Let 'Em Eat Horsepower

When he was a candidate for president, and then vice president, John Edwards talked about the great divide between the two Americas, one rich and privileged, the other struggling to make ends meet. After the election, we learned America is divided in many other ways, and not just between liberal and conservative, red state and blue state. Americans also are divided over the Hardee's Monster Thickburger,

When he was a candidate for president, and then vice president, John Edwards talked about the “great divide” between the “two Americas,” one rich and privileged, the other struggling to make ends meet.

After the election, we learned America is divided in many other ways, and not just between liberal and conservative, red state and blue state.

Americans also are divided over the Hardee's Monster Thickburger, a 1,420-calorie sandwich laden with bacon, cheese, mayonnaise and butter. Comedian Jay Leno joked it was served in a little box shaped like a coffin.

One America condemned it as the latest contribution to our obesity epidemic. The other America said: “Mmmm, that sounds tasty.” Neither America is wrong.

So far this outrageous/delicious meal is a big success. Most attempts at healthy fast food have been failures.

If you want to make money in the fast-food business, you sell fat and calories. You expect your customers to avoid eating themselves to death by exercising some common sense, or just plain exercising.

The same is true in the auto business today. If you want to make money, you sell performance and horsepower — even if you are selling minivans. That's what people pay for. Nobody wants to be at the bottom of an entrance ramp with their foot to floor, a semi bearing down and an engine with nothing left to give.

But as the start of the auto show season shows, the battle lines are once again drawn between two Americas: The one that puts regular unleaded in its gas tank and the one that buys premium. The America that drives to live, and the one that lives to drive.

One of the cars at the vortex of this incipient controversy will be the new Corvette Z06. It has 500 hp. The regular crowd will ask, “Why?” The premium crowd will say, “Wow!”

“No one really needs a 500-hp Corvette, it should not be sold,” one America will say.

“No one really needs $500 Manolo Blahnik shoes, $1,800 Prada handbags or $8,000 plasma TVs. Should we stop selling those, too?” the other America will respond.

Just like President George W. Bush must find a way to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats, auto makers must do a better job of reconciling the regular and premium Americas.

High-performance engines enhance profits by making vehicles desirable to consumers who are most willing and able to pay more, i.e. the premium crowd.

The profits from performance pay the bills and subsidize hybrid and other green technologies, just like fatty Big Macs subsidize the money-losing healthy menu at McDonalds, just like blue-state taxes subsidize important federal programs in red states.

Eliminate the high-profit focus on performance, and auto makers will have to compete for buyers who don't really like cars and don't want to spend money on them. If that's the end game, there will be no money left to spend on expensive environmentally friendly technologies.

And then both Americas will lose.

Drew Winter is editor of Ward's AutoWorld.

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