By on May 19, 2017

olds omega 1977

Around the time of the Bicentennial, 300 horsepower was reserved for from-the-factory supercars and custom builds aimed at the drag strip. Today, you can find family sedans eclipsing that benchmark without a lot of trouble. Compare the first decade of Toyota Corollas to hit North American shores to their modern day equivalents and you’ll note that 0 to 60 time have been almost halved.

It’s the same with most models. A few years ago, I had the privilege of driving a well-maintained 1977 Oldsmobile Omega and wondered how enthusiasm ever survived malaise era automobiles. It must have been the gorgeous styling keeping us going.

Modern cars aren’t just more powerful, they’re also far more efficient and significantly less dirty. Additional safety regulations and standard equipment should have left us with bogged-down fuel hogs, yet automakers have managed to roll with the punches — not just maintaining the status quo but routinely moving it forward. However, to really appreciate just how far we’ve come you need to see those decades of progress plotted. 

Authors at Bloomberg — who must have had some extra time on their hands this week — have done just that. Drawing data from forty years of Environmental Protection Agency emission testing, they plotted the U.S. light vehicle fleet’s path to glory. The results are dramatic.

Probably the most incredible takeaway from the findings is how much median acceleration has increased along side average economy. The EPA graphs — which you should definitely check out — highlight how much things have changed. Sitting at a tortoise-like 16-plus seconds at the dawn of the 1980s, 0-60 times have since shrunk to a median of 7.2 seconds in 2016. Since the end of the Ford administration, fuel economy has tripled, and median engine displacement has dipped from roughly 5.2 liters to 3 liters.

From Bloomberg:

“Combustion engines on America’s roads are about 42 percent smaller than they were 40 years ago. At the same time, the EPA’s median measurement of miles-per-gallon has doubled, from 15 to 30. Most of those gains were made under pressure from federal efficiency mandates. The great power push began in 1985 just after the industry had hit a threshold of 27.5 miles-per-gallon.”

Drivetrain enhancements chug along nicely for about twenty years after that, but things really get going around 2007, when engineers collectively realized they could mitigate efficiency loss while continuing to add power. Direct injection and cylinder deactivation were major leaps forward while manufacturers perfected variable valve timing, forced induction, cooling systems, and lightweight materials.

Those advancements took us from 1976 — where a 285 horsepower Aston Martin V8 was the best anyone in the U.S. could possibly achieve — to 2017, where your neighbor’s base model Ford Taurus is rated at 240 hp. All of a sudden, there arrived a bevy of higher output motors requiring less time at the pump and tiny econoboxes with triple-digit power specs.

It turned out there was a replacement for displacement, after all.

“Today, we can model it, we can visualize it, and we can make sure the fuel ends up in the air, not on the cylinder wall,” said Prabjot Nanua, director of General Motors’ advanced engine and racing engineering.

I know we all miss unadulterated classics like the Mercury Bobcat, Chevrolet Corvette 305 California, and Ford Mustang II. By all measurements, those were nearly perfect automobiles. However, sometimes it’s nice to appreciate what you have today and give a nod to the past for helping you get there.

[Image: RL GNZLZ/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]


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57 Comments on “The Replacement for Displacement: Plotting Our Path Out of the Malaise Era...”

  • avatar

    “wondered how enthusiasm ever survived malaise era automobiles. It must have been the gorgeous styling keeping us going.”

    we even survived the horror that was stacked rectangular headlamps:

  • avatar

    “It must have been the gorgeous styling keeping us going.”

    No, it was the powah of Brougham.

  • avatar

    Frankly, I still prefer the styling of the 70s and 80s to today.

  • avatar

    Meh… I hear now that GM may not be doing a DOHC V8 for the mid-engine vette.

    Too bad since a relatively high revving 6.2 32v V8 would have been glorious if this rumor is true.

  • avatar

    That Omega actually looks pretty hip, even with the Chevy wheels on it. You can put all the F-Body suspension bits under it (or 9C1 Nova parts), which will make it handle well, and if it’s running the 3.8l Buick V6 or the SBC, the world is your oyster.

  • avatar

    Console size has quantripled in this timeframe as well :/

    • 0 avatar

      They also tend to hold more than a gear selector, hand (parking) brake handle, and a slot for some cassettes.

      No cup holders, no place to set your phone, many with no armrest or enclosed storage of any kind. BUT AT LEAST THEY DIDNT MAKE YOU FEEL CRAMMED UP (even though you’re not)!

