New American cars are getting stronger than ever

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an annual report on average data on the US consumer fleet, and says that gas-powered cars today are more energy efficient than ever before. Average horsepower for light vehicles manufactured for the 2021 model year hit a record high of 252.2 horsepower last year, while average engine displacement has remained flat.

Which cars are important?

That’s the highest horsepower ever recorded since the EPA began collecting light vehicle data in 1975, so the benchmark factors in the last 50 years for American vehicles, but none before that. Displacement has averaged under 3.0 liters since 2014, but peaked at 4.8 liters throughout 1975, when the Environmental Protection Agency first began collecting data. Average power that year was 137 horsepower, which is poor by modern standards. The lowest average power ever recorded was 102.1 horsepower in 1981.

The numbers show that modern gas engines are more efficient for their size than ever before, with the average displacement in light vehicles for 2021 being 2.9 liters. That translates to an 84 percent increase in horsepower and a 40 percent increase in displacement versus the cars on our streets in nearly 50 years, according to data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. This data set does not affect electric vehicles.

So, the average American car in 2021 was roughly 250 horsepower from a less-than-3.0-liter engine. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone in America drives something with that power and displacement – that’s not how averages work. Instead, we found a mixture of several small, low-power models dying along with a variety of high-power models being introduced (or increased sales) that contributed to the averaging.

F-150 and other trucks

If you look at last year’s sales mix, the top three cars are Ford, GM and Ram pickups. The Ford F-150 is the most popular car in America, with 726,000 pickups sold in 2021, so it’s almost certain to have an impact on EPA numbers. Consider the popular 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6, a powerful (325 hp) and low-displacement alternative to the 5.0-liter V-8. This is exactly the type of displacement (turbocharged) replacement in which we average the power numbers.

Factor also in the recently phased out lower-volume models (for example, many small sedans and hatchbacks, such as the Chevrolet Cruze or Ford Focus) and the proliferation of engine upgrades for current models, such as the more recently 250-hp Mazda3 turbocharger. We also have to note the general popularity of the turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 among manufacturers, which has replaced a great deal of V-6 options in mass market vehicles.

Engineering efficiency and turbocharging have taken the power from these small engines to incredible new heights in recent years while keeping displacement constant, like the awesome 2.0-liter 306-horsepower I-4 in the Honda Civic R-Type. Not to mention bigger, cars have become More powerful all-wheel drive is increasingly popular, hence the first-ever 2023 Cadillac Escalade to meet market demand, or of course the infamous Dodge Hellcats and RT rims that help skew fleet power averages even further.

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