The momentum over horsepower debate | Column

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jan 8, 2023 | BRZ, GT86 | Posted in Columns | From the Nov. 2018 issue | Never miss an article

It is the evil weevil, the rock-solid, steely-eyed grim reaper of sporting cars, the paragon of knife-edged incisiveness and buttoned-down insanity.”

Is this lofty praise for one of the new 700-horsepower Challengers? A twin-turbo Porsche? An Exocet powered by a half-dozen superbike engines and a deranged ferret?

D, none of the above. It’s Car and Driver’s lede for its original road test on the 1984 Porsche 911 Carrera. Total engine output? Thanks to the introduction of Bosch’s Motronic injection, along with a bump in displacement from 3.0 liters to 3.2, horsepower had finally reached an even 200. That’s way less than most any new minivan. Top speed? A blinding-for-the-day buck-50 or so. 

I’m lucky to own one of these Porsches, and yes, it’s still the finest car I have ever driven. You can quote me on that. Do faster models from the brand exist? Absolutely. But, like Baby Bear’s bed, this one’s just right. It has the perfect amount of power for the chassis, near-telepathic steering, and one of the most iconic views over the bow. Then there’s the olfactory treat of oil mixed with leather mixed with history. 

One of my other favorite cars produces the same horsepower figure, yet people “in the know” said that I’d hate it: Not enough power. Needs a turbo. Too slow. Boring. 

The object of their scorn? The Subaru BRZ. After living with one for more than a year, I can state that they were totally wrong. I unequivocally love it. It’s fun and rewarding to drive on track, and perfect for around-town use. It gobbles up the highway miles with ease. It’s good on gas, too, and offers plenty of outward visibility. Even the trunk is big enough for my needs. 

Then add in comfy seats, a precise shifter, perfect pedal placement and, if I can admit, fine lines. Half a dozen years afters its introduction, a BRZ or one of the clones from Toyota still turns my head. 

The haters have hated on the BRZ since day one for the simple fact that it only makes 200 horsepower. Subaru could turbocharge it, but then cost, complexity and weight would all go up. The BRZ would no longer be a BRZ. And why would Subaru make a car that competes with its iconic WRX for showroom traffic? 

Some of my other faves also come from the 200 club: the Integra Type R, MR2 Turbo, a Miata with some boost, the all-conquering E30-chassis M3, my wife’s Civic Si. And I think we can now welcome the ND-chassis MX-5 to that group, as it’s close enough.

Really, though, this is more than numbers. This is about cars that are quick enough to be fun, yet challenging to drive. They force you to hit your marks. You can’t mask mistakes with horsepower. Brake too early, and the pack will leave you in the dust. 

Reeling in theoretically faster cars becomes your goal. Stomp the middle pedal at the one and a half, nail the apex, track all the way out–use the curbs if you have to. Do it correctly, and the horsepower deficit quickly evaporates. 

On the street, you can enjoy these cars without being a menace to society. A little while back I was cutting through Jacksonville in the BRZ. The interstate makes a right-left, downhill jog just before downtown. Of course I was heel-toeing the entire way. A glance ahead showed that I was keeping pace with a few minivans. Whatever, I was having fun. My M3 doesn’t get interesting until it’s traveling way too fast for street conditions. 

What’s better than a car making 200 horsepower? How about one making about half that. Don’t believe me? I present Exhibits A though G: the original Miata, a slightly tweaked Rabbit GTI, the CRX Si, the first MR2, a well-tuned Triumph TR6 and a first-generation RX-7.

Also a fan of momentum over horsepower? Let’s hear it.

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adam525i (Forum Supporter)
adam525i (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
10/14/20 9:30 a.m.

I love my momentum car, it's right around that 200 hp mark with a bit more torque. When I go to a track it's for the corners and not the straights, carrying every bit of speed through them is my goal, when you get it right and use ALL of the track nothing feels better. I've had ride alongs in 500 hp Mustangs and 600 hp Camaro's and they were fun getting pushed back into the seat all the way down the straights but the laps in an 8th gen Civic Si on Hoosier R7's will always stick with me and make me lust for more grip and corner speed.

flatlander937 GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
10/14/20 9:48 a.m.

