whatever. If anything I’d happily trade some of that power for better fuel economy.

      Moreover I’ve driven cars with even less power to weight, notably a Skoda wagon with a 90ish HP 1.9 TDI engine and a Peugeot 2008 also with a tiny 100ish HP diesel engine across France loaded with passengers and luggage and again found those perfectly fine, even for those same passing/merging situations.

      Hell my step dad used to rally race 38 HP Minis on the gravel and dirt forest roads of Sweden. He claimed that was the PERFECT level of power, any more would just have been lost to wheel spin.

      Maybe I’m just used to “underpowered” vehicles but I rarely find myself feeling an actual NEED for more power rather than thinking I could do fine with less.

  9. I’d argue that a reasonable expectation of acceptable performance in a modern car is that it can go 65 mph up the steepest hill you’re likely to encounter on the highway (6% grade for the US interstate system) with a normal payload (let’s call that two adult passengers) *without having to downshift*. For a new Toyota Corolla, assuming 300 lbs of passengers and tires/road combo with a rolling resistance coefficient of 0.01, and assuming 15% driveline losses, that works out to 60 hp required at 2500 RPM, or 126 lb-ft. That’s probably pretty close to what the 2.0 NA I4 is making at that speed.
    For acceleration purposes, a power to weight ratio of 20 lb/hp is more than enough in my experience – so 150 hp in a 3000 lb car. My ecoboost Fiesta was rated at 123 hp and weight 2600 lbs – plenty peppy, and did 0-60 in 8.5 seconds. IMO the 0-60 time threshold for ‘frustratingly slow’ in modern traffic is probably around 10 seconds, so a power to weight ratio of 25 is probably what I’d consider my floor for acceptable performance.
    So for your sub-2000 lb Torchmobiles, 75-80 hp would drive just fine by my standards. Just don’t get in a wreck with one! 😉

    1. > So for your sub-2000 lb Torchmobiles, 75-80 hp would drive just fine by my standards. Just don’t get in a wreck with one!

      This brings up a question I’ve been wondering about. All that crash safety stuff does make you safer, but at what cost? The entire lifetime cost. There’s the manufacturing cost. Increased weight means higher fuel and brake consumption. Increased maintenance cost, because some of that stuff breaks. After all, I’ve never been killed in an accident yet, and that includes rolling a Microbus (when I learned that if you’ve very tired and approaching home, it’s a bad idea to think about how nice it will be to crawl back into bed). For comparison, US traffic fatalities/million people went from about 175 (in 1945) to 100 (in 2015).

      1. It’s a good question, and certainly many safety advancements between 1949 and now were very worth it – if you look at the statistics as deaths per billion miles travelled instead of per million people, it’s gone down from 75 deaths/bmt to ~11. (People drive a *lot* more now, and rightly so). But cars haven’t gotten gotten any safer by the deaths/vehicle miles travelled metric since around 2005 or so. So added mandatory features like TMPS, ESC, rollover curtain airbags, enhanced roof crush standards, small overlap crash testing, etc. have increased the cost and weight of vehicles, but not made real measurable improvements to safety. I think it is well worth the time to have a discussion about how safe is ‘safe enough’ – and ask NHTSA to be an adult and understand that their goal of zero vehicle deaths is impossible utopian nonsense.

        1. TPMS isn’t just about safety but fuel economy and abnormal tire wear too. Given the price of gas and quality tires the price of $25 for an aftermarket TPMS unit on Amazon is trivial in comparison.

          Such units include internal OR external sensors to report real time pressure and temperature to a solar powered receiver on your dash. I put a system in my car and so far IMO it’s money well spent. No weight penalty either.

      2. It’s not as much cost or weight as you might think.

        For example:

        My 117 hp 1.5L 5MT 2013 Fit Sport had 8 or 10 airbags, ABS, traction control, stability control, seatbelt pretensioners, was an IIHS Top Safety pick for that model year new cars, and passed all US crash tests of that year with flying colors.

        It was $17k brand new in 2013 and weighed ~2,520 lbs. (which includes 4 doors instead of two, being 10″ taller, having power windows and 16″ wheels etc)

        For comparison, my 124hp 1.6L 5MT 1993 Civic Si hatchback was almost exactly the same length and width as the Fit, had none of those things other than a single driver side airbag, weighed 2,326 lbs and cost $12,500 in 1993 dollars, or $20,152 in 1993 dollars adjusted for inflation.

    2. Your formula seems very sound and well thought out, but I’m wondering why not having to downshift is emphasized. The power band in our ’21 Crosstrek is miserable at or below 2K, and a downshift would definitely be in order under those conditions.

  10. 55 horsepower is fine for me, so long as you also take away two wheels. On a 350 lb motorcycle, with my 180 lbs and 20 lbs of safety equipment, that gives 10 lbs/hp and about 125 mph. This is adequate to allow me to get away from the lights quickly enough to easily beat crossing traffic, overtake on two-lane 55-mph roads, or not be a sitting duck on a 55 mph road when sitting at a traffic light that turns green right as a pack of traffic catches up to me. Those are your power-requirement-setting situations, not cruising or merging.

  11. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from motorcycling is that the throttle will get you out of trouble far more often than the brakes will. This applies to cars as well, though probably not to the same degree. I’m sure that ~60hp will get you by just fine in a ~1,800lb car in everyday conditions, but can it still really get out from under itself in a hurry should the need arise?

