Story by Tom Fielitz
We have seen several decades of car manufacturers building car motors with increasing performance and sophistication. But there is a new and subtle shift in the role of the car motor as we have known it. Engine displacement and horsepower is on the decline and hybrid technology is the new norm relegating the gas engine as a less significant factor in the automotive power train.
I have a fascination for car engines that began at my father’s elbow tinkering with the V8 engines in our succession of Ford station wagons. Big lumps of iron, these gas guzzling four barrel carb V8’s captured my imagination. My first car was a Ford Fairlane with a 292 cubic inch V8. Inheriting my older brother’s 1500 cc VW Beetle shifted that interest to air cooled motors and thus to my first Porsche, a 2 liter 914-6. Other daily drivers had to have interesting motors or I would not own it. One of the memorable motors was the 1100 cc Wankle motor in a Mazda RX2. Smooth and with amazing torque the motor was only the size, and shape of an aluminum keg of beer. Other underdog motors were the 1600 cc Rabbit engine in my VW Sirocco and the 1700 cc twin cam Acura Integra motor. The last of my four cylinder cars was the 2.5 liter four in my 944. My last sports car purchase was a 2007 Corvette Z06, because its 427 cubic inch 505 horsepower V8 may be the last big American made V8.
Over the years another trend has indicated a shift in the manufacturer’s perception of the motor as a marketing characteristic of the car. I can remember opening the hood of an American built car and seeing the labels affixed to the top of an air cleaner attesting to the potency of the big V8 in plain view. Words such as Thunderbird, Police Interceptor, Cobra Jet, Rocket, Wildcat, Fireball and Fire Power and then the Turbo-Fire, Turbo-Jet and Turbo-Thrust, all of which were not turbo charged except by name but sold that image of power. Also proclaimed would be the cubic inches and claimed horsepower, sometimes understated. On the really showy cars the fender badge might brag about engine size or horsepower. Porsche even got into the game with small numbers on the engine grill stating 2.4 or 2.7 for engine displacement and of course the succinct turbo badge. But engine badges have all but disappeared. The engines themselves have disappeared underneath innocuous sound deadening plastic covers. Remove the covers and all you will see are a maze of wires, plumbing and indecipherable electronic boxes. Open the deck lid of my 1972 911 and you will see the engine fan, intake stacks, fuel injection pump, distributor, coils, CD boxes and even valve covers and spark plug wires. Open the deck lid of a new 911 and you will see a plastic shroud with two electric fans.
The not so subtle message is that the car owner has no business and no interest under the engine cover of today’s engines. I strongly suspect that today’s owner knows very little about the engine in his car. As long as the car performs to expectation it does not matter how many cylinders it has, the engine displacement, horsepower or even whether it is normally aspirated or more likely is turbo charged or supercharged. The new engine buzzword is EcoBoost and EcoTec, but is it a V6, an inline 4 or even an inline 3 cylinder. The even more intriguing question is whether the gas motor is supplemented by one or more electric motors. A recent news leak from a gathering of Porsche dealers was that we might expect to see the whole line of Porsche cars available with supplemental electric motors as soon as 2015. The new flagship of Porsche, the 767 horsepower hybrid 918 will be the leader in that technology. For the Porsche return to LeMans in 2014 this same small V8 and electric motor combination will likely be the power source. Porsche has already won races with this hybrid technology in their GT3 R Hybrid.
The racing world has paralleled this shift to smaller motors as would be expected. The Formula Ford class that has been powered by the 1600 cc Ford four for 44 years but as of 2014 it will be powered by an EcoBoost 1600 cc turbo. In endurance racing, Ford has replaced the 5 liter V8 in Daytona Prototype raced for the last 10 years with a 3.5 liter V6 EcoBoost twin turbo. In Indycar racing the 3.5 liter V8 supplied by Chevrolet, and Honda was replaced with a 2.2 liter V6 twin turbo with 650 horsepower at 12,000 rpm. And in Formula 1 the 2.4 liter V8 will be replaced next year with a 1.6 liter single turbo V6 with 600 horsepower, a rev limit of 15,000 rpm and supplemented by a 160 horsepower electric motor for short bursts of speed.
Our future family car and sports car will feature small displacement gas motors and supplemental electric motors. Should battery technology continue to become more efficient and cheaper the power source may swing to primary electric motor power. Not only do we have no control over this progression we are being conditioned to not care what powers our cars. The motor has become insignificant.