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The 500-hp club: The room is getting crowded

Mon, 02 Apr 2012

At a time when fuel economy counts for just about everything, there's still a horsepower war raging in the United States.

The number of fire-breathing wedge-shaped supercars and hot sedans and coupes that can pump out 500 hp or better has nearly doubled in the past five years to more than 70. A decade ago there were just two members of the 500 hp club in the United States: the Ferrari 575M and Lamborghini Murcielago.

"It's all about ego," said Wally Higginbotham, general manager of Porsche of Hilton Head in Hardeeville, S.C. "It boils down to their wanting the best and the fastest. Five hundred horsepower is a number they want to see."

Horsepower is one of the few advantages high-priced vehicles still hold over their high-volume cousins. Many features once found only in luxury vehicles--navigation systems, stability systems and traction control, for example--have trickled all the way down to compact cars.

But not the ability to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds. Or to reach a top speed of 200 mph.

And today's high-performance vehicles are achieving their big horsepower numbers with smaller engines and better fuel economy, thanks to advances in engine technology and lightweight materials.

Eighteen brands sell vehicles with more than 500 hp in the United States. There are so many 500-hp vehicles, in fact, that 600 hp has become the new benchmark. In 2007, six models cranked out more than 600 hp: the Lamborghini Murcielago, Ferrari 599, Maybach 57 and 62 and Mercedes-Benz SL65 and SLR by McLaren. Today 13 vehicles sold here put out more than 600 hp, including three that will be launched this year.

The horsepower numbers are going up so fast that it's keeping some shoppers on the sidelines, says Jim Graham, owner of Santa Margarita Ford in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

"There is a little more pushback from customers who want to wait six months for 30 more horsepower," he said. "We come out with a little more horsepower and a little more excitement--which makes the guy who bought one 18 months ago feel a little stupid."

The 500-plus-hp vehicles are mostly European and they come from one of the high-performance divisions--Mercedes' AMG; BMW's M, Audi's quattro unit and Jaguar's Engineered to Order.

But there also are high-horsepower models built by General Motors and Ford Motor Co. And Chrysler Group will rejoin the club next year with a redesigned SRT Viper.

Only two Asian-brand 500-plus-hp cars are sold in the United States: The Nissan GT-R sports car makes 545 hp, and Lexus' LFA supercar is rated at 552 hp.

Bragging rights

The 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 cranks out 650 hp.

When it comes to high-performance, the horsepower number is everything.

"When you are selling a supercar, 500 horsepower, or close to it, is the entry," said Richard Truett, a Ford spokesman who specializes in powertrains. "For the guys who buy these cars, it isn't just about speed and style, but the bragging rights. Five hundred is a number few other people on the road will have."

Among exotic two-seaters priced above $300,000, a horsepower pinnacle has been achieved--an even 700 horses for the Lamborghini Aventador that debuted last summer. It will be joined by the 740-hp Ferrari F12 Berlinetta at the end of this year. Porsche's 918 Spyder hybrid, with at least 700 hp, will go on sale in 2013 at a price of about $845,000.

In a league of its own is the $2 million-plus Bugatti Veyron Super Sport coupe, the most powerful production car in the world with output of 1,200 hp. A roadster version called the Grand Sport Vitesse was unveiled at the 2012 Geneva auto show this month and will be sold in the United States.

Technology has made it possible to increase horsepower with little sacrifice in fuel economy. What makes the difference are turbochargers, variable valve timing, overhead cams, direct injection, intercooling and weight-saving aluminum, carbon fiber and composite materials.

"We now have technology that allows you to do those cars and meet emissions," said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc. in suburban Detroit.

Most of today's high-horsepower vehicles have a combined fuel economy in the teens. The 6.5-liter, 12-cylinder, 700-hp Aventador gets a combined 13 mpg. Three cars with more than 500 hp get a combined 19 mpg--Mercedes' CLS63 and E63 and the Nissan GT-R.

In the heyday of American muscle cars, the steel-bodied 1970 Pontiac GTO with its 7.5-liter, 455-cubic-inch V8 was considered one of the most powerful cars to come out of Detroit. It topped out at 360 hp and got about 12 mpg.

Today carmakers are getting way more power from much smaller powerplants. The redesigned Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG that goes on sale in July is powered by a V8 scaled back from a 6.2-liter normally aspirated engine to a biturbo 5.5-liter. But output is increased by 12 hp to 530, and fuel economy is expected to improve from the combined 14 mpg of the 2012 model.

Twin turbos have allowed Mercedes to use V8s rather than V12s and not sacrifice horsepower, said Bernie Glaser, vice president of marketing at Mercedes-Benz USA.

