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Column: The V8 conundrum

2010-03-26 08:33

The legendary ‘six and three-quarter’ sized Bentley V8s of yore were powerful and regal. Is the V8 era coming to a rather swift end though?

Lance Branquinho

What’s your dream car’s specification details?

I’d hazard a guess it would centre around a monocoque tub chassis, feature all-wheel double-wishbone suspension (with adaptive damping), a Sadev six-speed sequential transmission and an engine of the V8 configuration amidships…

Pretty accurate? I think so, especially the engine specification. Most people are completely smitten with the idea of the naturally aspirated V8 engine being a mechanical sign of God’s love for us.

I think the history of motor racing, littered with moments of V8 fuelled victory, is partly to blame. In the world’s most influential motoring market – America – the V8 configuration has been a default engine choice for decades too.

Sounds good

All things considered the acoustics are quite fetching and this obviously endears the V8 greatly to petrolheads everywhere. Do they really sound that special though?

Most of the marvellous sounding contemporary V8 engines (Aston Martin’s 4.3l Vantage engine especially) employ actuated butterfly valves to find the perfect internal combustion point of inflection - which is plainly cheating.

There’s a school of thought which postulates a six-cylinder can sound just as good (sometimes better) than a V8.

Lord Laidlaw's Aston Martin DBR2/1 racing at Cape Town's Killarney circuit. It runs an in-line six, costs R84m and sound like it too…

The most expensive car I’ve ever seen in motion – an Aston Martin BD2 racer – made a noise courtesy of its front-axle straddling in-line six which was altogether of another galaxy, never mind world. Honestly, the DB2’s internal combustion acoustic signature is of such mechanically pure intensity and range I could care less if it was fuelled by baby rabbit blood.

So, admittedly then - V8s are good, yet hardly irreplaceable. They sound great and produce plenty of power. If you make up a V8 by splicing two in-line four-cylinder superbike engines, staggering crankspeeds are easily achievable too.

Unfortunately, the end of the V8 era is upon us – and no, I am not joking.

Market for V8s in precipitous decline

A (seemingly) inconsequential sales statistic was announced Stateside last week. Data had been tallied and collated and the deduction was that V-configuration engines (especially of the eight-pot variety) were falling inexorably into decline (out of favour) with buyers.

At first I glossed over this information with only passing interest. The more I thought about it the clearer it became: conventional car wisdom is now bunk.

A rampant increase in technology has ushered in an area of new standards which, I am afraid, most people (not least of all the car company marketing departments) are not yet able to deal with.

Statistically four-cylinder engines made up 62% of last year’s global car production, up 10% from the year before. Compare this with 1969 - when 88% of all cars produced globally rolled off the line with a V8. Plainly, the old, "there’s no replacement for displacement" argument is now a fallacy.

A Basil Green Parana V8 – South African ingenuity with a Detroit touch. Desirable in the late 1970s, it’s an odd contemporary classic these days.

No biggie?

Is this an issue though? Well, yes and no.

In terms of performance the latest direct-injection, forced-induction four-cylinder engines are outstanding. They are hugely flexible in terms of in-gear performance, provide startling mid-range acceleration and their economy figures are bluntly unachievable by V8s.

What’s the downside then? Well, perception - mainly.

People still don’t believe a technologically advanced four-cylinder engine is worthy of the same premium billing (and price) as a larger capacity engine of lesser performance. You can clearly see this conundrum with the new direct-injection Mercedes-Benz engines which power the E-Class.

These GDI four-cylinders are awesome, yet most people baulk at the idea of purchasing the risky side of R500 000 in exchange for only a single bank of cylinders. BMW 3 Series owners will needlessly disagree though – they get six pots in-line though.

A bridging measure or cold reality?

How long will it take to shift this perception? I don’t know.

Nomenclature changes help to an extent. Ultimately though, many people think its rather disingenuous plonking a 200 badge on the back of a car which displaces only 1.8l, despite the output and performance being commensurate (some would say superior) to the perceived capacity badging…

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter at all though. The decrease in engine capacity could simply be construed as a fait accompli – the necessary evil piloting us from internal combustion to electric drive.

Am I being dreadfully pessimistic? Well, the other statistic I glossed over last week was from Kuwait – and it was a rather accurate readjustment of Hubbert peak oil curve. The new date (thanks to the 1973, 1979 and 2008 oil crisis variables) is now 2014…

So you had better start practicing those V8 engine sounds. You’ll need them when explaining to the grandchildren what it was like to drive back in 2010…


Bullet: Name, set and match!

2012-04-16 16:47

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