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Good point about the gubmint regs driving innovation. The auto industry is/was notoriously insular with respect to technological improvements. Left to their own devices, ICE would be still spewing out 100X the amount of NOx, CO, SO2, etc than they do now, and don’t to forget poisoning from leaded gasoline.
    Sadly to say, the only effective way to prevent the tragedy of the commons for water and air pollution has been the big, bad government.
    Same goes for fuel efficiency.
    What this article says to me is that the solutions to the ICE efficiency and pollution problems were solved in a beneficial way to the customers at large for a rather small price. But, this did not happen without continuous political pressure.

    • 0 avatar
      Shockrave Flash Has Crashed

      I like to think the regulations leveled the playing field, forcing everyone to do it at the same time. I truly believe that car companies wanted to make better cars, but you have to be able to make a living in the mean time. Safety features benefited the most IMHO.

    • 0 avatar

      OK, so you believe the best solution was and is violence and coercion. Fair enough. Just call it what it is. Also you don’t know what would have happened without the gun-toting EPA thugs unless you’ve managed to channel into an alternate universe where that’s the way it happened. (Is Elvis still alive there?)

      Of course cleaner engines would no doubt have taken longer to arise, but really it is the advent of inexpensive and powerful computer technology that has made it possible to have cleaner and more powerful engines.

      • 0 avatar

        Computer technology which was largely the result of intensive government investment in electronics in response to the Cold War.

        You may hate the power structure, but you can’t cherry-pick what it did and didn’t do. Governments, in part because of their exclusive right to violence, can work on much longer time horizons and invest in ways which we have seen, time and again, here and elsewhere, businesses won’t.

      • 0 avatar

        Violence and coercion? Did I miss the EPA raids where they pistol whipped granny to get her out of the Omega and into a Prius? Libertarian moaning about fuel economy and safety regs gets old fast, especially when you realize how much better todays vehicles are in every way.

      • 0 avatar

        “Of course cleaner engines would no doubt have taken longer to arise, but really it is the advent of inexpensive and powerful computer technology that has made it possible to have cleaner and more powerful engines.”

        A 26″ console TV from the early eighties could run you $1,000($2,500 today).
        A much better 42″ flat screen can now be had for $299.
        No govt push there.
        Pretending auto makers wouldn’t have taken advantage of advancing tech without govt mandates is myopic.

        • 0 avatar

          This is a really good point, but the key difference I see in these two situations is that the use of a TV set does not have the same effects on other people, both from an environmental and crash-safety standpoint, as the use of an automobile.

          I tend to come down on the free market libertarian side of things myself, but situations involving effects and liabilities that cannot be boiled down to individual property rights, such as air & water quality, are much more complicated when trying to determine the proper role of government, if any. Effective regulation in these areas without government coercion could possibly be accomplished through radical tort reform, but nobody’s really tried it that way.

    • 0 avatar

      Studies going back to the 1930s proved that automobiles were major contributors to pollution and that many crash related injuries/deaths could have been avoided by making some minor changes to the way autos were designed/built. The car companies resisted any such suggestions. As late as the 1950s GM’s official position as regards injuries/deaths suffered in auto accidents was that they were all attributable to operator error or deliberate recklessness.

  • avatar

    It’s funny, my 2015 Avalon runs as hard as my then new 1989 Ford Mustang 5.0 LX did. Too bad it doesn’t come with a manual like the Mustang.

    Twenty years from now, today’s car market will truly be the “good old days” people often lament over. We may be close to peak auto, especially from a performance/efficiency gas engine standpoint. A good time for car lovers of all types really.

  • avatar

    You don’t even have to go back that far. As awful as 2.0Ts are, I did some analysis and a lot of the midize luxury cars with them are as fast as the V8 versions from 20 or even 15 years ago. Granted they sound like crap and often have lumpy responses but they get the job done. For people who don’t care about those subjective qualities it’s a win-win- especially considering that the 2.0Ts get like 50-60% better gas mileage.

  • avatar

    The 80s, as I remember it, were awful for performance. My dad’s B-Body diesels were ponderously slow, and his ’87 Nissan Stanza (99hp, baby!) wasn’t much faster. But they didn’t seem very slow because everything else, minus the odd Mustang, Camaro, or vintage muscle car, weren’t much faster.

    My teenage self thought the folk’s MY84 Nissan truck was fast, at least faster than my friend’s Mazda B2000, or another high schooler’s Ford EXP. Wooh!

    Now I drive a car that can, in theory – magazine time! – just breaks under 7 seconds in 0-60 and it doesn’t feel very fast at all. I would have loved to have that performance/ gas mileage in the 80s.

