The No Longer Needed V-8 ….

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They say that 40 is the new 30. I dunno about that.

But the modern high-ouptut/high-efficiency V-6 is arguably the new V-8. And you can make a case that the modern four – with direct injection, variable valve timing and all the rest of it – is the new V-6.

I just got done test-driving a new 2011 Ford F-150 pick-up. Its standard engine was a 4.6 liter V-8 that made 248 hp. Its new standard engine is a 3.7 liter V-6 that produces 302 hp, 54 more hp than the V-8 it replaced.

It also delivers several MPGs more gas mileage.

The three revived muscle cars – Chevy’s Camaro, the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger – all now have standard six cylinders that are in the 300-plus hp range. That’s more hp than all but the highest-performance V-8 versions of those cars were putting down during their heyday in the late 1960s/early ’70s.

A startling example is the original (1967-’69) Camaro Z-28. Its engine was a 5 liter V-8, equipped with a very aggressive camshaft (so aggressive that GM only sold the car with a manual transmission and without air conditioning) and numerous other specialty/high-performance components. It made 290 hp. The car did 0-60 in about 6.7 seconds.

The 2011 base (note: not the Z28) Camaro’s engine is a 3.6 liter V-6 that produces 312 hp. It propels the car to 60 MPH in 6 seconds flat – as quick or even quicker than the ’67-’69 V-8 powered Z-28. And it is capable of 28 MPG on the highway – easily 10 MPG better than the original, V-8 powered Z-28 could achieve.

It’s a similar story with the Mustang and Challenger.

And it’s not just performance cars that perform with less than a V-8 under their hoods. Most current family sedans either come with or offer as options V-6s that are in the 250-270 hp range. This is more power than all but a small handful of V-8s made in the ’70s and ’80s.

As a case in point: The early-mid 1980s Corvette came equipped with a 5.7 liter V-8 that made 245 hp. At the time, it was about the most powerful car on the road, excepting exotics.

Today, the Toyota Camry – a car that’s as vanilla as vanilla gets – has a 268 hp 3.5 liter V-6 engine.

What does it mean to you?

It means that you don’t need eight cylinders to get V-8 performance. Or more accurately, the kind of performance that most of us associate with having a V-8.

In the current Camaro or Mustang, for instance, the standard car gets to 60 PDQ (six seconds is quicker than nearly all the V-8 versions of classic-era muscle cars with V-8s managed) and has a top speed that’s more than high enough to get you locked up for a year. The V-8s that are available in these models make even that performance look a little soft, of course. But the point is the standard V-6s are no longer what they were Back in the Day – that is, gimpy loose-toothed embarrassments. Back in the Day, if you wanted decent acceleration (let alone performance) you had to get the optional V-8. Today, you get performance – damn good performance – with the “base” engine.

The optional V-8 just ups the ante from damn good to incredibly good.

It’s the same story with current four-cylinder engines, many of which are now cresting 200 hp (as in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata) while also delivering 30 MPG or even better.

Before about five years ago 200 hp was not a four cylinder number; it was a six-cylinder number. As it was with the V-8 vs. V-6 paradigm, people knew (back then) that you pretty much had to upgrade to the optional engine, unless you could live with a terminal case of The Slows.

People, though, haven’t updated their hard drives. Many still reflexively think of four cylinder engines as underpowered and under-performing, which just ain’t so.

Not anymore, anyhow.

Here’s an interesting fact: The slowest new cars – like the Prius hybrid – need just over 11 seconds to get to 60 MPH. That’s the exception. Most new cars – even subcompact economy cars – get to 60 in less than 10 seconds. The average is around 8 seconds. That’s more than twice as quick as an old Beetle – and easily 4-5 seconds quicker than the typical econobox of the ’80s.

So, here’s the beef: Don’t assume you need to go big guns and buy the optionally available V-8 (or V-6). Take a test drive in the V-6 (or four cylinder) powered version of the car you’re thinking about buying.

You might be pleasantly surprised to discover what you don’t need anymore.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  1. My dad learned to drive in the 50s in a 38 Caddy V16 convertible coupe. The car may have only had 160HP, but it had enough torque to pull from a standing start up a steep hill in top gear. And XJS V12s are cheap used cars available to anyone with a couple of grand to spend. (Better have some mechanical aptitude before you take that plunge tho…)

    • Very cool!

      I heard the V-16 Caddy run; very distinctive. And the engine itself was finished beautifully; porcelain-coated manifolds, bright chrome studs on the heads, etc. If I remember right, these engines only had a single two-barrel carburetor and very low compression (like 6.2:1 or something like that), which explains the (relatively) low hp.

      And you’re right about the Jag V-12… fun, but not for the skill (or tool) deficient… !

      • The V16s were gone long before my time. They had 2 convertible coupes, one with a radio, and one without. They sold off the one without early on. My Dad says that even in the 50s, it was cheaper to take a cab than it was to drive the caddy. The historian in me wants to track down the cars, just to see them. I know who the first owner was. (Grandfather married a widow, she came with the cars) Evidently they made 10 of that body style that year, and I think 11 survive. (I guess one is a re body). Tracking them down is on my list of things to do “someday” I will let you in on a big secret on Jags. XJSs from around 85 to 89 are pretty good cars. You need to find one that has not been driven into the ground with lack of maintainence. But the thing is, they are pretty simple to fix. You work on the V12s in layers…. Jaguar was a small company, and the cars were built by hand, so nothing is very hard to do at all. (Time consuming maybe, why use 1 bolt when 7 will do…) Great cheap used cars.

