Why 400bhp Doesn't Cut It In The UK

We're on a quest to find the perfect power figure for UK roads. Here's why 400bhp just won't do...

By Antony Ingram, 23 December 2012

Adulthood is a bit of a let-down, in many ways.

You spend your entire childhood wanting to go faster. Walking is faster than crawling, running is faster than walking, rollerblading or cycling is faster than running.

And if you can't get any faster with your preferred method of transport, you need to be quicker than your mates, at least. Can you do the 100m sprint quicker than them at school? Can you reach the bottom of that sh*t-scary hill on your bike before the other guy?

We like speed. You'll see it in most of what we do here at Car Throttle. Fast cars are good. Fast cars bring back those same sensations we had when we were growing up, on an amplified scale. Which is why adulthood is a bit of a let-down. The primal thrill of driving a car quickly can only be enjoyed for the briefest, most tantalising of moments on Britain's traffic-clogged, gatso-enforced, speedbumped, pot-holed and idiot-filled streets.

A blast of the throttle here, a gearchange there and repeated glances to ensure your next prod of the loud pedal won't result in spending the next year of your life sharing the showers with love-starved Bob and a particularly slippery bar of soap. So I've come to the unfortunate and potentially unpopular conclusion that 'too much power' is very much a thing.

Toyota GT86 Revmeter

'Too little power' is also a thing, so I'm not about to advocate everyone goes out of their way to drive an Axiam Coupe.

But there's a happy medium somewhere. Drive a car which is too slow, and you inevitably have to compromise somewhere. Motorway journeys become a bit of a slog, requiring too much effort to keep pace with other traffic, or too much noise when a less-powerful car is geared to at least provide some acceleration. And if the car isn't light enough to offset its lack of shove, it can feel lethargic off the motorways too. There's nothing so depressing as caning the life out of a car in one gear to find the next cog drops you back into sloth city.

Too much power is frustrating for other reasons. While it's nice to sink your right toe and watch the horizon smoosh past the windscreen, it's ultimately unfulfilling being able to experience it in bursts of maybe two or three seconds before you're decimating the local speed limit.

If you've got that conscience within, it's also frustrating sitting at 70-80mph on the motorway knowing you're doing but a fraction of the speed your car would be happy doing.

So where is that balance? One hundred, one-fifty horsepower? Not enough, really. Great in the right car (an 80s-90s hot hatch, an MX-5, a Caterham 7) but ultimately too slow for the motorway scenario. 400bhp? Probably too much - it's enough for licence-losing speeds plus the legal speed limit in most cars. A car that does 170mph will end up wasting most of its potential most of the time.

350 then? Now we're getting somewhere. Car Throttle favourite, the BMW M135i, has 316bhp. It would take a lunatic to call it slow, but it'd also be a lunatic who was able to use all that power on a regular basis - it's a very, very quick car for the most part, and as such still frustratingly unusuable to its full extent.

150-200bhp? Getting very warm. We also love the Toyota GT 86 here (and you do, too), with its 200-horse engine. And for most of the last decade, 200bhp was the entry ticket for the hot hatch brigade.

But naturally aspirated, it can still be caught out. Naturally aspirated, you can still be walked all over by 150bhp turbodiesels, unless you're in exactly the right gear and giving it some beans.

You can see where this is going: 200-300bhp.

The first clue is that most of today's top-end hot hatchbacks sit somewhere between these figures. It's enough to be fast - properly so, on the right road - and not get left behind by reps in BMW 320ds - but not enough that you can never use it.

You can really drive the wheels off a modern hot hatch, and with a bit of care, rarely go too fast that you'll fear for your license.

Other cars between these numbers? Only some of the greatest performance cars of all time: Porsche 911 2.7 RS. Lancia Delta Integrale. Honda NSX Type R. Subaru Impreza 22B. Late Audi Quattros. Ground-coverers one and all, adding weight to that sweet spot between 200-300 horsepower.

Some may disagree, of course. There are plenty of cars both above and below these limits which offer just as much fun.

But as vehicles to use to their full extent without penalty, and to toddle around in without frustration, do you want more? Or less?...

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