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End of an Era?
With new rules and revised CAFE standards, the days of powerful, fuel-thirsty cars may soon be long gone.
By Lawrence Ulrich

There's only one thing to say about a Corvette that can top 200 mph, or a Cadillac sedan that makes the muscle cars of the '60s seem like a bunch of wimps: Enjoy it while it lasts. This golden age of horsepower may be coming to an end, at least in the gas-guzzling manner to which we've become accustomed.

An initial stroll through the recent auto show in Detroit might convince you that nothing has changed. GM was touting the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, a 620-horsepower 200-mph monster that's simply the fastest production car in GM's history. Next door at the Cadillac display, the CTS-V sport sedan was flexing its 550-horsepower muscles.

Even squeaky-clean Toyota — ignoring recent environmental backlash over guzzlers such as its Tundra pickup — offered the 500-plus horsepower Lexus LF-A roadster. This Tokyo demon, heading to showrooms next year, should also break the 200-mph barrier.

These hard-drinking machines might convince you that automakers are still partying like it's 1999, when gas cost around $1.20 a gallon. But just under the Detroit show's surface, something else was brewing. And it wasn't high-octane unleaded.

New rules will force the car kings to shift their focus. Revised CAFE standards require automakers to raise the average mileage of their car and truck fleets to 35 mpg by 2020. Proposed pollution standards in the U.S. and Europe may force even more dramatic increases. And if California wins the right in court to regulate global-warming emissions, you might just kiss your super-powered car goodbye — at least those that rely solely on gasoline.

In Europe the government and greens are proposing carbon-dioxide targets so strict that, if passed, not a single gas-burning model on sale today — including hybrids like the Toyota Prius — would pass muster.

The situation recalls the end of the first muscle-car era, which left Boomers shedding tears for their beloved GTOs, Shelby Mustangs and Hemi 'Cudas. In the early '70s, the first-ever tailpipe standards were a critical step toward cleaning up smoggy cities, but they also helped strangle the muscle car. It took two decades and a serious dose of engineering Viagra before cars recovered their potency.

The unfortunate side effect is that the average car today slurps more gasoline than it did 20 years ago. Cars became vastly quicker and more powerful. And of course, Americans switched en masse to SUVs.

For anyone — including myself — with a need for speed, the longtime cliché is that they have gasoline in their veins. But a century's worth of shooting-up has put us where we are now, trying to kick a national addiction to oil.

As a result, the Motown show also featured enough green cars to stock a Sierra Club parking lot. On display was Toyota's hybrid A-BAT concept pickup and General Motors' latest hybrids, including a plug-in Saturn Vue SUV that's coming in 2010. Mercedes, VW and Honda hyped their high-mileage diesel cars that can even meet California's tough pollution rules.

Tellingly, the show also saw carmakers backing away from the thrilling-but-thirsty V8 engine that's as much a part of American culture as rock and roll. GM deep-sixed a $300 million project to develop a new V8, with Vice Chairman Bob Lutz saying that new fuel-economy rules directly sparked the move. Ford plans to drop V8s from several models, replacing them with turbocharged V6 and four-cylinder engines that go farther on a gallon.

If all that doesn't have you seeing the writing on the wall, you'd better schedule an eye exam. Still, if there's a difference between today's golden age of performance and the '60s original, it's the ability of technology to ride to the rescue.

At the Detroit show, I asked Lutz — the GM car czar who famously inspired the Dodge Viper while at Chrysler — whether this was the last hurrah for horsepower. And while Lutz has become a vocal supporter of hybrids, electric cars and alternative fuels, he said that cars like the Corvette would still find their niche. "At the height of the vegetarian craze, the grocery stores are still selling New York steaks," Lutz said.

Lutz's point was that some people will always find a way to go fast. But the future does look bleak for speed machines powered by gasoline. While it's too early to predict which fuels will be winners and losers, it's certain that there will be multiple players. Half the new cars sold in Europe run on clean diesel, and that impressive technology is finally on its way here.

Mercedes showed off a sumptuous diesel-hybrid S-Class sedan that delivers 44 mpg. Audi will almost certainly bring us a diesel version of its spectacular R8 sports car, combining 500 horsepower with a respectable 24 mpg.

Energy experts agree that the transition to alternative fuels will take decades. There will still be gas pumps 30 and 40 years from now. Car lovers will still be able to cruise their classic internal combustion machines, whether it's a '32 Ford Deuce Coupe, a '57 Chevy or today's hottest rides.

But the days of guzzling gas as quickly as you can hose it into your tank are over. Looking back 30 years from now, we'll know it was not only the right move, but the only move.

Lawrence Ulrich lives in Brooklyn and writes about cars. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Popular Science, Men's Vogue and Travel + Leisure Golf.