    • 0 avatar

      Hmm, I wonder if anyone posted this article on the Malaise Motors Facebook group.

      The ’80s cars were much smaller (a 1981 Accord sedan was about as big as a 2017 Honda City, the Fit Sedan sold overseas) and lighter, without buzzwords like “refinement” and “insulation” inhibiting our fun. They felt fast because you could feel everything they were doing. Now, mainstream car buyers want to feel like they’re flying in a Boeing where it’s going fast but you can’t feel it. That’s why I prefer cheaper and entry-level modern cars, some still have a bit more raw mechanical edge to them.

      • 0 avatar

        A car that needs 15+ seconds to get to 60 does not feel fast in any context. Hell, a motorcycle that slow, which has even less refinement/insulation, doesn’t feel fast. The cars sucked. Let’s not romanticize things that were awful.

    • 0 avatar

      My counterpoint: those of us that learned to drive and hoon in those 80’s cars probably became better drivers because of those cars. Slower yet lighter cars, we learned to momentum drive the twisties and probably drove at 9/10th’s a hell of a lot more than young drivers today. My theory does not apply to anyone who grew up in the flatlands lol.

      • 0 avatar

        Being able to drive better at the limit != being a better driver on the street. And learning to drive in an old POS != being able to drive on the limit better. Nothing about driving a sub 100 HP FWD rust bucket on 30 year old tires will teach you anything about handling something like a Mustang GT at its limit. The romanticizing of the past is at a deafening fever pitch and must be squashed.

        • 0 avatar

          Your argument isn’t improved by being built on falsehoods. Limit driving doesn’t equal being a good driver on the street, but someone who improves their car control without improving their judgement or disposition is still safer on the street than someone with poor impulse control and lousy car control.

          The transportability of skills learned in inferior cars to superior cars is exactly how every excellent racing driver got where they are. There are a few truly gifted drivers who can do anything the first time, but there are plenty of champions who learned car control driving the wheels off of econoboxes and Formula-Vees with 46 hp and hard, full-tread tires.

          As for Mustang GT drivers, do they show off their limit driving exiting Cars and Coffee? They’d be better off if they spent their teenage years driving back roads in Tempos on Roadmasters.

  • avatar

    The malaise era is a major reason why 1950s-60s muscle/pony cars are held in such high regard because it wasn’t until the last 20 years that anything modern could touch them in a straight line or appearance. In states where there were no annual emission inspections it was very common to replace the smog motors of the 70s with muscle motors from the 60s in order to get better performance, drivability, and fuel economy. Now of course things have reversed as resto-mods take cars from the golden era and put modern fuel injected emission legal crate engines and overdrive gearboxes in them to allow them to keep up with modern traffic while keeping the classic good looks.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      stingray65, I grew up in a state without annual inspections and it was fairly common to disable malaise-era pollution equipment to improve performance. The era of the “test pipe”. On the other hand, I don’t remember anyone putting a high-performance engine from the 60s in a car from the 70s back when nice examples of actual cars from the 60s were plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Instead, any and all cars built for a SBC V8 engine received the 350 version rebuilt with a little higher compression sans pollution control equipment when the original wore out.

      • 0 avatar

        This. Where I grew up, there was the “ten dollar inspection,” which everyone failed, and the “fifty dollar inspection,” which everyone passed.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    We’re entering a new era of automotive malaise:

    Engine stop start, electric steering, 10 speed autos, bulging headlights, small displacement turbos, all to eek out a few tenths of an MPG here and there, is not progress, IMHO. Diminishing marginal returns.

    And to imply that all regulation is sweetness and light is misleading. There’s no assessment of how less expensive autos would be if some of these regulations were not pursued. And it’s not just the direct material cost of this gizmo or that; it’s the development cost of compliance that is probably more significant.

    • 0 avatar

      Autos are hardly expensive though. Even with all the tech, cars are getting cheaper. How? A Honda Fit is a better car by nearly all measures compared to a 10-20 year old Civic. That trend is pretty much universal. And I don’t know how an era in which we have cars like the ND Miata or Mustang could be associated with malaise.

      I know its cool to dump on the present and romanticize the past but cars from 20+ years ago sucked compared to what we have today.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m in agreement!

      Honda’s probably about to shoot themselves in the foot by dropping the TORQUE-MAD V6 from the Accord, and for what??!! Maybe 2mpg gain from a wheezing turbo?! (Which of course will need to be caned within an inch of its life to deliver anything approaching the same performance, which will drop the MPGs through the floor, along with possibly increasing maintenance costs when the gerbil wheel breaks!)

