Your Car’s Horsepower is a Completely Useless Unit of Measurement

The first thing we ask about any sports car or performance-oriented car is simple: how much horsepower does it have? While what we consider to be an impressive amount of horsepower changes over time, it is still the consistent measurement that we value when trying to decipher how fast a car is. While that number seems to mean a lot at first, there are a lot of reasons why it isn’t the most important unit of measurement we should be looking at.

Horsepower is a balance

Train engines can produce anywhere from 4,000 horsepower to as much as around 18,000 horsepower, but unless you are thinking about a speed rail, chances are you don’t consider most trains to be fast. The reason for that is obvious: they are extremely heavy. So how does that relate to cars? In the same way that weight literally weighs down the engine’s capabilities, the weight of a car or other vehicle does too. Balancing a car’s weight with its horsepower is just as important as the overall horsepower.

The Koenigsegg Agera RSN at Goodwood Festival of Speed 2018. Dubbed the Agera RSN | Martyn Lucy/Getty Images

Horsepower varies

Horsepower varies depending on where it is measured. You may have heard the phrases referring to the horsepower being measured from the crank or the wheels, and these numbers vary between both for almost every gas-powered car out there. There is some amount of power loss between the engine and where it matters most at the wheels, but the number you usually see reported is how much is produced at the crank, meaning directly from the engine.

a neon green Dodge Challenger muscle car
Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat | Dodge

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Torque and horsepower

Mustang owners have been trying to live down their reputation as crowd killers for years. This is because regardless of the hate that the Mustang community gets, the sports cars are easy to build and produce very impressive amounts of horsepower. Unfortunately, not all of that horsepower is delivered to the wheels efficiently, and the loss of traction is what sends the high-horsepower ponies sliding.

The new Dodge Viper SRT is on display during the first day of press previews at the New York International Automobile Show
The Dodge Viper SRT | STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

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While horsepower may not be a completely useless unit of measurement, there is still a lot more to making a car fast and efficient. Weight and torque should always be taken into consideration, as well as where the horsepower is measured from. Really, the problem is that we just put too much weight on the word horsepower itself, without giving much thought to all of these other important factors.