Carmakers in a high-speed chase

Back in the late 1980s, luxury carmaker Infiniti raised some eyebrows with a novel television ad campaign in which the cars being sold weren't shown. The camera lingered instead on waves washing up on a beach.

The Zen-like pitch: Buy an aura.

Pop the clutch and squeal ahead to today. An Infiniti print ad depicts a big sedan in profile, hood open. "You park. You talk about big blocks. You talk about horsepower and torque," reads the copy. "Muscle car becomes culture."

Once, devotees of fast cars formed more of a subculture. As a kid in the 1970s, auto writer Eric Evarts marveled at the exotic 800-900 horsepower top-fuel dragsters in the pages of Hot Rod magazine.

At a major auto show this month in Detroit, Eric came nose-to-grill with a 1,000-horsepower behemoth sedan by no less a mainstream carmaker than Cadillac.

An extreme, sure, but potent powerplants now lurk under many a hood. Car magazines like Road & Track are hailing the return of automotive power as though it were MacArthur wading ashore.

In fact, pundits have wondered in print whether national insecurity about a looming war has us pining for the chrome-plated days of American muscle.

But it's not all nostalgia.

Edgier "tuner car" magazines, devoured by today's teens, feature low-riding imports with aftermarket add-ons that yield 800-horsepower performance. That worries safety experts - and not a few parents.

Still, horsepower is not the whole story. Industry ingenuity also goes toward advancing gas/electric hybrids, and piston engines that partly shut down to save gas.

Carmakers' two-part task: Meet buyers' basic desires, and stay ready for social evolution.

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