      No replacement for displacement!

  • avatar

    Yea the chart is somewhat misleading because it starts right after the first emissions regulations came into place, requiring catalysts and the switch to unleaded gas which required compression ratios to go down.

    There was a real drop-off in power in the 70s that took until the early 90s to be corrected (albeit with an efficiency gain)

    • 0 avatar

      Just to add – the HP chart for the Mustang is highly inaccurate for the early Fox body years (1979-87). There were no 200+ hp Mustangs in ’83, or ’84. The highest HP in ’80-’81 was 132 for the turbo cars. Where is the 225 HP 5.0L in ’87?? This tells me the data must have been compiled manually by some pencil-necked nincompoop.

      • 0 avatar

        My family had the first Mustang Turbo (no, not the SVT, the very first one). I think 135 hp was what you got in some ideal world.

        Unmitigated crap. Draw through carb design, long runners, gas would pool in them in hot weather. No intercooler. Nothing like trying to keep a NEW car running on NYC Highways in stop and go August weather.

        It was tied to a four (!) speed manual. First and second were correct. Third was what fourth should be, and Fourth was an overdrive. The only way to drive the car to get to the bottom of the boost into fourth was to mercilessly over-rev the car, and if you got it just right, a yellow light and buzzer for ‘overboost” (oh, do not tease me so….) would buzz and you’d JUST catch the bottom of the torque curve. If you missed, you’d have to wait in fourth for the car to pull back to boost.

        Whoever signed off on this drivetrain deserved to be “downsized” at the first opportunity as grossly incompetent. The rest of the car, the chassis, TRX tires, etc, were actually very good for the era….

        • 0 avatar

          Early carb’ed turbo Fox mustangs were a hot mess..they were actually discontinued midway through the ’81 MY – reverting to the NA 2.3L rated at 88 hp. So you could actually end up with a full badass ‘Cobra’ package including giant size ‘Cobra’ decals, air-dam, Recaro seats, TRX etc. and have it powered by a whopping 88 hp.

          • 0 avatar

            Cool to learn that. The replacement car was a 325is, so it was a night and day change. My mom never owned an American car again…

  • avatar

    Malaise V8s were designed to build torque right off idle, which was a great thing. The thinking was, thanks to CAFE, the sooner the power arrives, the quicker a car could shift into high gear at a relatively slow speed.

    So that left “horse power” to not show very well on paper. A 220 HP V8 of that era would have as much as 300 lbs/ft of torque. A current V6 with 230 HP may have just 175 lbs/ft of torque.

    It’s all about when torque peaks, that dictates “Horse Power”, since HP is a calculation of torque, times the RPM. Dynos only give a “torque” reading, at the wheels or flywheel, the rest is a formula.

    Hence why a 230 HP diesel may have as much as 500 lbs/ft of torque, since diesels make most of their power around 2,000 RPM.

    Modern gearing is just way more efficient (while more aggressive), plus 8+ speeds, double overdrives, along with locking torque converters and fuel cut-offs when coasting.

    But one of the things I loved about my Fox 5.0 was when squeezing the throttle right off of idle, and shifting briskly at just 1,800 RPM through the gears would have you pinned to the seat fairly hard. That was with stock (common for the era) 2.73 gears. But once I upgraded to 3.73 gears (common for today), it was a whole other animal!

  • avatar

    Reliability and refinement has increased dramatically too. My ’76 Astre (Vega clone) 87 hp, 0-60 about 20 seconds. Best MPG I every got was 26 highway. That was at 55 mph. My Accord has never gotten 26 mph ever. Turn the key it starts. Perfect drivability. Astre, engine would die when engine was cold. Always. Very hard to start below zero.

  • avatar
    Pesky Varmint

    No question.

    Todays cars are the fastest, most efficient, cleanest, safest, and most durable cars ever built. No question.

    But I’ll never buy another new one.

    To me, they are all boring.

  • avatar

    Jalopnik did an article about the crapitude of old cars some years back.

  • avatar

    “1980 Chevrolet Corvette 305 California. It it is his love it is his passion….”

    “It is his fault he didn’t lock the garage.”

    “Biddy bow bow…ohhhhhh yeahhh!”

  • avatar

    Don’t forget the at least once a year tuneups – points, plugs, rotor, condenser, set dwell and timing just to get the kind of easy starting/smooth running cpu controlled performance 2.0T engines routinely return for 100K at a clip. The other tradeoff? Today’s powertrains are becoming mere modules distinguished only by output. Awesome efficiency, though.

