When One Car Has More Horsepower Than Churchill Downs

In 1967, the Ford GT40 was one of the fastest cars on the planet.

This was the street-legal version of the American underdog that won at Le Mans, memorably canonized in “Ford v Ferrari.” Packed with a 306-horsepower V-8, it could scorch to 60 miles an hour in just over five seconds.

How quaint: Today’s Honda Accord Sport, a family-sedan schlepper, can run neck and neck with the vintage Ford to 60 m.p.h. Plenty of luxury sedans, S.U.V.s and sports cars bring 400 to 600 horsepower. Muscle cars have swelled to button-popping heights; the Dodge Demon feels true to its name with 808 horses.

Welcome to the next front in the horsepower war, whose battles have raged since the dawn of the automobile, pausing only for actual wars, fuel crises or bids to rein in pollution. If gasoline-fueled provocations aren’t enough, electric cars are smashing the 1,000-horsepower barrier.

Burnt rubber will be in the air this spring with a Lucid Air, among several E.V.s that are leading a cavalry charge to unimaginable heights. The sedan’s $169,000 “Dream Edition” combines 1,080 horsepower with an industry-leading 503 miles of driving range as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Other Air sedans will follow, including a model in 2022 with “only” 480 horses, a 406-mile range and a $69,900 price after a federal tax credit.

Peter Rawlinson, Lucid’s chief executive and the former chief engineer of Tesla’s Model S, said the Lucid’s performance and efficiency would never compute in a gasoline car, where horsepower and high mileage tend to be mutually exclusive.

“I didn’t set out to create a crazy-powerful car,” said Mr. Rawlinson, whose company is based in California. “But go into the weird world of electric cars, and it really screws with your head.”

Electric motors, he said, are wildly more efficient than any internal-combustion power plant — green icing on the cake, if you will. Most gasoline engines convert only about 20 percent of stored liquid energy to power at the wheels, with the rest wasted as heat. But E.V.s convert roughly 60 percent of grid electricity to forward motion. So the Lucid combines room for five adults with a 2.5-second rip to 60 m.p.h.

Mr. Rawlinson, interviewed last month just after Maserati unveiled its gorgeous, gas-driven MC20, couldn’t resist a comparison.

“Our family sedan is faster than a Maserati supercar, by some margin. Isn’t that a ridiculous turn of events?” he asked.

Mr. Rawlinson, a Welsh native, is fond of pulling the Lucid’s ultracompact powertrain — electric motor, transmission and inverter — from a carry-on bag during stage presentations. He prefers to focus on that space- and energy-saving technology, but argues the market leaves him little choice.

“Ninety-nine percent of the words I speak are about efficiency, and 1 percent performance,” he said. Yet car lovers focus on the 1 percent, including a Sonoma Raceway run whose announcement brought a flood of orders: The Lucid Air covered a quarter-mile in 9.9 seconds at a dizzying 144.4 m.p.h. That’s the equivalent of gunning from a stoplight at 34th Street in Manhattan and topping 144 m.p.h. by 39th Street.

For perspective, the $1.2 million, 903-horsepower McLaren P1, among history’s fastest gasoline cars, is only a hair quicker.

“It seems speed is like a drug that still captures the imagination,” Mr. Rawlinson said, with an electric twinkle in his eye.

Mate Rimac has captured those imaginations — and development deals with global automakers — with his Croatian-built Rimacs. Mr. Rimac, a 32-year-old wunderkind, burst onto the scene in 2011 with the $1.1 million Concept One, a 1,224-horsepower, 220-m.p.h. monster billed as the world’s first all-electric supercar. That car gained notoriety when Richard Hammond, the former BBC “Top Gear” star, flipped it down a Switzerland hillside in a fiery crash while filming “The Grand Tour,” an Amazon series.

Mr. Rimac’s company, Rimac Automobili, looks to top that with next year’s C_Two hypercar, whose claimed specs might make Han Solo jealous: 1,888 horsepower, a 1.85-second launch to 60 m.p.h. and a 258-m.p.h. peak. Tesla’s Roadster, unveiled in 2017 but in production limbo, claims a similar 1.9 seconds to 60 m.p.h. If claims hold true, they would become the first showroom cars to break the two-second mark from 0 to 60.