  12. I once had an old Jeep CJ-7, with the venerable workhorse 256-I6, but saddled with a 3-speed auto-tragic transmission and ridiculous highway gears. I think in my model year it barely squeaked out 100 hp with only 180 ft-lbs of torque. 65 mph was about all it could do on the interstate without sounding like it was going to blow up. Going uphill, 3rd was too high, and 2nd gear was too low. It could do all of 45 mph uphill, screaming all the way in 2nd. It would try to sneak in an upshift to 3rd, with a corresponding result in loss of any speed and momentum before dropping back into 2nd for another round of a hideous cacophony of mechanical stress and strain from the screaming but smog-choked I6. Bette rear-end gearing, or perhaps a 5-speed stick might have made it better (beggars can’t be choosers, and the auto-tragic was all they had on the lot). 0-60 was measured with a calendar, and 40-60 was painful and dangerously slow. Even off-road the auto-tragic damned near ruined the thing, requiring 4-low almost all the time to make any decent twist to get out of mud and whatnot. A 304 backed by a 5-speed would’ve been a much better choice.

  13. As the former owner of a 2.0 Jetta, the only way that worked was the 5 speed stick. Sure it worked but it was not always up to the task especially if you added another 200lbs of human.

  14. I don’t think you would much enjoy pulling out onto a rural highway at 8,000 feet with that 50 hp motor. The altitude would knock you down to about 38 hp and the traffic is going 70 mph. You would be very much in danger of getting rear ended every time you pull from a driveway in front of a line of 70 mph traffic.

  15. > So, with that in mind, let’s look at the power-to-weight ratio of the Pao, which is about 30 pounds per horsepower. If we say that a modern car with safety features needs to be at least 3,000 pounds, then I think we can say the equivalent yes-you-can-get-by-just-fine horsepower number is 100 hp.

    Huh, it sounds like you just designed my daily, a 2003 Camry.

  16. It depends. I think a better formula would be X Horsepower per driven wheel. Total horsepower at the wheels divided by the amount of driven wheels.

    Personally I think in our current world your car should be able to do 80MPH comfortably on the highest straight section of road in the country with AWD or 4WD.

    Yeah, cars don’t need a ton of weight and or a ton of horsepower 99% of the time.

    Personally less horsepower in a new car is more appealing to me than more horsepower. The less power applied to the wheels the less likely they’re going to spin in place in the snow and ice.

    I just want what amounts to a new 4WD Subaru Justy with a manual and the ability to mount US street legal snow tires

  17. LOL

    No thanks! BT, DT with a stock ’66 Beetle, a ’91 CRX HF, a diesel rabbit pickup, a ’64 VW split window double cab, etc etc.

    Try that on the South Street bridge I-76 onramps in Philly, where you get about 500 feet downhill to accelerate from a stop to 70+ MPH before you’re blindly dumped into the fast lane with zero merge area.

    For example.

    Or try and pass anyone on a two lane highway with cars coming in the opposite lane, or try to keep 70 mph up the Grapevine outside of L.A. in the summer with the A/C on.

    And it’s not just that it’s miserably slow, it’s that being that achingly slow in those conditions can be really dangerous, mainly to you but also to those around you who aren’t used to deadass slow cars and what they will (and most importantly, won’t) do. Especially at night, in low visibility or inclement weather where the distracted rando playing with their phone on I-95 or the 5 in their big SUV is cruising at 80 mph speed and closes on your 50hp tin can struggling up a grade at 55 or 60.

  18. I totally agree with this.
    Is it fun to have a little more power now and again? Sure. But my 1980 celica with a 5 speed was a ton of fun to drive, and that thing had 89HP….. and weighed a little over 2300lbs.

  19. I agree for the most part, really. I’d prefer *slightly* more proportionately than your ratios, but not by much.
    Both of my only daily drivers so far:
    1997 Ford Econoline 150 (5500 pounds, 215 horsepower = ~25.6 pounds per horsepower)
    2012 Toyota Prius v (3300 pounds, 134 horsepower = ~24.6 pounds per horsepower)

    They both have 0-60 times in the realm of 12 seconds. It’s plenty for modern driving, in my experience.

      1. Ha! I miss the hell out of my van but it was costing me too much. Annual maintenance averaged more than 150% what my payment on the Prius was, before even getting to gas.
        I’m hoping to get some old used conversion van someday, but with gas prices and general world situation uncertainty it just feels risky for now.

  20. Who wants to merely “Get By,” though?

    Next you’ll be telling us we could drink only water. Or only ever use off-white paint. Or only have sex once a year on our anniversary.

    I mean…. technically. Sure.

    1. People who understand MOAR! is not always better, maybe even worse than “getting by”. A lot of folks would be far better off drinking free, no calorie tap water rather than yet another over priced super sized sugary soda or six pack of beer. Same goes for HP, more is just asking for trouble.

    2. I smile more when I drive my 48hp car than in anything else. It’s also really fun to try to wring some speed out of it, and it forces me to plan ahead and be a very active driver. Party because I don’t want to be pancaked in NYC traffic.
      I don’t think this would necessarily hold true for some cities though (Houston comes to mind).

  21. Math is about right for my manual 2007 Fit. It was also the same for my 87 Chevy Spectrum (Isuzu IMark). The 87 got better fuel economy at 70mph due to a taller final drive, but both work. A couple of extra people & AC, well I want to turn off the AC. 🙂

Leave a Reply