Keen drivers have long known that when it comes to engines, less can be more. Putting more cylinders, complexity, and weight into a car isn’t always the passport to dynamic excellence, so let’s run through a few of the cars that were better with a bit less.
Yep, we’re going there. We’ve driven some great Falcon V8s in recent years, but it’s the blown Barra that we’re really going to miss. Its 4.0-litre straight-six is pretty much close to automotive perfection, but giving it a bit of Garrett GT40 boost sends tuning potential clean through the rafters. It’s easy to forget quite what a revolution this lump represented, in Aussie terms at least. The 3984cc straight-six arrived with double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, making Holden’s Buick-based pushrod V6 look like something from a Flintstones cartoon.
The fact that the BA XR6T could get to 400m in 14.2s, compared to the XR8’s 14.4-second elapsed time, sealed the deal for many. It also rekindled memories of the six-pot E49 Charger which held the title of Australia’s fastest accelerating car for several years. We’re often portrayed as nation of V8 lovers, but the XR6T showed that we’ve got a broader palate than that. In its final Sprint guise (pictured here) Ford removed any pretence of hierarchy and released an XR6T with more torque than the eight-pot.
Audi R8 V8
The original R8 was first launched in 2007 with the 309kW 4.2-litre V8 borrowed from the RS4 and mounted just behind the driver’s shoulders. It was a fantastic thing, but its thunder was well and truly stolen with the arrival of the snarling 391kW V10 version a couple of years later; an engine that owed a lot to Lamborghini.
While the 5.2-litre V10 was undoubtedly the fiercer powerplant, making genuine supercar numbers, the V8 was actually the better car to drive. Not only was the engine a sweeter, more melodic thing, but the handling was a good deal more benign with around 60kg less to contend with. If you just want to go fast, buy a Nissan GT-R. If you want a mid-engined car with real poise and balance, an eight-cylinder Audi R8 takes some beating.
Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG
The 368kW 5.5-litre M113 AMG supercharged V8 engine has to be one of the unsung stars of the Noughties. Plumbed into the pointy end of a Mercedes SL55 AMG, it was capable of destroying the egos of supercar drivers with effortless ease. Back in 2002, a delimited SL55 AMG was taken to the Nardo test track in southern Italy and put up against a Lamborghini Murcielago, an Aston Vanquish, a Porsche 911 GT2, and a Ferrari 550 Maranello. It was the quickest of all the cars to 300km/h and was only pipped on top speed by the Lambo, a car twice its price.
The SL65 AMG V12 was even quicker in a straight line, but it was hugely expensive, didn’t sound as good, and didn’t handle as well. Besides, if you already can leave the cream of the supercar crop in a straight line, how much more power do you really need?
It’s a fact that the turbocharged powerplants of Porsche’s 718 Cayman aren’t universally adored. Compared to the charismatic normally-aspirated sixes that went before, its new blown fours lack a bit of X-factor. What they aren’t shy of is torque, and the base 2.0-litre 718 Cayman develops as much twist action as the outgoing 3.4-litre atmo flat-six in the Cayman GTS.
The 2.0-litre also sounds a good deal better than the 2.5-litre in the 718 Cayman S, and there’s a level of interaction with this engine - especially if you choose the manual car – that you’ll miss with the Cayman S. Where the S is fast almost everywhere, without a great deal of effort, the 2.0-litre engine rewards a certain intimacy, a sympathetic understanding of its characteristics. That’s what you buy a Porsche sports car for isn’t it?
Toyota Altezza RS200
And here’s one that got away. Here in Australia, we got the Altezza, badged as a Lexus IS, with a lazy 3.0-litre 157kW straight-six and five-speed automatic combination for the range-topper. The 2JZ-GE lump added another 100kg to the front end of the IS200 version, dulling its responses. Our October 2001 test proclaimed it was no rival for a BMW 3 Series.
Which is all a bit of a shame because in Japan, the Altezza RS200 got a six-speed manual box and the cracking Yamaha-developed ‘black-top’ BEAMS (Breakthrough Engine with Advanced Mechanical System) with dual-VVTi and titanium valves. Although it was 3kW down on the IS300’s donk, it would get to 100km/h in 7.2sec compared to the 3.0-litre’s 8.8sec showing. It would also sound utterly fantastic in the process. Sadly, we never received official imports of the RS200. Should you be looking for a personal import, try for the RS200 Z Edition, which comes with a standard limited slip diff.