Photo: iStockphoto.

This is a bit far afield, perhaps, but the British press is reporting that new drivers in the UK will soon have to take an “eco-driving” test in order to get their license. The UK initiative is modelled after a Dutch program that claims that smarter driving habits — slower acceleration, less braking, lower top speeds — can shave gas consumption by a third or more.

Last year, after a brief (and undeserved) flap over they Toyota Prius’s worse-than-advertised mileage, ardent hybrid enthusiasts began circulating advice about how to maximize the vehicles’ efficiency. So it’s good to see some effort to do the same thing for the 99+ percent of cars on the road that aren’t hybrids.

But more interesting to me was this snippet from the UK article: “modern family vehicles are as powerful as the 1960s Monte Carlo rally cars.”

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Could this be really be true? Well, in fact, it’s a bit of an understatement.

Take, for example, the Porsche 911, the car that won the 1970 Monte Carlo rally. According to Wikipedia, the engine of the entry-level 911 was rated at 125 horsepower, the high-end model at 180 horsepower.

Fast forward to today. The bottom-of-the-line Ford Focus — hardly a speedster by today’s standards — has an engine rated at 136 horsepower. The “family sized” Crown Victoria‘s engine is rated at 224 hp.

I’m no car buff, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to a car’s performance than its raw horsepower rating. Still, it’s fascinating to see that engine technologies have gotten not just slightly better, but massively better over the past 3 decades or so — but that most of those improvements have been sunk into performance (faster acceleration, higher top speeds, and the like) and size. Very little has gone toward improved fuel efficiency.

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Of course, it doesn’t feel as though today’s Ford Focus performs like yesteryear’s Porsche 911. But that’s mostly an artifact of rising expectations. We’ve reached the point where sports-car performance seems like a necessity on a crowded, high-speed superhighway. And with so many massive and powerful cars filling the roads, it’s little wonder that people question the viability of small-but-efficient vehicles — even if they would have qualified as race cars a few decades ago.

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