Horsepower is Now Completely Meaningless

The 2018 Toyota Camry will boast an (optional) direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 producing 301 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque.

Chew on that for a moment.

The 2018 Camry eats that ’86 930 Turbo that just pulled $120k at auction for breakfast.  The 2018 Camry scares the hell out of your bad-boy ‘05 Mustang GT.  The 2018 Camry is poking you in the eye for paying close to fifteen grand more for a new BMW 530i with an infantile little turbo four from a Mini Cooper under the hood.

When a Toyota Camry has 301 horsepower, it can mean only one thing: horsepower is as free and common as rain on summer afternoons.  Horsepower is no longer special and rare; it’s a thing that handily occurs on frequent occasion.  No car can simply post a horsepower number and convey its uniqueness via that sole metric (ahem, Dodge) – not when the ubiquitous Camry posts 301.

What makes a car special, then, in this breathless age of ever-present power?  The easy thing about the horsepower wars is that they’re a scoreboard.  The biggest number wins, right?  When that scoreboard becomes irrelevant, however, the discussion about specialness becomes more nuanced and complex.  We’re forced to grapple with hard-to-objectify impressions like “steering feel,” “handling,” “seat comfort,” and “throttle response.”  Everyone weighs these subjective things differently, so it’s much more difficult to conclude a clear and straightforward “best” based on categories that aren’t horsepower.

If horsepower is essentially a given, we need to step back and look at the larger picture.  Rather than niggling over the infinitesimal details of a car’s on-road or on-track behavior and handling, we need to simply ask: what can this car do?  Does it carry more than two people?  Can it handle a reasonable amount of luggage?  Is it comfortable for long hauls?  Is it dog-friendly?  What kind of fuel economy does it get?  Is it quicker/faster than most other cars around it on the road?  Does it even NEED a road?

That last question is an important one, because many buyers are swayed by the so-called “capability” of their prospective purchases to go off-road.  I’ve mentioned before that the Jeep brand is one of the hottest in the world right now, and not an ounce of their marketing is directed toward on-road behavior.  What Jeep sells is the ability to escape the mundane.  While everyone else slogs through traffic in a dreary urban wasteland, Jeep buyers crash through crystalline wilderness streams enroute to secluded beaches or mountaintops where all their Jeep-driving friends have started jaunty bonfire parties and eagerly await their arrival.  While much of this is pure fantasy, is it any more fantastic than the notion that every single Porsche sold will spend time on a racetrack?  Of course not.  In fact, for many people, the nearest beach or mountaintop bonfire is much closer and more attainable than time on a racetrack, so there is a sliver of potential reality in Jeep’s marketing.  However, with every Jeep purchase comes the roulette of owning a Fiat-Chrysler product.  Jeep Cherokee Trailhawks that originally sold for upwards of $40k are worth half that just two years later.  Are they all lemons?  Certainly not, but equally certain is that some of them are.

All of this—the ubiquity of horsepower, the related step-back to a bigger-picture outlook, some slogging through traffic, and some wariness regarding Jeep ownership—coalesced for me recently with an invitation I got in the mail from the local Land Rover dealership.  I’d always laughed about Landies, these huge, heavy, inefficient, Old-World slabs of switches and buttons and supposed capability (when they were working correctly).  But recently, the company replaced the old LR4 with a new Discovery, and each review I read attempted at its outset to bemoan the change from ladder-frame to unibody construction.  In every case, the negative narrative collapsed because the new Disco was so astoundingly off-road capable without any of the on-road compromises associated with the old design.

My curiousity piqued, I arrived at the Land Rover place at the appointed hour.  Forcibly peeling my eyes off of the V90 Cross Country parked next door at Volvo, I strolled inside.  After some introductions, I got a ride and a drive in a new Discovery HSE Td6 (midlevel trim, diesel engine).  And my goodness, it was staggering.  The finish and materials of the seats and interior were really impressive.  The torque from the diesel was smooth and satisfying.  The off-road capability, showcased on a little rock track tucked behind the lot, was nigh-unbelievable.  Windshield filled with nothing but sky?  No problem.  Nothing but dirt?  No problem.  Tilted at a crazy angle as if about to barrel-roll?  No problem.  Want a gods-eye view of what the car is doing and the obstacles around it, rendering spotters obsolete?  Simply press the Surround-View button.  Want to get back on the road?  Just turn two knobs and press one button, and the Disco hunkers back down to cruising clearance.  Incredible.  The very thought of juxtaposing such a modern, luxurious, technical engineering achievement with an untamed wilderness far from civilization is captivating to me.  So does the ease of doing it – all one needs is to buy one and strike out into the frontier.  To one moment be unprotected and alone with untouched nature, and the next to be enveloped in a mobile jewel of mankind’s progress…it’s nearly a magician’s trick that can be repeated endlessly and not lose its novelty, and the Discovery is the (admittedly pretty expensive) magic wand that makes it possible.

In conclusion, the 301-horsepower 2018 Toyota Camry means you should go buy a Discovery and leave the confined spaces of the road network behind.  Because when everyone is over-300-horsepower special, no one will be.  Except you.