Some of the most universally appreciated cars in car culture have a few things in common. Usually a good car has an excellent chassis, great steering feel, and an engine that allows you to wring its neck without breaking the speed limit. I’ve got things in mind like Mazda’s MX-5, the Lotus Elise, air-cooled Porsche 911s, an E36-generation BMW M3 and maybe like AE86 Corollas, right? Well, now we live in a world where 700 horsepower and 4,000 pound curb weights are normal, which is pretty much the opposite of what makes those cars great.
In the mid-1990s performance cars were pretty great. Corvettes had around 400 horses, Mustangs topped out around 300, and the really good stuff was in the mid 100s. Then came the 2000s, and we went from a land of plenty to horsepower overload seemingly overnight. Heck, I remember Hot Rod Magazine marveling at the 300 horses available in Subaru STIs and Mustang Cobras, but just five years later Nissan launched a V6 Maxima with the same.
The horsepower wars already had a full head of steam by 2006 when the Caliber SRT4 was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show, but this thing really kicked it into overdrive. With 285 front-wheel horsepower, this was a torque-steer machine that was ready to rip your arms off at the elbow if you even hinted at the throttle. It was a truly terrible machine built from low-quality materials and wrapped in an atrocious design, but what it lacked everywhere else it made up for in price and power. At $23,350 this was an attainable rocket ship for all the worst people who still live in their hometown.
We probably should have dialed it back over a decade ago, but the horsepower wars, like the war on drugs, is a never-ending war with no winners. Now electric machines are touting power levels in the thousands, and Porsche just launched an SUV that runs 11s in the quarter mile and Tesla has a sedan that’ll do it in the 9s! What’s the point?
We now live in a world where you can’t buy a manual transmission in a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, or a Corvette, or a Porsche 911 Turbo. We’ve traded driver engagement for Nurburgring lap times and statistics on paper. Everything has electric power assisted steering. Everything weighs multiple tons. I’ve been spiraling down the drain of speed apathy for years, but the car that really kicked it off, the one that started this whole phlegmatic approach to horsepower, was the Goddamned Caliber SRT4.
Which one did it for you? Were you early to the party, turned off by the C5 Corvette Z06, or are you a Johnny Come Lately that didn’t really join the club until the Hellcats took over? Or are you still shouting YEEHAW at the top of your lungs every time you see a bigger number, and won’t be satisfied until every car has enough power to move mountains? Tell me about it in the comments below.