Some interesting automotive-history facts hide in plain sight before us. What was the last car Americans could buy with a three-speed automatic transmission? The last new four-on-the-floor manual we could buy? Three-on-the-tree manual? Three-on-the-floor? Tracking down those answers taught me that outdated automotive technology tends to hang on longer than we might expect, and that’s certainly the case with agonizingly low power levels in new cars. It’s tough these days to find a new car with under 100 horses, but how about 50? When did the era of the sub-50-hp car finally bite the dust here?
50 horsepower isn’t much, even when you discount advertising hype and the gross-versus-net differences of the pre-early-1970s era. The original Ford flathead V8s of the 1930s made 60 to 95 horsepower, and even the punitively underpowered four-cylinder Chevy Novas of the late 1960s had 90 hp (which, in all likelihood, would be rated at something like 65 hp if measured by modern-day methods). The hilariously slow black-bumper MGBs of the late 1970s had 62.5 horsepower (yes, British Leyland claimed that half-horse), and even the butt-of-jokes Subarus of the same era beat the 50-horse mark. You’d think that the final new car available here with a power rating below that level would have appeared in the early 1980s at the latest, right? Wrong!
We’re just talking about mass-production, highway-legal cars available new in the United States here, mind you, so forget about Crosley replicas or other edge-case, angels-on-head-of-pin arguments. We’ll say that just cars powered by internal-combustion engines qualify as well, though if even the kei-sized Mitsubishi i-MiEV has 66 horsepower… well, you probably won’t be able to find a real mainstream EV (we’re not counting wannabe cars such as the wretched 30 hp Zenn Electric) sold new here with less than that.
Here’s your answer: the 1993 Geo Metro XFi, which squeezed just 49 horsepower out of its 1.0-liter straight-three engine. Yes, it was possible to buy a sub-50-horse new car as recently as 27 years ago. Think about that next time you sneer at the 78 horses under the hood of the new Mitsubishi Mirage.
The XFi was the enhanced-frugality version of the Geo Metro, a tiny Suzuki-built econ0-commuter from which nearly all frills had been hacked away. It had a taller final drive ratio than the ordinary Metro, plus engine controls and camshaft that sacrificed power in favor of efficiency. The ordinary Metro (and its Suzuki Swift twin) had 55 horsepower in 1993, but the 49-horse XFi knocked off an EPA highway rating of 58 miles per gallon. The three-banger Metro continued after 1993, but low gas prices spelled doom for the XFi.
Only the Ford Festiva came close to the Metro/Swift in the competition for the Lowest Power In America crown during this period, with 63 horsepower. The early Hyundai Excels (and their Mitsubishi Precis twins) had 68 horses, but by 1993 they were snapping off lug nuts with a mighty 81 hp. If you think the first-generation Honda Insight has a shot at this dubious prize, think again: 67 gasoline plus 13 electric horsepower for those cars.
When I started my research, I felt sure that the agonizingly underpowered Subaru Justy would be the big winner, with its hamster-powered three-cylinder and all, but those hamsters managed to squeak out an amazing 73 horsepower in 1993! So, next time you’re trying to decide how to bet on a Justy-versus-Festiva drag race, put your money on the Justy.
Outside of the United States, sub-50-horse cars can still be bought new (for example, the huge-selling-in-Japan Suzuki Hustler gets a mere 48 hp from its turbocharged 0.7-liter three-cylinder), but the super-low-power car era is coming to a close as we speak.
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