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The Lotus Evija and the Evolution of Horsepower

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Updated 11 Oct 2019

Joel Ilton

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If you’re anything like me, you skim through your favourite automotive websites a few times a week to keep up with all the latest news and trends.

Recently, Lotus, the British car manufacturer now part of China’s Geely automotive group, have been dropping hints they had something special in the works.

This came to fruition last week when they announced their latest vehicle - the all-electric Evija (pronounced ev-eye-a) hypercar.

The numbers sure do sound astounding, with a claimed 1,972 horsepower provided by four electric motors, a 320km range, 0 -100km/h reached in under 3 seconds, and 300km/h reached in nine seconds.

That horsepower number is a record for a production car, which begs the question - do you really need that much horsepower?

Since the first automobile was created back in the late 1800’s, humanity has had a fascination with going fast and there is one word that comes to mind when discussing speed - horsepower.

The first cars had horsepower measurable in single digits. Today's vehicles are running hundreds and even thousands of horsepower, and have the speed numbers to match.

What is horsepower?

To look into the evolution of horsepower, we must first look at what it means. And it does indeed relate directly to the power of the horse.

In the 1700s, when steam-powered engines were still in their infancy, horses were used for much of the heavy work required for industry.

When trying to determine how powerful the new-fangled steam engines actually were, Scottish mechanical engineer James Watt used the power of a horse to come up with a measurement he could link to steam engines.

Through experimentation, he calculated that the power developed by a single horse could raise 550lbs of weight a distance of one foot in one second, or 33,000lbs per minute. Watt took this figure as a unit of power, and called it horsepower.

It was no doubt a useful tool. Industries looking to replace their horses with a machine could now understand what size of steam engine they would need.

As machines began to replace horses, this unit and understanding of power remained.

More and more ‘horses’ required

The need to increase horsepower started as vehicles got heavier. Components used for safety and comfort increased weight and more engine power was needed to compensate for this.

Manufacturers tackled this by increasing the engine capacity but this approach came with the drawbacks of increased fuel consumption and increased emissions.

The development of larger and more powerful engines created the ‘muscle car’ era of the ‘60s and 70’s, in which the ‘Big Three’ American car companies - Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, fitted large-capacity V8 engines with carburettors to their flagship models in a bid to create some of the most powerful vehicles of the time, often running between 300hp and 400hp.

It was an exciting era, and some of the automotive industry’s most famous and well-loved cars date from this time, many being powered by what we would now consider ludicrously big motors.

The Dodge Charger R/T 440, for example, had a monster 440 cubic inch (7.2 litre) engine producing 375hp.

However, this was all brought to a halt with the first and second oil crises of the 1970s, which crippled the American economy and sent fuel prices soaring.

Stricter emissions standards were introduced too and manufacturers had to go back to the drawing board. With the newer emissions control devices fitted, horsepower levels declined and the idea of the muscle car was dead in the water - at least for a while.

The brand new Lotus Evija Hypercar

Power from the East

With emissions targets constricting horsepower figures, many Japanese manufacturers started utilising more modern technology, specifically electronic fuel injection and engine control units, to better control the combustion cycle.

This technology allowed for performance increases that could be accurately controlled, reducing harmful emissions and fuel consumption.

This caught on everywhere and by the end of the 1980s most manufacturers had ditched carburettors in favour of fuel injection.

Horsepower figures from fuel injection engines were higher than their carburetted counterparts, but it was the introduction of turbo and supercharging that really brought horsepower levels back up to muscle car figures.

By the mid ’90s, many Japanese performance cars were turbocharged and it was the norm to see these vehicles running upwards of 400hp.

Some aftermarket companies were raising this ‘bar’ to 500hp and above.

The late ’80s and early ’90s also saw the introduction of the Supercar. European manufacturers such as Ferrari and Lamborghini were creating large capacity, high horsepower engines and stunning bodywork to match.

Although these supercars were only available to the rich and famous, the cutting edge technology they employed soon filtered down into the more affordable sports cars and power figures began to climb again.

Up to speed and electrification

For today’s vehicles, many manufacturers have decreased the capacity of the engines they are producing, utilising technology such as direct fuel injection and variable vane turbochargers to make up the performance difference.

A modern BMW or Mercedes-Benz turbocharged V8 engine creates more than 500hp while using a fraction of the fuel that older muscle cars consumed making only 200hp.

And the speeds these vehicles can reach were only dreamed of when this technology was first implemented.

This technology has allowed vehicles such as the Bugatti Veyron and Chiron (987hp and 1,479hp respectively), and the Koenigsegg Agera RS (1,341hp) to be at the forefront of power figures and performance, and many are wondering where we go from here.

The next technological step, however, is already here - electricity. No doubt you’ve heard of Tesla. Creating their first electric car back in 2008, Tesla have been the pioneers of all-electric technology and linking it to performance.

Yes, it’s good for the environment and tree-huggers everywhere can be happy about that, but battery power and electric motors can deliver astonishing amounts of power too.

With the Tesla Roadster and the Model S that followed, Tesla’s electric cars, and the possibilities of electrification, were thrust into the performance spotlight.

In ‘Ludicrous’ mode, the Model S could accelerate from 0-100km/h in 2.4 seconds - faster than any production car at the time of its introduction in 2012.

Not surprisingly, more traditional supercar manufacturers cottoned on to the possibilities of electrification technology and the term ‘Hypercar’ was coined as McLaren, Ferrari and Porsche all created cars that used hybrid technology. Using powerful electric motors to supplement their traditional internal combustion engines, companies were producing cars that were pushing power levels close to, or over, the 1,000hp mark.

This development has continued, with smaller manufacturers such as Rimac creating blisteringly fast electric vehicles - its C Two car has nearly 1900hp and a suggested top speed of more than 400km/h - and now Lotus are throwing their hat into the electric hypercar ring with the Evija.

It’s an exciting time to be a motoring enthusiast and with powerful options coming from both the internal combustion engine and electric camps, you have to wonder whether 1,000hp vehicles will one day by the norm rather than the exhilarating and expensive exception.

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Written By

Joel Ilton

Finding a passion for cars from a young age, Joel carried out work experience as a mechanic whilst at school before starting an apprenticeship after finishing year 12.

After almost 10 years on the tools and in customer service, he moved into the IT realm as a Data Analyst and In-House mechanic at AutoGuru.