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30 Mar 2017

The new Ferrari 812 Superfast has a staggering 798bhp, in a normal, regular production, fully warranted factory built supercar. Just let that sink in for a minute – that’s over 300bhp more than the 550 Maranello from 20yrs earlier. Back in 1999 BMW introduced the E39 M5, which had a 4.9 litre V8 engine producing 394bhp and was considered an incredibly powerful, crazy fast ‘supersaloon’ when tested. Fast forward to 2017 and you can have the same amount of power in a family hatchback – the new Audi RS3. Has the power race got out of hand?

Let’s get back to basics – the small hatchback is still a big seller and we have the Fiesta ST and Mini Cooper S which both have just under 200bhp in a small nimble hatchback. They’re quick cars, but not mind-blowing, so why are they not considered fast now, when the original Mk1 Focus RS only had just a bit more power in a bigger body? Weight – the killer of performance, that’s why. Cars were getting bigger with each generation and as such they got heavier, which meant more power was needed to overcome that weight and keep the same performance. But in the last 2-3yrs manufacturers have started to reduce weight again – cars are becoming 100-200kg lighter with each new model but the power outputs still keep rising.

The hot hatch is the easiest segment to spot the crazy rise, given that not long ago 200bhp was the norm in a VW Golf or Ford Focus sized performance model. The VW Golf GTi is still not far off that with 227bhp, but buyers wanted more so VW created the R with 307bhp and that opened up the floodgates for others to go crazy. Now we have the Focus RS with 345bhp, the Mercedes A45 AMG with 377bhp and at the top of the tree sits the new King of the Mega Hatches – the latest Audi RS3. Packing a turbocharged 2.5 litre 5-cylinder engine it produces 394bhp, all put down to a four wheel drive system via a dual clutch gearbox. Effortless performance in all weather, in a fairly mundane looking family hatchback – we’re talking 0-62mph in an official 4.1 seconds, but testers have clocked it at 3.8 seconds. That is the kind of performance that was reserved for supercars just 10yrs ago.

As we move up the ranks the supersaloons like the Audi RS6 and Mercedes E63 now have 600bhp, as will the new M5 when we see it next year. Then we hit the world of the supercars where the basic, entry level Ferrari California T has 553bhp and the lowest priced McLaren 540C 533bhp despite being fairly lightweight. A Porsche 911 GTS now has more power than the old Turbo model – has the world gone mad?

Well, the petrolhead inside me will hate me for saying this, but yes it has. I’d say that the Golf R is about as fast as you’d ever reasonably need a road car to be – it’ll easily break the national speed limit within 6 seconds, but the sprinting through the gears is just as quick and you can enjoy lots of that power all of the time. I’ve not driven the new RS3 but I’m guessing that there aren’t many situations where you can use that extra 90bhp on the road and isn’t that what matters? Most of these cars will never see a race track. The new McLaren 720S has over 700bhp and incredibly clever aerodynamics, but I’m going to guess you won’t get within 50% of its limits on the road, even then you’d be risking your licence. I’ve done lots of miles in a McLaren 570S and even that is far too quick on the road, you’re always looking down to check your speed and worrying about getting points/fines.

Luckily there is an antidote for this crazy power race – the humble Mazda MX-5. It has bucked the trend by actually being smaller and lighter than the previous TWO generations and is the very embodiment of simplicity. Sub-1000kg weight, a simple manually folding roof you can operate with one hand and a 160bhp 2.0 litre engine powering the rear wheels. I spent a week with one recently and you can use 100% of the available performance, all of the time while having huge fun and never having to worry about blue flashing lights or a nasty letter coming through the door in a few weeks. It’s not just Mazda either – there’s its twin the Fiat 124 Spider and of course Lotus is still building lightweight low power cars along with Caterham. If you want a hot hatch the Golf GTi is still more than quick enough, and I can’t wait to get behind the wheel of the new Fiesta ST with 197bhp from a turbo 3-cylinder lump.

They all serve as a wonderful antidote to the crazy power race and I’d actually say that throwing one of these down your favourite back road is just as rewarding if not more so than their more powerful brethren. Simple can be fun…

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