My Engine Is Bigger Than Your Engine

Maneuvering among all the SUVs on the road used to be a white-knuckle ride for Judy Podkulski. Her car, with its puny four-cylinder engine, was no match for the monsters of the motorway. So Podkulski traded in her economy car and bulked up to a 240-horsepower engine--under the hood of a sensible Honda Accord. "I used to be intimidated by all those macho tailgaters," says the 45-year-old mother of two. "Now I can take 'em."

America's horsepower arms race is escalating. And it's not just sports cars and SUVs. Tame family cars like the Nissan Altima and the Toyota Sienna minivan are packing power once found only in muscle cars. For all the overwrought talk of an SUV backlash and the rise of "green cars" like the Toyota Prius, Americans are actually pumping up the juice in all kinds of cars. But unlike politically incorrect SUVs, the traditional car with massive horsepower is virtually guilt-free, a stealth excess. And plenty of us are doing it. Sales of V-8 engines accelerated 15 percent in the last two years. Eight in 10 car buyers say power is important, according to pollster AutoPacific. Last month's Detroit Auto Show was overrun with ponies, from the frighteningly fast V-10 Dodge Tomahawk concept motorcycle to the 1,000-horsepower Cadillac Sixteen. Those machines are for the insanely rich. For the rest of us there was the 590-horsepower Ford 427, which designer J Mays calls the "bada-s" family car of the future. Showgoers loved it, so Ford may build it.

Psychologists say our lust for power now is a reaction to impending war. "When we have the power and the big engine, we believe we are safe," says medical anthropologist Dr. Clotaire Rapaille. Of course, no one needs to go 150mph to merge into traffic. "Function has very little to do with it," admits GM product chief Bob Lutz. "It's about what kind of feathers you would like to adorn yourself with. Personally, I'd like to be an eagle, and that means at least 750 horsepower."

Such preening ruffles critics. "Cars on steroids guzzle more gas, pollute more and increase our dependence on OPEC," says the Sierra Club's Dan Becker.

Carmakers say today's engines don't guzzle. Lightweight and computer controlled, they boost power and mileage. Still, big engines drink more gas, but buyers don't seem to care. "You should see me driving now," boasts Podkulski. "You'd think I was in the Indy 500." Soccer moms, start your engines.