When people are comparison shopping, cars with higher speedometer readings appear to be sportier, and buyers favor them even though they have no intention of driving over 100. “People really want to see higher numbers,” said Fawaz Baltaji, a business development manager for Yazaki North America, a large supplier of speedometers for auto companies. “It is indicative of a more powerful engine. There’s a marketing pitch to it.”
Although cars with high-horsepower engines can come close to the top speedometer speeds, most are limited by engine control computers. That’s because the tires can overheat and fail at higher speeds. Tires now common on mainstream cars often can’t go above 130 mph or they could fail. Many tires, especially on older models, have speed limits as low as 112. But that’s still faster than most people will ever drive.
Automakers, in a push to cut costs, now sell the same cars worldwide and use the same speedometers in different cars all over the world. In China and Europe, governments require that the top number on speedometers be higher than a car’s top speed. Cars sold in Europe, for instance, have faster top speeds than those sold elsewhere because they can be driven over 150 mph on sections of Germany’s Autobahn. So to sell the same car or speedometer globally, the numbers have to be higher, said Kurt Tesnow, who’s in charge of speedometer and instrument clusters for General Motors.
Also, some mainstream cars have some souped-up cousins that go faster and need higher speedometer numbers. A Chevy Malibu with a 2-liter turbocharged engine, for instance, can go 155 mph, far higher than the mainstream version. The little Toyota Yaris gets its speedometer from another Toyota model that’s sold in other countries. “It’s not that each speedometer is designed for that specific vehicle,” said Greg Thome, a company spokesman.