Every car is a momentum car if you're driving it correctly.

Streetwiseguy MegaDork
10/14/20 10:06 a.m.
flatlander937 said:

Every car is a momentum car if you're driving it correctly.

Want to thumbs up this more than once.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/14/20 10:08 a.m.

Momentum is grip vs power. Its a ratio thing, not absolute. Put crap tires on a 1.6 Miata and it transforms from a momentum car to a point and shoot. 

There are F1 cars that are momentum cars by the reference of the rest of the field. 

Ben Jolly
Ben Jolly New Reader
10/14/20 11:02 a.m.

I am happy the very powerful vehicles exist. A couple weeks ago I watched Ford vs. Ferrari and then I was on Shelby's website looking at 500 hp+ cars. I've ridden in couple, they are astounding.

Even more astounding are the LS powered Miatas I have ridden including the one in the avatar of the poster above me. 

I'm still in the momentum car fan club though. I am thankful that I can do motorsports in my 30s, but I couldn't do it with a tire/brake/insurance eating monster, so a NC Miata is my choice instead. 

I think R&T's Kyle Kinard summed it up pretty well in this article from nearly 3 years ago:

Can You Teach Speed Without a Fast Car?

rezisehtnys New Reader
10/14/20 11:51 a.m.

I'm much happier with my 142hp Miata than I ever was with my 305hp Firebird, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the V8 at times.  More so the soundtrack and copious amounts of torque everywhere than anything else, I rarely ever fully utilized the horsepower aspect.  I think a 200-300hp V8 in a Miata would be the perfect car for me, maybe someday soon.

adam525i (Forum Supporter)
adam525i (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
10/14/20 12:57 p.m.
flatlander937 said:

Every car is a momentum car if you're driving it correctly.

I've thought about this a bit as I compare lines in my low power car to my cousin's LT1 1LE Camaro with the first corner at Toronto Motorsports Park in mind. There are two main straights at that track separated by corner 1. For me my goal is to carry as much as my speed as possible through that corner as that will give me the best speed down the following straight. That means I'm not unwinding the wheel as I track out to the exit curb but I am flat on the throttle (low power car) on the edge of grip. With his extra 400 hp in my mind it would make sense to sacrifice a bit of corner speed there which would allow him to get the car straighter sooner allowing him to use his power advantage longer down that second straight and possibly result in a lower lap time.

To me that would not be a momentum car if you were driving it that way and may be quicker overall. Am I right or wrong? The answer would lie in the data at the end of the day.

nderwater UltimaDork
10/14/20 12:58 p.m.

It's been my experience that 'fun to drive' is not directly linked to price or horsepower.  I agree with a lot of points in the column, and there are plenty of expensive, high powered cars that I'm not interested in.

That said, I disagree with David when he says that "Subaru could turbocharge it, but then... The BRZ would no longer be a BRZ."  Adding power enhances that car's personality like turning up a volume knob, and it's a more enjoyable ride because of it. 

Tom1200 Dork
10/14/20 1:15 p.m.

I've been on track with everything from 70 to 700hp. The higher horsepower cars are more of an adrenaline rush but they are not "more" fun.

The reason it's so easy to get it wrong in the higher horsepower really isn't because of the horsepower, it's more to do with the weight and arriving at places faster. It's much easier to miss your marks.

I obviously prefer momentum cars as I'm a drive a slow car fast guy. Also the tire bill has a lot to do with it.

My perfect track car is a 150-200hp single seater as that splits the two extremes nicely.

ProDarwin MegaDork
10/14/20 1:24 p.m.
flatlander937 said:

Every car is a momentum car

This is my thought.  Is there a car where you wouldn't want to maximize momentum?

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