When you’re comparing different cars, one of the metrics that always comes up is horsepower. How are you supposed to know what amount of horsepower is good? In this piece, we’ll talk about horsepower, tell you everything you need to know, and explain what a good amount of horsepower is for a car.
Quick Definition of Horsepower
Horsepower is a way to explain how much power your engine can create. As your engine revs faster, it creates more power. In other words, you won’t always be using the rated horsepower – it’s reserved only for when you need it.
You can think of it as the max amount of weight you can bench-press. You can still lift smaller amounts, but you can bust out your max when necessary.
The reason it’s called “horsepower” goes back to the days of horse-drawn carriages. When cars were first introduced, they needed to use a measurement that the everyday person could understand.
They would compare the work of an engine to how much work a single horse could do. Ironically enough, a modern-day horse can create up to 15 horsepower. What does a single horsepower look like? A horse using 1hp can carry 330 lbs of coal at a speed of 100 feet per minute.
The Typical Horsepower of a Car
Horsepower is highly variable from one car to the next. In general, the average car will have about 120hp. Bigger SUVs and trucks might offer 200hp and smaller cars have around 70hp engines, on average.
The Misconception of Horsepower
Someone who isn’t super familiar with cars might think that horsepower is the only measure that you should care about. They might think horsepower exactly equates to how fast a car can go.
The truth is that horsepower is just one piece of the puzzle. If you want to know how fast a car can go in a straight line, you also need to care about torque and weight.
If you’re looking at how speedy a car is around a track, then you’ll also care about the tires, weight distribution, and drivetrain.
Don’t Forget the Torque
Torque is the other piece of the equation. Torque is a theory borrowed from science, and it basically tells you your engine’s ability to do work.
A good way to think about torque vs. horsepower is this: horsepower is how much power your engine theoretically has, and torque is how much of that power gets applied to the road.
If two cars have identical horsepower, but one has a higher torque rating, it will go faster.
Horsepower to Weight Relationship
The other piece is how heavy your car is. A 60-ton tank has 1,500 horsepower. You can bet everything that even a car with 150 horsepower can beat in a drag race.
This is the big reason why larger vehicles like SUVs and trucks have more horsepower. The heavier the vehicle is, the more horsepower it needs to achieve the same speed and acceleration as a lighter one.
If you’re really concerned about comparing horsepower, you should probably look at the horsepower: weight ratio between the options to get a better picture.
A golf cart with a 150-horsepower engine is hell on wheels compared to a Camry.
Tires and Performance
Grippier tires will help you go faster around corners. A 1,000 horsepower car with bald tires will make a lot of smoke but won’t get very far. This is why checking the health of your tires is so important.
The tread will determine how well your car sticks to the road and how fast you can take a turn.
The final component is the weight distribution of your car. You want a smooth balance between the from and rear of your car. Too much weight on one side will ruin your ability to go fast around a track.
What Is a Good Amount of Horsepower for a Car?
Since the average compact car has around 120 horsepower, anything above that can be considered “good”. Of course, that’s not the answer you’ll get from a group of gearheads writing articles about cars.
In my opinion, a car’s horsepower gives an owner bragging rights and brings excitement in the 200-400 HP range.
What cars have this kind of hp? A Subaru WRX, Honda Accord, base Porsche Boxster, Ford Focus ST, Honda S2000, MazdaSpeed3, VW Golf R, and V6 Toyota Camry. These aren’t supercars, but they are a ton of fun to drive. In my opinion, this family of 200-300 horsepower cars is the first grouping that can’t compare to your “everyday car”. Their speed and performance are noticeably different.
Case Study: Cars with the Same Horsepower
For a quick comparison of these ideas at work, let’s look at two different vehicles with about the same horsepower and see how they perform.
In this case study, I’ll compare the Nissan 370z Nismo to a 2020 Ram 1500 with its 3.0L EcoDiesel trim package.
Nissan 370z Nismo: 350 hp, curb weight of 3,200lbs, 0-60 in 5.0 seconds, and a top speed of 179mph.
Ram 1500 3.0L EcoDiesel: 360 hp, curb weight of 5,600lbs, 0-60 in 8.1 seconds, and a top speed of 153mph.
The Ram even has more horsepower but performs worse in every single category. Why? It’s mostly due to the huge difference in weight.
At this point, you’re the horsepower guru. You can correct your friends when they say their Ram truck is faster than your 370z because they have more horsepower. As you just saw, your car’s speed depends on its horsepower, torque, weight distribution, and tire grip. A good amount of horsepower for a compact car is somewhere in the mid-200s.