Boy, have things changed.
It's no surprise that the average horsepower of a car has changed. When Carl Benz put the first car, as we would recognize it today, on the road, it was estimated to have had 0.75 horsepower.
Henry Ford is credited with saying, "Auto racing began 5 minutes after the second car was built," which also means the start of the horsepower wars. The horsepower wars got fully underway in the 1950s, though, as car sales started to boom.
That's where we'll start looking at average car horsepower, and we'll be America-centric, but we need to understand something important first. In 1971, the official method for measuring horsepower changed. Before then, it was typically measured with the engine on a block and with no air cleaner assembly, accessories, or exhaust system connected.
Now, horsepower is measured from the wheels of the finished car using a dynamometer. Because a car's drivetrain absorbs some power (as much as 50 hp), pre-1971 measurements were more generous.
In the 1950s, America got into the full swing of its post-war boom. Gas was not much more than 30 cents per gallon, homes were cheap, and work was plentiful.
The military-industrial complex had grown dramatically and invented the freeway, which led to Dwight D. Eisenhower proposing an interstate highway system. Car sales boomed, and the best-selling car in the mid-1950s was the Chevrolet Bel-Air.
The straight-six engine clocked in at 115 hp, while the most potent V8 made 162 hp. The 1950s was when Car & Driver magazine started benchmarking cars, and the fastest was the 237-hp Ferrari 250GT Europa. It went from 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds. However, the Ferrari 410 Superamerica and its V12 engine made 300 hp.
We can't give a definitive average horsepower figure of a car in the 1950s, but with the range of power on offer and how cheap fuel was, the best guess puts it at around 100 hp.
As the 1960s started, the horsepower wars intensified, and the muscle car became defined. Unfortunately, there was no uniformity in how horsepower was rated, and there was much fibbing from automakers.
In the everyday world, the Chevrolet Impala was the best-selling car of the 1960s. In base form, it made around 162 hp but was advertised with "up to" 425. That was the high-end for muscle and sports cars at the time, even the V12 Ferraris.
Most people only needed their cars to cruise at around 50 mph, so all the extra muscle did was push the average up to approximately 120 hp in the US.
The new net horsepower measurement over the old gross measurement kicked in in 1971. Then, in the mid-1970s, the oil crisis kicked in and killed the muscle car along with the second blow: emissions legislation.
In 1969, you could buy a Cadillac with an 8.1-liter engine. By 1975, the Honda Civic was selling like hotcakes with its 1.2-liter engine. The best-selling car for a few years was the 105 hp Oldsmobile Cutlass and the similarly powered Impala.
Both had larger engine options, with the Impala offering a 145 hp V8. The average power drop was around 22 percent from 1970 to 1980, making the average horsepower for a car in the 1970s around 96 hp.
The battle for power in the 1980s was all about working with emissions regulations. Fuel prices were higher but not crazy, and in 1984 the best-selling car in America was the Chevrolet Cavalier. It made a measly 88 hp, while the Mustang SVO of the same year had a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 174 hp. By the late 1980s, the Mustang 5.0 was making north of 220 hp.
The Buick Regal Grand National was one of the fastest American cars of the 1980s, with its turbocharged six-cylinder engine making 235 hp. The Europeans were used to pulling every horsepower out of smaller engines, but the Porsche 911 in the 1980s was producing around 240 hp.
However, if you could afford it and get on the list, the Ferrari F40 made 471 hp. Fortunately, the EPA started keeping track of trends, so we have a decent estimate of the average car horsepower in the 1980s. A car's average horsepower went from 100 in 1980 to around 120 in 1989.
Through the 1990s, the best-selling cars, in order, were the Honda Accord, Ford Taurus, and Toyota Camry.
They made 125 hp, 145 hp, and 133 hp, respectively, for the base models. By 1995, the Mustang GT was only up another five hp to 215 hp, but in 1999 it hit 260 hp. The fastest car of the 1990s was the 6.0-liter V12 McLaren F1, thanks to its astonishing 627 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque.
By 1999, the average horsepower had increased to around 160 hp, most likely because engineers were starting to unlock power for performance cars again.
The 2000s didn't see as high a jump in average horsepower as you might expect.
However, hypercars were born, and we started to see 700-800 hp, then the Koenigsegg CCX-R launched with 1,018 hp. The best-selling passenger car in the new millennium's first decade was the Toyota Camry, which you could get with 133 to 194 hp in 2000 and 155 to 268 hp in 2009.
There was a massive shift in buying patterns in America; trucks started outselling cars in 2002, and SUVs were becoming popular. Still, the Mustang kept getting more powerful, with the GT hitting 300 hp by 2009. By the end of the 2000s, the average horsepower was around 200 hp.
The best-selling car in 2010 was the Honda Accord, with 177 to 271 hp. By 2019, you could get an Accord with 192 to 252 hp.
By the decade's end, 400 hp in performance cars wasn't unusual, and the Mustang GT hit 460 hp in 2019. Koenigsegg and Bugatti were getting 1,500 hp out of their hypercars through the 2000s. However, the average horsepower was around 200 hp.
If you're wondering what the average horsepower of a car is here in 2022, it's 212. With the average economy-based cars generally sitting between 170 and 190 hp and hybrids becoming even more popular, we don't expect a dramatic rise in the average hp of a vehicle.
In fact, the Hyundai Tucson hybrid below makes precisely 190 hp. What we do expect with turbocharging and hybrids becoming the norm is a rise in average torque, but that's a whole other article. What we do expect is for horsepower in sports cars to become even cheaper and help trend it upward through the rest of the decade.