Multiplying a car’s output by two or three over the course of its production run is a way for automakers to demonstrate what their engineering teams are capable of. In 1986, who would have thought the Vauxhall Carlton could out-accelerate a Ferrari Testarossa? Even dedicated sports cars, like the Ford Mustang (pictured), can emerge quicker and sharper from this track-bred metamorphosis.
Join us for a look at some of the cars with a massive difference in horsepower. Some were created to move the masses as cheaply as possible while others started life with performance in mind:
The B4-generation Audi 80 received a carburetted, 1.6-litre four-cylinder as its standard engine in some markets about a year after its 1991 introduction. The four sent 70bhp to the front wheels via a manual transmission, giving the 80 a leisurely 0-62mph time of 15.4sec.
Porsche helped Audi turn the 80 Avant into a high-performance estate that caught BMW and Mercedes-Benz completely off-guard. The relatively restrained design concealed the presence of a turbocharged, 2.2-litre five-cylinder engine that sent 311bhp to the four wheels via Audi’s Quattro system. The extra power made the RS 2 Avant a full 10sec quicker than the 69bhp variant of the 80 from 0-62mph.
The third-generation Dodge Challenger arrived during the 2008 model year with a retro look and, in its most basic configuration, a 3.5-litre V6 tuned to send 246bhp to the rear wheels. Early models shipped with a four-speed automatic transmission but Dodge quickly replaced it with a five-speed unit.
The 3.5-litre didn’t last long. The 2011 model year brought the then-new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 which raised the entry-level Challenger’s output to 300bhp. The six is still available in 2020.
Those who assumed Dodge couldn’t top the Hellcat model were loudly proven wrong when the Challenger Demon made its debut at the 2017 New York motor show. Developed for drag racing, it received a 6.2-litre V8 topped with a 2.7-litre supercharger to make 796bhp when burning normal petrol or 828bhp when slurping 100-octane fuel. The firm quoted a 0-60mph time of 2.3sec and, surprisingly, a 2.9ft wheelie. The 3300 units announced were spoken for almost immediately.
Ford launched the first-generation Mustang in 1964 with a 101bhp, 2.8-liter straight-six as the entry-level engine. The model grew in size during its production run, and its entry-level engine got bigger as well, but its output curiously dropped. By the 1973 model year, Mustang buyers willing to settle for the base model received a 3000lb car whose 4.1-litre straight-six wheezed out 87bhp.
Ford added an optional 7.0-litre V8 to the Mustang line-up for the 1968 model year. Its output was conservatively rated at 390bhp; most agreed this was a clever way to keep insurance costs in check for buyers. The company charged $775 (about $5700/£4600 in 2020) for the eight, a figure that made it the most expensive option Mustang buyers could order in 1968 by a long shot.
There’s a catch: some historians argue Ford did not build a single Mustang with the W-code, 7.0-litre V8. Whether that’s accurate is a major point of debate among enthusiasts. If it’s true, the first-generation Mustang’s most powerful engine was 375bhp, 7.0-litre Boss V8 added to the range for the 1969 model year to help Ford homologate it in NASCAR racing. It powered the Boss 429 model that’s highly sought-after in 2020; original examples in like-new condition often sell for over $400,000 (about £320,000).
The sixth-generation Mustang launched in 2014 landed right in the heart of a horsepower war opposing Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge. Putting a bigger focus on design than on performance was out of the question. Even the cheapest, most basic Mustang with a 3.7-litre V6 put 300bhp under the driver’s right foot. The six disappeared after the 2017 model year so the 310bhp, 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder became the entry-level engine. From there, the only way to go is up.
The most powerful street-legal car Ford has ever released isn’t the mid-engined GT; it’s the GT500 variant of the sixth-generation Mustang introduced in 2019. Its supercharged, 5.2-litre V8 engine develops 749bhp, a figure that makes it over seven times more powerful than the original Mustang. Ford doesn’t have a strong enough manual transmission in its arsenal so the only gearbox available is a seven-speed automatic.
The Mercedes-Benz W124 range included a handful of seriously underpowered entry-level models. In 1984, when production started, the 200D occupied the bottom rung in the hierarchy. The designation corresponded to a 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder diesel that generated 71bhp. Motorists who preferred a petrol-powered car could select the 200, which was powered by a carburetted 2.0-litre four tuned to 105bhp. Both engines were initially bolted to a four-speed manual transmission.
The cheaper, slower variants of the W124 were largely aimed at buyers who wandered into a Mercedes store seeking longevity, not luxury and performance. They tended to be sparsely equipped. This partly explains why they weren’t sold in the United States.
