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Is Horsepower Worth It?

Over the past few decades, horsepower has gone up exponentially. All of this is while engine size has stayed the same or gone down. What does horsepower really mean for you and, more importantly, is it worth the price?

What is horsepower?

Besides a thing that hosts on car shows grunt about, what is horsepower? Simply put, it is the power rating of an engine; a measure of force.

The term was coined by James Watt, who had recently developed a new steam engine. Horses had been used to power all sorts of industrial and farming equipment. Watt marketed his engine by how many horses it would replace. It was a number that would make sense to those buying Watt’s engines. Watt calculated this as one horsepower was one horse doing 33,000 foot-pounds of work in one minute. Or, one horse lifting 33 pounds 1,000 feet in one minute.

Fun Fact: This is the same Watt who lightbulb power is named for. But even though electrical watts were named in honor of Watt, he didn’t work with electricity directly. And one horsepower is 746 watts.

Does horsepower matter?

Yes and no. How much horsepower you need depends on what you’re using your vehicle for. A work truck that will be hauling building supplies and tools is going to need more power. The compact car that you use to get to and from work needs to reach highway speeds and maintain them.

There are other factors at play, too. The gear ratios in your transmission and axles will affect the torque output. Going back to the horse lifting weight example, in the original, it’s a dead pull, a one-to-one ratio of horsepower to torque. Gear, like a pulley on a rope, distributes work. Now one horse can pull 100 pounds, but it takes longer.

Old farm tractors barely have any horsepower, but they have massive amounts of torque. They can tow the whole town, but they’re slow. A racecar can have over 1,000 horsepower but couldn’t tow itself.

To answer the question, 500 horsepower in a vehicle you’re using to commute to and from work or just drive around town is pointless. In a truck you plan to tow a camper with, then the numbers make sense.

Is horsepower worth it?

That depends on your goals. A locomotive can have upwards of 6,000 HP, burning massive amounts of fuel per hour. The tons moved per gallon per mile however are extremely cheap; pennies per ton.

A general rule is that the cost to operate the vehicle goes up as the horsepower goes up. This has changed a bit in the past few years compared to older vehicles. Hybrid and electric vehicles can have massive amounts of horsepower while being efficient to operate.

A Dodge Challenger Hellcat can have up to 807 horsepower and an EPA fuel economy of 13 city and 22 highway. On top of that, you’ll have other costs associated with high-performance vehicles. If you drive them the way they’re intended to be driven, you’ll wear out parts faster. More horsepower uses more fuel.

So there you have it. Hopefully, this helps you make a more informed decision when you go to purchase your next vehicle by helping you understand what the horsepower rating really means and how that will impact the overall price of the vehicle and the future cost of ownership. And remember, no one is saying you can’t buy a big, loud, fast car; just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Driving should be fun, and horsepower can play a role in that.

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