What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Underpowered'

Illustration for article titled What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Underpowered'
Photo: Mitsubishi
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“Underpowered” is a vague word that car reviewers like to use to assert their authority on what a car should be like (and to remind you that they’ve driven a Ferrari one time). That’s a problem, because in practical terms “underpowered” is virtually meaningless.

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Power is a flexible concept. Some people require more of it, while other people require just enough, while still other people would prefer not so much. I was reminded of this earlier this week with the new electric Dacia, which takes 19.1 seconds to get from zero to 62 mph, or about double the time it takes for my 2008 Honda Fit to do so.

Now, many people would describe the Fit as “underpowered.” The Dacia, then, would be “laughably, tragically, dangerously underpowered.” They might have a point, but the thing about power is that it is in the eye of the beholder and, in many ways, dependent on your local terrain.

On the East Coast, where I live, for example, it is relatively flat, and I have never felt that I needed more power from my car, though that changed when I went west earlier this year and encountered the Rockies and the mountains in California. I would be merging onto a freeway going up a mountain, and the Fit would struggle a bit, and a strange thought began to creep into my head, which was that for the first time I wondered if the car was underpowered.

There are, of course, a few ways to think about it. You could focus on horsepower, but that number doesn’t mean much unless you also talk about weight. But power-to-weight ratio is a tedious thing to calculate, and an even more tedious thing to explain. Further, our expectations about how much power a car should have are distorted by the fact that modern cars all have basically enough power, even the 78-HP Mitsubishi Mirage.

Instead, what car writers mean when they call a car like the Mirage “underpowered” is that it has less power than the base sixth-generation Ford Mustang they were driving the other week, itself a bad comparison because a modern base Ford Mustang makes 310 HP, which is more than triple what many Fox Body Mustangs made when they were new.

My point is that we live in a modern world awash with horsepower, and, increasingly, electric vehicles with their instant torque. We may actually already be at a time where the word “underpowered” is itself a relic, a word that made some sense in the days of 88-horsepower Ford Mustangs, but less so in an America where a base Toyota Corolla makes 139.

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Except that Dacia. I’m happy to concede that going from zero to 62 mph in 19.1 seconds is the performance of a car that is underpowered.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

DISCUSSION

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Hot take: Almost nothing feels “dangerously underpowered” if it has a manual. The only time i’ve ever felt that “Woah...I really need to go faster here for safety’s sake” feeeling has been with autos that refused to kickdown.

You just pretty much always know what you’re going to get in a manual and that knowledge lets you plan things a lot better.