The best-known V8-powered variant of the W124 is the 500E, which went on sale in 1990 with a 5.0-litre, 322bhp V8 behind its grille. AMG felt the model’s performance potential wasn’t fully exploited so it stepped into the equation by transforming the 500E into the E60. The changes included replacing the 5.0-litre with a 6.0-litre V8 that developed 376bhp. About 126 units were made in 1993 and 1994.
The Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton range started with a model aimed at drivers who wanted a generous amount of space for people and gear without paying big-car money or stopping for fuel on an annoyingly regular basis. Both models were available with a naturally-aspirated, 2.3-litre diesel engine that produced 71bhp between 1986 and 1993. Adding a turbo to the four-cylinder initially raised its output to 88bhp, though a slightly peppier 99bhp version joined the range in the late 1980s.
Lotus is famous around the world for making cars that follow its “light is right” motto. The company seemingly changed that phrase to “fast is right” before putting a Carlton in its shop. Comprehensive mechanical and chassis updates created a 177mph saloon powered by a twin-turbocharged, 3.6-litre straight-six tuned to develop 377bhp. This was a mind-bogglingly huge number at the time. The Lotus-tuned Carlton’s 5.1sec 0-60mph time made it a tenth of a second quicker than a Ferrari Testarossa.
Renault envisioned the 5 as a cheap and cheerful urban hero, not as a rally car, so it rummaged through its parts bin and fitted the entry-level model with a 782cc four-cylinder shared with the 4. It developed merely 33bhp, a figure which gave the hatchback a 22.3sec 0-60mph time. Early models (pre-production version shown) equipped with the same dashboard-mounted gear selector as the 4 and the 6 are rare and sought-after in 2020.
Renault knew winning races was a tried-and-true way to sell cars. Executives watched as rivals like Autobianchi and Volkswagen injected more horsepower into their city cars and reaped the rewards. They responded with the 93bhp 5 Alpine (sold as the Gordini in the United Kingdom) in 1976.
Enthusiasts went wild but Renault wasn’t done yet. The 5’s ultimate street-legal evolution was the Turbo, which landed in 1980 with a mid-mounted, 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged to 156bhp. It spun the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox similar to the unit used in the 30, Renault’s flagship. Fitting the powertrain behind the front seats required significantly widening the 5’s rear end.
Its 0-60mph time dropped to 7.3sec. That figure corresponded to the street-legal model. The more powerful evolutions of the 5 Turbo built for racing sometimes received 380bhp.
As of 2020, the Renault Megane’s least powerful engine is a 94bhp version of the time-tested, 1.5-litre dCi turbodiesel. Customers can also select a 113bhp version of this engine. On the petrol side, the smallest and least powerful unit offered is a 1.0-litre three cylinder with 118bhp on tap. They’re largely aimed at buyers in certain markets who need to fall under a certain emissions threshold for tax reasons.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the RenaultSport-built Megane RS 300 Trophy offers enthusiasts 296bhp from a turbocharged, 1.8-litre four-cylinder. Four-wheel steering is standard but front-wheel drive remains the only configuration available; Renault isn’t planning on taking its hottest hatch into all-wheel drive territory. The Alpine A110 uses a version of the RS 300 Trophy’s engine.
The fourth-generation Toyota Yaris sold in Europe, among other global markets, offers buyers a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine that makes 67bhp as its smallest and least powerful engine. Motorists have other options to choose from, including a hybrid system whose combined output checks in at 113bhp.
Toyota surprised the enthusiast community by turning the humble, four-door Yaris into a race-ready two-door hot hatch built largely to obtain rally homologation. This wouldn’t have been particularly unusual in the 1980s but the GR Yaris made its global debut in 2020. It’s powered by a masterpiece of an engine with three cylinders, 1.6 litres of displacement and 257bhp. Permanent four-wheel drive lowers the hatchback’s 0-60mph time to 5.2sec, which is almost on par with a Porsche 718’s.
Launched in 1983, the second-generation Volkswagen Golf went on sale with a carburetted, 1.0-litre four-cylinder as its base engine. It developed 43bhp during the first few years of Golf production, though that figure rose to 48bhp in 1985. Other engine options, including a 52bhp diesel, were also available. It took the people’s car torch from the original Golf so entry-level models were powered accordingly.
Volkswagen started packing more performance into the second-generation Golf when it released the 108bhp GTI. The celebrated 16-valve model raised that figure to 135 and the four-wheel drive Rallye variant brought 156bhp to the table thanks in part to a supercharger. The hike didn’t end there.
Volkswagen’s go-fast Motorsport division made 71 examples of a Limited-badged model equipped with a 207bhp four-cylinder, Syncro four-wheel drive and a shockingly long list of equipment including leather upholstery and a sunroof. Made in 1989, the Limited stands proud as the most sought-after variant of the second-generation Golf. It laid the foundations Volkswagen built the first R32 on in 2002.
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World news – GB – Same model, massive difference in horsepower | Autocar