Four-cylinder engines are killing fun cars

2006 Honda S2000Without a doubt, the biggest single threat to the idea of driving for fun is the perpetual switch to efficient four-cylinder engines.

When a car makes a great noise, people love it even if they don’t know much about cars. I was speaking to a teacher the other day, who by his own admission was a motoring dunce.

But despite that, he launched into a tale of how he recently saw a Lamborghini in the flesh – he knew it was a Lambo because it was low, lime green and looked angry – and he went misty-eyed as he told me how the noise it made sent shivers up his spine.

When was the last time a Golf GTi did that? Or a BMW 320d? No four-cylinder cars sound particularly nice these days, and there’s one reason for that. Very few four-pot engines rev highly enough any more. Efficiency means low revs, and low revs means rubbish noise unless it’s an American V8, but in the US efficiency is a dirty word.

2009 Volkswagen Golf GTIFour-cylinder engines are revving to lower extremes than ever. Four or five thousand is the effective peak for many of them, but despite using turbochargers to make up the physical power, they’re genuinely dull to drive compared to a free-revving, free-breathing car like the 9,000rpm Honda S2000, may it rest in peace.

Multi-cylinder engines, as engines with more than four cylinders are confusingly called, always sound better as a natural by-product of their layouts. Whether it’s the flat-six bark of a Porsche or the banshee wail of a Ferrari V8, these are noises that really make people feel something positive.

Seriously, it’s a perfect way to lift the hearts of a nation that, at the moment, is thoroughly depressed. Making cars, the transport tool of the masses, ever duller and ever less inspiring isn’t going to help cheer anybody up. And has anybody in the real world noticed an improvement in air quality thanks to CO2-lowering legislation? I sincerely doubt it.

This is more important. We need a spark of something we can enjoy. Something like multi-cylinder engines. They’re just better to drive full stop, and they don’t have to be inefficient. It’s just that lopping cylinders off and bolting on a turbo is the easiest way to make big savings.

Porsche 911 launched at the Frankfurt motor show 2011The sounds that come from five-, six-, eight-, ten- and twelve-cylinder engines are inspirational noises. They make people happy, or they thrill them, or they fill them with nostalgia, and these things are so much more precious than losing a few grams of CO2. While the efficiency drive marches ever on, doing amazing things to the emissions of everyday vehicles, our roads are sounding ever more sterile.

I remember when a Ferrari 355 went past me on a dual carriageway years ago, its V8 spinning at about 8,000rpm. The sensation in my body was like an electric shock, and I can remember smiling about it for about a fortnight afterwards. What a noise! Driving to work in that would definitely be something special. Heck, driving to work anywhere near it would be!

I don’t think anybody anywhere will ever be able to tell the same tale after everything has moved to four cylinders. Thanks, European Parliament. And as for us humble citizens, next time we hear a sports car make a noise so fantastic that it stops us in our tracks, let’s cherish it while we can.

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