Published On: Fri, May 19th, 2017
Autos | By nnw

The Replacement for Displacement: Plotting Our Path Out of the Malaise Era

The Replacement for Displacement: Plotting Our Path Out of the Malaise Era

Around the time of the Bicentennial, 300 horsepower was reserved for from-the-factory supercars and custom builds aimed at the drag strip. Today, you can find family sedans eclipsing that benchmark without a lot of trouble. Compare the first decade of Toyota Corollas to hit North American shores to their modern day equivalents and you’ll note that 0 to 60 time have been almost halved.

It’s the same with most models. A few years ago, I had the privilege of driving a well-maintained 1977 Oldsmobile Omega and wondered how enthusiasm ever survived malaise era automobiles. It must have been the gorgeous styling keeping us going.

Modern cars aren’t just more powerful, they’re also far more efficient and significantly less dirty. Additional safety regulations and standard equipment should have left us with bogged-down fuel hogs, yet automakers have managed to roll with the punches — not just maintaining the status quo but routinely moving it forward. However, to really appreciate just how far we’ve come you need to see those decades of progress plotted. 

Authors at Bloomberg — who must have had some extra time on their hands this week — have done just that. Drawing data from forty years of Environmental Protection Agency emission testing, they plotted the U.S. light vehicle fleet’s path to glory. The results are dramatic.

Probably the most incredible takeaway from the findings is how much median acceleration has increased along side average economy. The EPA graphs — which you should definitely check out — highlight how much things have changed. Sitting at a tortoise-like 16-plus seconds at the dawn of the 1980s, 0-60 times have since shrunk to a median of 7.2 seconds in 2016. Since the end of the Ford administration, fuel economy has tripled, and median engine displacement has dipped from roughly 5.2 liters to 3 liters.

From Bloomberg:

“Combustion engines on America’s roads are about 42 percent smaller than they were 40 years ago. At the same time, the EPA’s median measurement of miles-per-gallon has doubled, from 15 to 30. Most of those gains were made under pressure from federal efficiency mandates. The great power push began in 1985 just after the industry had hit a threshold of 27.5 miles-per-gallon.”

Drivetrain enhancements chug along nicely for about twenty years after that, but things really get going around 2007, when engineers collectively realized they could mitigate efficiency loss while continuing to add power. Direct injection and cylinder deactivation were major leaps forward while manufacturers perfected variable valve timing, forced induction, cooling systems, and lightweight materials.

Those advancements took us from 1976 — where a 285 horsepower Aston Martin V8 was the best anyone in the U.S. could possibly achieve — to 2017, where your neighbor’s base model Ford Taurus is rated at 240 hp. All of a sudden, there arrived a bevy of higher output motors requiring less time at the pump and tiny econoboxes with triple-digit power specs.

It turned out there was a replacement for displacement, after all.

“Today, we can model it, we can visualize it, and we can make sure the fuel ends up in the air, not on the cylinder wall,” said Prabjot Nanua, director of General Motors’ advanced engine and racing engineering.

I know we all miss unadulterated classics like the Mercury Bobcat, Chevrolet Corvette 305 California, and Ford Mustang II. By all measurements, those were nearly perfect automobiles. However, sometimes it’s nice to appreciate what you have today and give a nod to the past for helping you get there.

[Image: RL GNZLZ/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]