"The SL in 2007 had 510 hp," he said, "but it had a V12 engine."

Mercedes has 16 500-plus-hp models, more than any other brand in the United States.

"We understand there are customers, performance aficionados, who request this level and we are more than willing to deliver," said Glaser.

Creating a segment

The Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, coming this year, will deliver 740 hp.

BMW's 2013 M5 coupe and convertible, which arrives this summer, is powered by a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 rather than the prior generation's 5.0-liter V10 engine. Horsepower increases from 500 to 560.

Matt Russell, M brand manager for BMW of North America, said he knows customers want bragging rights, but says achieving the highest horsepower is not a priority for BMW. The new-generation M5s will have 30 percent better torque and fuel economy, although final fuel economy figures haven't been approved by the EPA.

"The M5 created a segment that did not exist in the late '80s, and everyone has been trying to join," said Russell. "Our competition comes from Italy--the wedge-shaped supercars. You have to go to almost $250,000 to find a car that keeps up with the balanced performance of the M5. And none of those cars can be driven every single day."

Audi covers both ends of the high-performance market. Its coupe and roadster R8 V10 offers 525 hp and the limited edition R8 GT develops 560 hp. The flagship A8 sedan is available with a 500-hp W12 and a higher performance S8 variant with 520 hp goes on sale this summer.

Filip Brabec, head of product planning for Audi of America, said Audi is replacing the V10 in the S8 with a V8. Yet the car's horsepower has increased by 70, to 520, and fuel economy goes up about 25 percent. Final EPA fuel economy ratings aren't yet available, he said.

"Everyone is wondering where this is going," says Brabec. "If you project the trend, will we drive 1,000-hp cars in 10 years? It is about what the technology can allow you to do for thrill and performance, and it's about refinement as well. Who knows, we could take that performance down into a lower segment one of these days."

The 500 club   Cars sold in the United States that can put out 500 hp or more   Aston Martin LamborghiniDBS coupe & convertible (510 hp) Aventador (700 hp)V-12 Vantage (510 hp) Gallardo (553-562 hp)   Audi Land RoverR8 V-10 (525 hp) Range Rover Sport Supercharged (510 hp)A8 6 W-12 (500 hp) Range Rover Supercharged (510 hp)R8 coupe & spyder (525 hp)  R8 GT coupe & spyder (560 hp) Lexus2013 S8 (520 hp) (summer launch) LFA (552 hp)   Bentley McLarenContinental GT, GTC, Flying Spur (567 hp) MP4-12C (592 hp)Continental Flying Spur Speed (600 hp)  Continental Supersports convertible (621 hp) MaybachContinental Supersports IRS convertible (631 hp) 57 and 62 (543 hp)Mulsanne (505 hp) 57S and 62S (620 hp)2013 GT and GTC (500 hp) (new V-8)    Mercedes-BenzBMW C63 AMG Black Series (510 hp)Alpina B7 (500 hp) CL600 (510 hp)2013 M5 coupe & convertible (560 hp) (summer launch) CL63 AMG (536 hp)X5 M (555 hp) CL65 AMG (621 hp)X6 M (555 hp) CLS63 AMG (518 hp)M6 coupe & convertible (560 hp) E63 AMG (518 hp)760Li (535 hp) E63 AMG wagon (518 hp)  ML63 AMG (518 hp)Cadillac G55 AMG (500 hp)CTS-V sedan, wagon, coupe (556 hp) SLS AMG coupe (563 hp)  SLS AMG roadster (563 hp)Chevrolet S600 (510 hp)Camaro ZL1 (580 hp) S63 AMG (536 hp)Corvette Z06 (505 hp) S65 AMG (621 hp)Corvette ZR1 (638 hp) 2013 SL63 (530 hp) (July launch)  2013 SL65 AMG (612 hp) (fall launch)Ferrari  458 Italia (558 hp) Nissan458 Spider (558 hp) GT-R (545 hp)FF (651 hp)  F12 Berlinetta (740 hp) Porsche  Porsche Panamera Turbo (500 hp)Ford Panamera Turbo S (550 hp)2012 Mustang Shelby GT500 coupe & convertible (550 hp) 911 Turbo S (530 hp)2013 Mustang Shelby GT500 coupe & convertible (650 hp) Cayenne Turbo (500 hp)   Jaguar Rolls-RoyceXFR (510 hp) Ghost (563 hp)XKR coupe & convertible (510 hp)  Jaguar XKR-S coupe & convertible (550 hp)  Jaguar XJ Supersport (510 hp)  

By Diana T. Kurylko- Automotive News