We’re in the midst of a battle of the power – but how did we get here, and will it ever end?

Walk into a BMW dealership asking for a 150kW car in 2017 and the salesperson will probably hand you the key to a 320d. If you did the same back in 1979 they’d have put you behind the wheel of an E12-generation M535i, packing six cylinders and 3.5 litres, and sitting below only the M1 in BMW’s hierarchy.

When it arrives later this year, the M535i’s descendant – the F90-generation M5 – will make something north of 450kW, enabling it to compete in a segment where such figures are becoming the norm, having long ago climbed above 225, 300 and even 375kW.

Bugatti Chiron

It’s the same story in virtually every other sector in the performance-car market: cars now make three times (or more) the power that their contemporaries did just four decades ago, but do so with greater reliability and astounding ease of use. In the last decade in particular, technological advancements have resulted in some astonishing numbers, aided by sophisticated electronic-control systems, tyre advancements and, in some cases, electric motors – to assist or even power the car outright.

Hot hatch’s have brought some of these developments within reach of the greatest number of people. Time was when you could dethrone traditional sports cars with a small three or five-door model by simply dropping in a larger engine – preferably with fuel-injection, though forced induction briefly found favour in the 1980s. Sixteen-valve heads soon put a stop to that, and variable valve timing (and lift, as in Honda’s VTEC engines) took things further still – in 1999, 130kW seemed an astonishing amount in a small car like a Renault Clio. The first Focus RS set the template for the modern era, though, making over 160kW from its turbocharged four-cylinder: today’s equivalents now send another 50 per cent to the front wheels alone.

A history of sports saloons is ostensibly a history of BMW’s M5, with both cylinder count and capacity increases ensuring outputs have climbed steadily since the mid-1970s. Forced induction features in this category too. Both the Lotus Carlton and the supercharged Jaguar XJR knocked BMW off its perch in power terms, but the E60 M5’s staggering 5-litre naturally aspirated V10 lifted the class straight into supercar territory in 2004. Since then, turbocharging has been the go-to when reaching for the 450kW mark, but cars such as the 500kW Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid and 445kW Tesla Model S P100D have shown the potential of electric power – and not just to reduce emissions.

Electric power has also come to define the supercar class. It didn’t start that way – back in the 1970s, Lamborghini needed nothing more than a 3.9-litre V12 to make its cars among the fastest on the planet. Ferrari countered with the turbocharged 288 GTO, but it was 1987’s famous F40 that moved the game on: 2.9 litres, eight cylinders and a pair of turbochargers made for a mighty (and conservatively quoted) 350kW. Bugatti then took things further with the quad-turbocharged EB110, but neither could compare with what upstart McLaren had in store. Its BMW-supplied, naturally aspirated V12 produced 470kW, helping to make the F1 it resided in arguably the first example of what we now call a hypercar. Just over a decade later Bugatti’s Veyron breached the 1000 PS (735kW) mark with its 8-litre, quad-turbo W16. Since then, the race towards 1,100kW has been rapid, with either electric power or turbocharging – normally both – taking hypercars to new heights.

Rowan Atkinson's McLaren F1 driven on country road
McLaren F1

By contrast, sports cars have moved at a slower pace. Porsche’s Boxster provides a good indication of two-seaters in recent times, starting with 160kW in 1996 and rising to a turbocharged 260kW in the new 718 Boxster S, but weight, as well as power, has influenced performance in this category. The 60kW Morgan 3 Wheeler is less potent than a 1974 MGB but a great deal faster, while Alfa Romeos 4C Spider makes less power than a TVR Griffith from 1992, but still gets to 100kph a few tenths quicker.

And what about performance coupes? These could also be traced through a Porsche lineage in the form of the 911, but with the likes of Nissan’s GTR, Audi’s R8 and, of course, BMW’s M3, it certainly hasn’t completely dominated this class – on paper, at least.

The fact is cars have seriously progressed over the last 40 years, especially in the last 10 years and incredibly in the most recent 5. Its worth taking a moment to ponder where this is all heading…