Ford and General Motors ©

Ford and Chevy are waging an escalating horsepower war with their iconic pony cars, but this time around, things are different. While attention has historically surrounded the fire-breathing, high-performance V8 versions of the Mustang and Camaro, the realities of today's market have shifted the focus to the base models, both powered by V6 engines.

Since Ford launched this entire category with the Mustang in 1964, the V6 versions of these cars have been mostly underwhelming, at best serving as cheap transportation for teen wannabes while earning the derisive moniker "secretary cars." But that changed with GM's "reboot" of the Camaro for the 2010 model year. The long-awaited new model hit the market in summer 2009, with its base V6 rated at 304 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. All of a sudden, there was a $23,000 pony car with real power -- and it even managed 29 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the EPA.

To put the Camaro's achievement in proper perspective, consider that the 2010 Mustang GT's V8 is rated at 315 horsepower, just 11 more than Chevy's V6. Heck, even the final V8 Camaro GM sold before putting the nameplate on hiatus, a 2002 model, managed only 310 horsepower. (The old V6 was downright pathetic, making just 200.) Most importantly, however, was that the 2010 Camaro V6 was rated at a whopping 94 horses more than the V6 Mustang. As you might imagine, this did not make Ford particularly pleased.

But the Blue Oval wasn't down for the count, and in fact, was readying new engines for the 2011 Mustang, which goes on sale this month. While the big news for Mustang aficionados may have been the rebirth of the "5.0" V8, the 412-horsepower monster found in the flagship Mustang GT, an all-new V6 also debuted. Displacing 3.7 liters and producing 305 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, Ford's new V6 had tweaked the Camaro by a single horsepower.

When Dave Pericak, chief engineer of the Mustang, was asked if his $23,000 V6 pony car was tuned just to beat Chevy, he replied, "I'm not going to lie to you, that's exactly why."

Now this is where things get really interesting. Not long after Ford announced the numbers for the new Mustang V6, GM informed the world that its V6 was actually producing 312 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque -- and that from the 2011 model year forward, that would be the Camaro's official power rating. Advantage: Chevy.

So what actually happened? How could the General pull eight extra horses out of its hat, just when it appeared FoMoCo was about to claim the title?

As it turns out, the answer is quite simple: All it did was actually test the Camaro V6 according to the Society of Automotive Engineers standard that manufacturers use to certify their engines.

But wait, hadn't GM already tested and certified the Camaro V6 and got the 304 horsepower result? Yes, and no. The Camaro uses the same V6 drivetrain that debuted in the 2008 Cadillac CTS, and according to spokesman Tom Read, initially GM did not re-certify the V6 for the Camaro. So Chevy was using the CTS test results to determine the Camaro's official rating, this despite knowing that the 3.6-liter V6 would achieve slightly better performance in the Camaro due to a more efficient intake and exhaust system. No parts were changed in the Camaro engine and the engine control software was not reprogrammed, meaning the 2011 Camaro offers exactly the same performance as the 2010 model. The only difference is its official rating.

"The competitive landscape changed," said Read, "So we said, 'Wait a minute here, maybe there's reason we should go through the procedure.' We did it for obvious competitive reasons. I don't know if Ford pushed us to do it, as much as we pushed them to improve their engines. GM got Ford to step it up a bit."

Clearly, the motivation behind all this one-upsmanship is the belief that trumping your rival in horsepower translates into sales. So can we expect to see Ford eke a few more ponies out of their steed for 2012? Ford is not saying, but it seems likely that this is one battle they will be content to lose -- in favor of waging a broader war.

"We're not going to comment on the Camaro. We've made the best V6 Mustang ever, and we're not going to concentrate on someone else's horsepower number," said Ford spokesman Richard Truett.

There are other numbers to consider, numbers that Ford thinks are in its favor. Even if GM's new rating for the Camaro gives it an apparent advantage, Ford says its V6 Mustang manages 31 mpg's on the highway when equipped with a six-speed automatic. (The six-speed manual matches the Camaro at 29 mpg.) How do you do the math on GM's two-percent horsepower advantage against Ford's seven percent better fuel economy?

Another thing to think about is curb weight. The lightest V6 Camaro weighs in at a hefty 3,719 pounds, while Ford's estimate for the Mustang is 3,473. Thus my calculator tells me that the Mustang has the better power to weight ratio, at 1:11.4 versus 1:11.9 for the Camaro. While there are a multitude of issues involved in determining overall performance, from torque and gearing to tires and handling, the raw data suggests that the Mustang will outperform the Camaro, at least in a 0-60 mph sprint. Testing by car magazines seems to confirm this.

Regardless of who ultimately wins bragging rights, the fact is that the automakers are clearly paying close attention to the V6 models. Ford says it is seeing an even split in the orders for the new V6 against the V8, compared to past launches where V6 models only accounted for 30 percent. Chevy says its projections show V6 models -- currently making up about half the mix -- will eventually account for the majority of sales.

It's no wonder, either. Turn the clock back a decade and I would have told you an inexpensive, six-cylinder pony car that returns nearly 30 miles per gallon on the highway while generating 300-plus horsepower was crazy talk. But that's today's reality.

"You aren't sacrificing performance for fuel economy and price," said GM spokesman Adam Denison.

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