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Alex Inwood on the great V8

By Alex Inwood, 18 Aug 2019 Opinion

Alex Inwood on the great V8

“There’s something about a V8 soundtrack that appeals to our base instincts in a way no other configuration seems to”

Perhaps the best day I’ve ever had at Wheels is one I’ve never written about. It was at Sandown, years ago, and through some bizarre fluke of circumstance, I found myself with an empty circuit and two cars at my disposal – an electric blue Lexus LFA and a red Mercedes-AMG C63 507 wagon.

I’ve been thinking about that afternoon a lot this month, trying to understand why those few hours – spent mostly at 9000rpm in the Lexus and on the lock-stops in the deranged Benz – were so seminal. It was the engines, of course. For all the LFA’s and the AMG’s dynamic talent, it’s not the steering feel or the handling poise that comes back. It’s how they behaved under full load, how each donk dictated the character of the car and, most notably, their soundtracks – the fizzy, effervescent shriek of the LFA’s highly strung V10, complimented by the AMG’s deep, lazy baritone.

It’s these moments, these fleeting sensations, these flashes of analogue connection, that Wheels is celebrating this month with our cover story, with particular emphasis on the engine configuration that, arguably, is the greatest of them all: the V8.

Feature: Great V8s!

Is there another arrangement of cylinders that resonates so strongly with enthusiasts? Or one with such a flexible blueprint and such a wide personality? Big, wet and lazy; cammy and throbby, they can also be tiny-capacity, high-revving screamers. I once stood in the tunnel at Monaco during qualifying for the GP and experienced such a barrage of noise and vibration and frequency from the 2.4-litre V8s that it felt as though I’d been punched in the sternum. And don’t get me started on my ears; I’m fairly sure they’re still recovering.

There are more exotic engines, of course. In the game of cylinder top trumps, the V10 and V12 have the humble V8 licked, and they have rarity on their side, too. Unless you own one, part of the allure of driving an LFA or an Aventador or an 812 Superfast is the underlying understanding that you might never get another chance to do so.

But where these cars are reserved only for the rich and the very lucky, the V8 is the everyman’s performance engine. It’s found all over the globe, in pick-up trucks, sedans, coupes, utes, in racing cars and in high-performance halos. And in almost every installation, it will feel unburstable. There’s something inherently satisfying about a V8’s ability to marry big-capacity low-end torque with genuine top-end muscle. And let’s not forget about the noise. For all the LFA’s dentist-drill intensity, my memory of the C63’s deeper soundtrack, as it boomed through the cabin, is just as powerful.

Great V8 mega test: the best V8s on sale, tested

It’s difficult to explain why exactly, but there’s something about a V8 soundtrack that appeals to our base instincts in a way no other configuration seems to. Add more cylinders and the sound starts to blend together. Take cylinders away and the thrashing of the pistons is more obvious, more raucous, and less pleasing to the ear. Even at idle a V8 is dramatic, its unique configuration delivering that gentle, and strangely comforting, side-to-side motion.

There is, perhaps, another reason I’ve been pondering that day at Sandown. As former editor Stephen Corby mused only a few months ago, one can’t help but feel that the glory era of the V8 as we know it is waning.

In this transient age of EVs and autonomy, it seems we can’t discuss any piece of proven technology without questioning its future, though reassuringly, the news from the people who make the decisions about these things is bullish. Tobias Moers, who heads up AMG and is equal parts fuel-gurgling bogan and performance-car genius, is unequivocal that the V8 is here to stay. What’s likely to change is how it’s deployed. You only need to read our news piece on Ferrari’s new 736kW supercar to realise the V8’s future is likely to involve electricity in some way or another. But for now, it’s still possible to revel in the way things were, to appreciate the debauched uncouthness and bravado that’s so central to an old-school V8’s appeal. And that’s exactly what you should do.