Anyone spending time thinking or indeed writing about cars is likely to hold a firm view on the merits or otherwise of the internal combustion engine – few auto enthusiasts choose the comfort of the fence on this. If you cleave to the view that the engine represents the heart of a car, then it should come as no surprise that any marque with pretensions to greatness has designed and produced their own. Furthermore, the truly grand marques have at least one powerplant in their back catalogue that can be viewed in, at the very least, quasi-mythological terms.
Nowadays, nobody bats a well-manicured eyelid over your ubiquitous ZF 9-speed transmission or bought-in air conditioning system, but you don’t get to the automotive top table using someone else’s off the shelf engine. Ask JLR, who are on the verge of introducing a brand-new homespun engine family to answer that very concern. Relying on someone else for your engine supply leaves you open to multiple risks: the supply drying up, development going in a contrary direction but most damagingly, it compromises your credibility with the very people you’re trying to impress. You see despite the doom-mongers, engines continue to matter.
So if engines matter, do engine configurations? Here it becomes more nebulous, more nuanced and decidedly more snob-riven. As engine capacities are slashed in the cause of efficiency and cost-cutting, we now face the prospect of three cylinder engines powering previously aspirational chariots like 3-Series BMW’s. While this sounds a little more interesting than the grinding ubiquity of the in-line four cylinder, it nevertheless appears a little out of keeping. Surely it can only be cost considerations that have seen horizontally opposed variants (largely) disappear – it certainly wasn’t due to any inherent superiority with their in-line brethren. Today, manufacturers who produce alternately configured engines stand out like sore thumbs. Some, like Porsche and Subaru, remain wedded to the horizontally opposed configuration as an article of faith, to do otherwise would fatally besmirch their bloodline.
The variety we took for granted only couple of decades ago has been whittled down to a torpid conformity. With so much known and quantified, no manufacturer with an eye to their balance sheet will deviate one iota from any agreed orthodoxy. Sitting outside a café yesterday, I observed the cars passing by. Unsurprisingly, almost all were diesel powered and aside from a lone TDV8 Range Rover, each and every one sounded identical – that being, indistinguishable from a Transit van. Nobody is going to convince me that a car, regardless of the badge on the nose or the amount of deceased cow inside is desirable, aspirational or remotely appealing while it has some dreadful four-cylinder diesel clanking away up front. I ask you, where is the romance in that?
There was once even a distinct hierarchy in the way an engine used to sound. A flat twin had a distinctive beat, in-line fours were bland roughage and V8’s were entertaining, if uncouth. Of course, none of this holds true any more when it is possible to tune an exhaust note to sound as though mighty Thor himself is bellowing damnation and fire.
But each of the above regardless of merit must bow to the eternal magnificence of the in-line 6. A prince amongst engine configurations, the straight six used to represent everything that was noble, refined and pure. Its appeal stemmed largely from its mechanical balance – a six being as long as you’d really want a crankshaft to be without having all sorts of torsional problems. A well sorted in-line six is amongst the sweetest running of all engine configurations – this side of a V12 anyway. Its latter-day decline can only be viewed as a tragedy.
However, the current downsizing trend, bemoaned by those who believe everything with pretensions to performance should sound like an American muscle car, is having an unexpected but welcome inverse. Manufacturers appear to be reappraising the in-line six, given there is no longer a requirement to shoehorn anything with more than four cylinders into anything vaguely compact and front-driven – given modern turbocharging technology. A happy converse to the potential retreat of the V8 is the possibility of a resurgence of the six.
But if the six is a prince, the V12 must by definition be regent. Certainly in terms of mechanical balance and smooth running, a well-designed twelve is really in a class of its own. However, you pay a heavy price in complication, swept volume, sheer girth and thermal efficiency. But when it comes to snob value, again it’s virtually unmatched. Unless you’re VW, who have taken a convoluted, shockingly expensive and highly expedient route to exclusivity with narrow-angle W12 Bentley’s and 16-cylinder Bugatti’s.
You can’t get posher than sixteen cylinders can you, which I suppose makes the Bugatti unit the Emperor of power plants – or perhaps merely his new clothes, if we are to be unkind. Which I think we can agree we’re going to be. Yes my friends, the top of the power ziggurat is rarefied, prone to overheating and teeters on the very brink of hubris. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the engineers at VW are merely taking the piston…