With fuel efficiency rising, V8 brawn is hot option for cars and trucks Elvin Wood, 72, of Woodslee, Ontario Canada, checks out a Chrysler Hemi engine Wednesday at the 2004 North American International Auto Show. Wood likes the engine used in the Durango and Ram trucks. "I think it's a terrific engine. It's very similar to the one that came out in 1951." BY MARK PHELAN FREE PRESS COLUMNIST January 15, 2004 We're power mad. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Fuel-sipping hybrid gasoline-electric cars may get plenty of hype at the North American International Auto Show, but when they vote with their wallets, more consumers elected a big, powerful V8 engine last year than any time since 1985. V8 engines went into 29.1 percent of all passenger vehicles -- everything from the Ford F-150 pickup to the Cadillac DeVille -- built in North America for U.S. sale last year, the highest proportion for any year since 1985, according to data from Ward's Automotive Reports, a Southfield-based industry publication. Fueled by inexpensive gasoline, surging truck sales and improving energy efficiency, U.S. buyers' demand for V8s has risen every year since 1994, according to Ward's data. Who can blame them? Gasoline prices vary, but don't seem to affect V8 sales, and fuel economy is rising. The rip-snorting Hemi is the poster child for the current generation of V8s: powerful, technically sophisticated and alluring enough that demand has surpassed even DaimlerChrysler's most optimistic hopes. Horsepower isn't just for show-offs drag racing their Hemi-powered pickups. It's what lets you and little Joey in the child seat accelerate onto I-75 without having an 18-wheeler run you down. In Germany, they call this active safety, which sounds much more socially responsible and clinical, but the bottom line is the same the world over: People want the most powerful car or truck they can afford to buy and operate. Listen to 24-year-old Christian Seethaler, who is in Michigan on an internship from Germany. He'd buy a V8 if he could. "It gives you a different feeling when you drive," he said Wednesday as he admired Ford's engine display at the auto show. "You feel more powerful." Ford Motor Co. has built more than 300 million vehicles worldwide in its 101-year history, and better than a third -- more than 100 million -- had V8s under the hood. "Since we paved our first road, Americans have wanted to go fast," said Joe Veltri, Dodge truck marketing boss. Think of Veltri as the godfather to the Hemi yokels, the two likable knuckleheads from the TV commercials who begin every conversation by asking, "That thing got a Hemi?" The boom in V8s is owing to factors ranging from rising truck sales to fuel-saving new technologies and the advent of new cars like the Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum, said Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine. "Customers are demanding more power across the board, and the manufacturers are delivering," he said. "It's the golden age of power." And V8s may be the only place where the price of power is cheap. It costs just $600 to upgrade from a V6 to a V8 on a Dodge Durango, and another $895 to move all the way up to the Hemi. By comparison, the original Hemi was a $720 option on a late-1960s Dodge. The whole car only cost $3,000, so the added cost was like paying $7,500 for a Hemi on a 2004 Durango SUV, Veltri said. V8s produce more power -- and use more fuel -- than smaller engines, but this is not an earth-hating phenomenon sparked by tree-hating, gas-guzzling wastrels. Upgrading from a V6 to a Hemi reduces the Dodge Durango's fuel economy by about 2 miles a gallon, Veltri said. General Motors Corp.'s V8s have improved their fuel efficiency by 75 percent since the early '70s, said Bob Purcell, the company's director of powertrain planning. The engines have also doubled their power since the '80s, he said. "In the 1980s, a Chevy Blazer got eight to 10 miles per gallon," he said. "Today, a Tahoe on the highway can get over 20 m.p.g." GM and DaimlerChrysler will roll out the next step this year as they both launch V8s including the Chevy TrailBlazer EXT SUV that shuts off one of the cylinder banks -- making them effectively four-cylinder engines when they aren't towing or accelerating. The system -- GM calls it displacement on demand -- will improve fuel economy another 6 percent to 8 percent in GM's SUVs and pickups. Chrysler claims its version will boost fuel economy as much as 20 percent. GM and DaimlerChrysler could build as many as 3 million vehicles with these V8s annually. That means displacement on demand could reduce U.S. fuel consumption far more than selling a few thousand chic hyper-efficient gasoline-electric hybrids would. You might ask, why not just build more four-cylinder engines in the first place? They cost less, and burn less fuel. The answer is that you can't give a four-cylinder away in a big pickup, SUV or large car. That's why V8 demand has grown more than 50 percent since bottoming out at 19.2 percent in 1993. "We expect V8 sales to continue to grow," Purcell said. "The customer likes them. You can do a lot of things with that much power under the hood." John and Sue Cius came to the auto show from Buffalo, N. Y. "If you want something big enough to handle the weight of these cars, you want to get a V8," John Cius said as he checked out a Durango. "Those engines will probably outlast the cars." The massive growth in truck sales owes more to Americans' love of V8s than to any smoldering desire to pull stumps or tow horse trailers, said Frank Markus, technical director of Motor Trend magazine. "People don't want huge trucks. They want power," he said. They're getting it, in bigger numbers every year.