April 12, 2012 at 7:38 AM ET
Carroll Shelby has never shied away from a challenge – especially one he’s set for himself. And ever since teaming up with one-time Ford President Lee Iacocca back in the mid-1960s, Shelby continually has found ways to pump more power out of the back wheels of a Mustang.
His latest effort, on display at the NY Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, is the Shelby 1000, which makes a cool 950 horsepower on the street, 1,100 hp in the track edition.
Shelby isn’t alone. The halls of the Javits Center are filled with an array of high-performance models, including the new Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG, at 621 hp, and the 593 hp McLaren MP4-12C. Barely two decades ago, a top-line performer such as the Porsche 911 could barely squeeze out 200 ponies. Today, there are more than 70 models making at least 500, and a baker’s dozen top 600 hp.
While the spotlight is on high-mileage products, especially those using alternative propulsion systems, a sizable number of American buyers remain fixated on cars that can go fast, faster, fastest. And while many makers now offer high-mileage “eco” versions of their mainstream products, just as many are introducing performance variants, such as the 2013 Ford Focus ST.
But today’s high-performance cars have some significant differences from those of decades past. Significantly, they’re delivering not only more power but also substantially better mileage. And a new generation of advanced, battery-based propulsion systems could yield a line-up of cars that might best be described as mean and green.
“Even people who can afford today’s performance cars don’t like to admit they’re just getting 12 miles a gallon,” says Jess Toprak, the senior automotive analyst with TrueCar.com.
That’s driving luxury and performance automakers into a frantic search for ways to deliver more power, lower emissions and improved mileage all at the same time.
The new Porsche 911 Carrera S, the seventh generation of the iconic German sports car, boosted its power from 385 to 400 horsepower – even while the new model delivers about 19 percent better fuel economy than the old 911.
Porsche has taken a number of steps to get there. Among other things, the new model is about 100 pounds lighter than the Gen-six 911.
“Lightweighting” has become a mantra in today’s auto industry because it not only can yield better mileage but improved performance and handling, as well.
Of course, some of the biggest changes can be found under the hood, where manufacturers have discovered an assortment of ways to improve the time-tested internal combustion engine. That includes direct injection – where the air-fuel mixture is squirted right into each individual cylinder, resulting in a cleaner and more efficient ignition process.
Then there’s turbocharging, a system that forces more of the air fuel mixture into the engine when the driver’s foot is pressing the floorboards but minimizes fuel consumption when cruising. That permits a maker to switch to a smaller displacement engine.
The old Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG used a 6.3-liter naturally aspirated V-8. The new model delivers substantially more power out of a 5.5-liter, twin-turbo V-8 that also makes about 30 percent better mileage.
The latest-generation Bentley Continental GT is delivering nearly the same level of performance as its classic V-12 out of a smaller, far more efficient V-8.
And then there are the diesels. Porsche is pushing well into 30 mpg territory with the new Cayenne diesel also debuting at this month’s NY Auto Show. Yet the “oil burner” has enough torque to launch the big SUV from 0 to 60 in just 7.4 seconds.
German manufacturers have been big proponents of diesel power. BMW introduced a line-up of high-performance models, including the M550d, which is only an eye-blink slower than the gas-powered 2013 M5, at about 4.5 seconds 0 to 60. For the moment, unfortunately, there are no plans to bring the super-diesel to the U.S.
Vehicles like that, suggests analyst Toprak, “You don’t feel guilty about it.”
And the next generation of performance cars might make one feel downright proud. Among the most notable debuts in New York City this month, was the Infiniti LE Concept. That’s “LE,” as in “Luxury Electric.”
Based on the same underlying platform as the Nissan Leaf, the prototype features a decidedly more sleek body and its electric drive system has been re-tuned to deliver substantially better performance, declared Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Infiniti’s parent, Nissan Motor Co.
As a result, driving a car like the LE – which will go into production by early 2013, said Ghosn – “Will be both desirable and sustainable.”
Nissan is not alone. Audi is developing a plug-in hybrid version of its R8 supercar, which will be the first in a line of battery-based performance models to go by the designation etron. BMW has a new brand-within-a-brand that will market products like the plug-in i9 sports car – which Tom Cruise drove in the most recent installment of the Mission Impossible movie franchise. And Mercedes is finishing development of a battery-electric version of its gull-winged SLS supercar.
While performance cars might not rule the road the way they did in the days of the classic ‘60s muscle cars, there still are plenty of drivers with a need for speed. For them – and perhaps the rest of us – the good news is that today’s performance cars can deliver a lot more power while sucking down a lot less fuel.