  • avatar

    It’s those malaise cars that drove an entire generation of American teens to foreign cars, yours truly included. Remember the Ford Granada? Ewww.

    • 0 avatar

      Were any of you there? Foreign cars didn’t escape the wrath. They had the same things to deal with, and the spaghetti factory of vacuum lines on some were worse than any American car.

      So despite my friends going for foreign cars, I bit the bullet on some late ’70s GM and Ford iron and was rightfully rewarded, for far less cash. Yeah they were jealous. American Malaise cars definitely weren’t as bad as some claimed.

      Then there’s Malaise era Euro cars!

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I actually agree with Denver Mike. Many of the foreign cars especially German and British cars from the 70’s were not that great from a reliability and performance standpoint. A well tuned V-8 in most domestic cars were very reliable and provided good performance. One of the best running and performing cars I have ever owned was a 73 Chevelle with a 350 V-8 which would easily lay rubber and would run smooth at 100 mph. Of course it did not have a catalytic converter but even my 77 Monte Carlo with a 305 V-8 was not too bad but it was not as good as the 350. I do prefer the fuel injection and the safety features of today’s cars over the past but a well tuned V-8 from the 70’s was very good and would easily run well over 100k without any major mechanical issues.

    Most V-8s from the 70’s were fairly easy to tuneup and the points were not that hard to adjust after you did it a few times. By the mid 70’s most cars had electronic ignitions and were fairly easy to maintain. The worst thing was by the 80’s many carburetors were electronically controlled and were hard to keep them running decently. Fuel injection is much better than those electronic controlled carburetors.

  • avatar

    It goes both ways. Today’s cars have much different problems compared to the 70’s and 80’s stuff. Back then it was carburetor rebuilds, points to adjust or replaced until electronic ignition, belt and hose replacement every so many years and rust. One also needed to spend more time adjusting rear brake drums, adjusting the valve lash on an old Chevy V8, replace valve cover and intake gaskets and transmissions needed band adjustments in addition to service. Fuel mileage was often bad to poor. Drive-ability was terrible on many Chrysler era Lean Burn equipped cars and others offering tiny choking 1BBL setups.

    With that said those older cars usually rode like a dream and bumps were filtered right out of the cabin in full framed or larger unibody cars. V8 engines provide smooth quiet power and were generally reliable and gave years of service. Depending on the era they could also provide reasonable good power. Trunks were very big with large openings. Windows were mounted with low site lines giving great visibility. Interiors offered numerous color choices and exterior styling on many vehicles was eye catching with lots of chrome and flash. The stick shift transmission was offered generally across the board on most models save really large luxury sedans and full sizers and the customer had a bewildering choice of body styles ranging from 2 doors with pickup beds, coupes, personal luxury coupes, sedans, hatches, pony cars, sporty coupes, station wagons and trucks. There were even large full size SUV’s in the form of the Bronco and Blazer but with only 2 doors.

    Conversely those older 70’s and 80’s cars had terrible 4 cylinder engines in many applications that were loud, slow as hell and had miles of vacuum lines snaking around trying to keep the pain in the but carburetor happy. Turbo technology sucked with the draw thru design fed by PITA carburetor and fuel economy was poor on even many 4 banger engines. These were also experimental times with oil sucking rotary engines, variable displacement engines that didn’t have the computing power or reliability we have today, mixed metal engines that leaked like sieves, variable venturi carburetors and lean burn systems that refused to run correctly and a multitude of other quality control related problems.

    Fast forward to today and reliability is considerably better for the most part but still not perfect. Instead of carburetors and higher levels of things that need service we have annoying touch screens and controls, poor visibility, small trunk openings, boring or just plain outrageous styling, interiors that totally lack color and charm and big chasms of body styles that used to be offered. It is also very hard to order a vehicle today exactly the way you want to. Often times the consumer is forced into expensive option packages just to get a leather steering wheel or fog lamps or navigation. Power and driveability are worlds better but some of the modern transmissions do not shift well or as smooth as they did 10-15 years back. With today’s sad obsession with large trucks and SUV’s there are a full range of 4 door pickups and SUV’s and CUV’s galore but the main sellers are hum drum frumpy 4 cylinder CUV’s like the RAv 4 and CRV. Choices for the car enthusiast are fading however with the rapid demise of the stick shift and sporty coupes and sedans like the Chevy SS and the soon to be gone Taurus SHO. Also lost are Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saab, Hummer, Mercury and Plymouth to name a few. Somewhat redundant brands but divisions like Pontiac often did build exciting vehicles.

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