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Everything is relative. By 1981 standards, any car boasting 100 horsepower was doing pretty good. So good, in fact, that just seven Japanese-brand vehicles made that cut.
Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the extent to which emissions equipment and low-octane unleaded fuel had impacted the power output of new-vehicle engines is to note the following:
We’ve looked at The Most-Powerful American Cars of 1980, and The Most-Powerful American Cars of 1986. Here we’ll skip ahead another half decade to 1991. Maybe we should say leap ahead. Compared to our top five 1986 cars, our 1991 most-muscular rides come in at an average 277 horsepower, a solid 58-horse bump. Credit improved fuel-injection systems, and a mighty (and seriously expensive) topline Corvette that shattered the 300-horsepower barrier.
What a difference a few years can make. We recently posted the “5 Most-Powerful American Cars of 1980,” a collection of rides boasting, on average, 199 horsepower. It’s worth noting that every vehicle on the list was carbureted. Jump ahead six model years…
In the movie Scarface, explaining how things work in America, would-be drug kingpin Tony Montana explains, “You gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the women.”
American muscle got the short shrift in 1980. As a result of the Summer Olympics embargo of 1980, America’s strongest athletes didn’t compete in Moscow, leaving most of the medals to be claimed by the Russians.
As the Sixties ended, Americans were busy stuffing huge engines into midsize cars. The result of that exercise was what we now fondly recall as the muscle-car era.
According to website Statista, light-truck sales—which include crossovers and SUVs—have risen from about 2 million in 1980 to almost 12 million last year. One needs only to look around to see that coupe and convertible sales have fallen to all-time lows, but it’s the humble sedan that I am most worried about.
By most accounts, the automotive period known as the Malaise Era lasted from 1973 until 1983. During that time, the performance of most new vehicles paled in comparison to the less-regulated cars of just a few years earlier. Blame the government if you will, as low-lead gas, fuel-economy standards, and emissions regulations all took a serious toll on the horsepower output of most engines. I say most, because some cars suffered less than others. And there was one main reason for that relative immunity to the Malaise Era woes: fuel injection.
What makes a car fast? Generally, more power means more go, but back in 1982, power was hard to come by. Weight matters too, but not as much as you might think, at least for the cars tested by Consumer Guide back in 1982. Unlike previous “fastest” lists I’ve put together, I’ve included the final drive ratio for each car listed below.