For builders or buyers, that obsession with 0-to-60 times can be reductive. They describe only short-burst, straight-line speed. Move to winding roads or racetracks, and top gasoline cars still beat comparable E.V.s, handicapped by dead-weight batteries that are quickly bled dry during high-speed bouts. Porsche’s brilliant Taycan sedan holds the production-E.V. lap record on Germany’s benchmark Nürburgring circuit, and zaps 60 m.p.h. in 2.4 seconds. Yet the company’s gas-driven 911 GT2 RS sports car and Panamera Turbo S sedan are decisively faster over the 12.9-mile course.

Jerod Shelby underlined those old-school advantages on Oct. 10 with his SSC Tuatara. On a closed, seven-mile stretch of Highway 160 in Nevada, Mr. Shelby’s fantastical, $1.9 million hypercar — with 1,750 horsepower on E85 gasoline-ethanol fuel — shattered the world speed record for production cars. With the British racer Oliver Webb making the perilous attempt, the Tuatara reached 331.15 m.p.h. on one run, and a 316-m.p.h. average over runs in opposite directions, topping the 304.8-m.p.h. pace of the Bugatti Chiron from September 2019.

Mr. Shelby — no relation to the late Carroll Shelby — plans to build 100 copies of the Tuatara in Washington State. He says that even if most customers never see 150 miles an hour, they can still enjoy the thrilling design and handling, and bragging rights of owning the world’s fastest car.

“Who would have thought, 50 years ago, that someone would be driving a 1,750-horsepower car on the street, that you could drive to dinner with your wife and valet?” Mr. Shelby said. “To us, going over 300 m.p.h. is an amazing marketing tool to show the prowess of our engineering. But this is not a speed we would ever want one of our customers to do.”

For more earthbound customers, some of history’s longest-running sports cars, like the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette, are developing fearsomely powerful electric versions. Even fossil-fuel stalwarts are opening their eyes to the possibilities. Nico Rosberg, the 2016 Formula One champion, is among customers for the $2.1 million C_Two, for which Rimac plans 150 over three years.

“I absolutely love it, it’s just so damn epic,” Mr. Rosberg raved in a YouTube video, as he visited Rimac in Sveta Nedelja, Croatia, to drive a prototype.

It’s been a remarkable rise for Mr. Rimac, who started his business at age 20 in his parents’ garage, converting his BMW M3 to electric power and driving it to a Guinness world record in electric drag racing. It underlines how electric tech is allowing innovators to follow in Elon Musk’s footsteps and challenge the auto-making order.

“Croatia never had any car industry,” Mr. Rimac said. “No supply chain, no engineers. It would be like starting a software company in Uganda.”

Mr. Rimac still recalls the reaction from “petrolheads” when he first raced his home-built electric BMW.

“People were like, ‘What the hell — what is that car doing here? Why are you bringing this washing machine to the racing track?’”

Now, Mr. Rimac employs more than 800 people in an industrial park near Zagreb. In September, Porsche increased its Rimac stake to 15.5 percent, announcing it would intensify their collaboration in battery tech. That deal “was the ultimate seal of approval for us,” Mr. Rimac said. His company is also developing two electrified cars for Hyundai.

He and others credited Mr. Musk with changing the image of E.V.s as slow, dull appliances.

“This emotional factor is still important, and that’s what Tesla does so well,” Mr. Rimac said. “Building a car not just to save the planet, but making an appealing product.”

General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and other legacy automakers appear to have noticed. Among their new E.V.s, there’s not a frumpy econobox to be found. In a TV ad for Ford’s $49,995 Mustang Mach E — on sale late this year — the actor Idris Elba describes the Mustang’s heritage of “freedom, the open road, power and rebellion,” as classic Mustangs prowl city streets. (The Mustang Mach E is a family S.U.V., but no matter.)

G.M.’s $20 billion onslaught of 20 new E.V.s will start with a muscular commando: a reborn GMC Hummer pickup in late 2021, with up to 1,000 horsepower and a roughly 350-mile driving range. Hummer, that former hard-drinking social pariah, will be rehabilitated to ease into any Silicon Valley party. Electrics from Cadillac, Chevrolet and Buick will follow.

Ken Morris, G.M.’s vice president for electric and autonomous cars, said the company intended to sell the overall E.V. experience: reduced ownership costs and no gas stations. Quieter, roomier cabins. Efficiency and performance: not just going fast, but slowing down with regenerative braking.

“We absolutely believe in climate change, and that’s why we’re doing it,” Mr. Morris said. “But the performance is there, and we’d be silly not to tout it.”

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