    • Ha! (Where there ever 20 cylinder production car engines?)

      A few years back, I was at a high-end car show; saw a restored ’30s-era V-16 Cadillac. That was pretty neat! But if memory serves, the engine was only making 160 hp or so. Remember Hitler’s grosser Mercedes? It had a supercharged V-12, I think. Put out around 220 hp…. a little bit more than a current Hyundai Sonata’s 2.0 liter four!

  2. V8s are, well, OK I guess. Once you go V12, you will never go back. Ever driven a really nice (set up by a real Jag tech)89 or older XJS? Not the fastest, or most powerful, but creamy smooooth. I like the “less is more” approach. My Audi is a turbo 5 banger. It keeps up with traffic, and if driven like a citizen will get better than 30 MPG on the road.Nice compromise, and the offbeat 5 cylinder sound and vibe sets off peoples car alarms. What is not to like about that??

    • For smoothness (and sound) it’s true it’s hard to beat a V-12. But of course, V-12s are also usually very expensive and complex and take up a lot of room under the hood, leading to packaging issues.

      V-8s on the other hand have the advantage of simplicity (especially pushrod designs) and compactness and high potential power output.

      There are currently 400-plus hp V-8s available in $30k-ish cars and trucks – and that is pretty cool!

      V-12s are (mostly) exotic-car engines that regular people will never get to own.

  3. V6 or 4 can have the power… it might even have the torque, but it won’t be the same as a V8. Feel, sound, and so on which to many are important. What I would really love to see is a straight 6 done up right that isn’t in a BMW. Aussie Fords have been doing it for years but have yet to be sold in the USA.

  4. Well, you could say that! If power is the criteria, anyhow. Most V-8s today are making at least 300 hp; close to 400 hp is pretty common. Those are pretty big numbers! The ’95 Viper R/T’s 8 liter V-10 made 400 hp. This is less than the top-dog V-8s in several 2011 big trucks like the Ford F-150. The new Mustang GT has a 5 liter V-8 that makes 400 hp. The Camaro SS’s V-8 (also much smaller than the Viper V-10) makes over 400 hp.

    And for some real perspective, go back to the ’70s and ’80s and check what supercar exotic V-12s in Ferraris and so on were producing…

      • Good point. Ford, somewhere on their website, claims that the turbos on the Ecoboost engines are good for 150,000 miles. My 1999 Navigator has over 350,000 miles and is still running well. I have been curious how far the truck would run after passing a quarter million miles, so I’m reluctant to buy something new. It would be interesting to see if it can do 400,000 or even a half million.

        Replacing two turbochargers is serious money. Will these things last?

        • Yeah… 150,000 isn’t all that great a service life for such a critical part. A water pump (or timing chain) ok. But as you say, if you have to replace one or both turbos my guess is the cost would prohibitive; probably $2,000 or more in parts and labor.

  5. Great point. Being from a slightly younger generation, I’d say that the V-8 envy thing is, and has been, outdated for some time. Looking back at older cars, I definitely get the association of V-8 = good, but for anyone mid-thirties or younger, that’s no longer applicable.

    I think part of the problem was the 80s. Thanks to governmental interference, we were cursed with V-8s that performed like sixes and front wheel drive instead of rear. I was thankfully being taken to school during those years rather than driving myself.

    But cars like the turbo Buicks and V-6 turbo Firebirds held some promise even while C4 Corvettes plodded along (with the exception of the ZR-1). Then came the 90s with awesomeness in a can like the NSX that were performing on par with V-8s but doing so with six naturally aspirated cylinders. Cars such as the WRX and Evo proved that a well set up 4 could do some serious damage as well.

    The main area where the V-6 vs V-8 comparison held true was in full sized trucks. I’m glad that’s finally changing, even if it is 20 years behind the rest of automotive development. Now if only they’d start putting in more DOHC, variable valve timing, direct injection, and turbo charging. Oh, and it would be nice if a Japanese company would get around to making a competitive full-size, too. The Tundra has been a major disappointment in a multitude of areas.

    • Yup – amen!

      And: Ford is going to be putting the twin-turbo Ecoboost V-6 into the F-150 lineup; 365 hp and the same (or better) fuel economy as the base 3.7 V-6….

  6. Ford lost me with the ’99 F150 SCab I had. Shortly before the warranty ran out, I noticed there was cracks on the doors about midway up the window. Quick check on the internet and I soon learned that this was a problem with that model. Dealer didn’t want to do anything about it and implied it was my fault.

    Previous to that, I replaced a halfshaft in the front and the head gasket was spewing oil all over the place. At least they were fixed under warranty.

    Then there was the horrible squeek it made when cold, sounded like the alternator was bad…several replacements and replacement pullies later it still made the horrible squeek when cold.

    I had resigned myself to drive a vehicle that I was very unhappy with, but paid off then the economy crashed. Dealerships were desperate to get trucks off the lot and I bought my ’98 Nissan Frontier that has more torque/HP and better mileage than my F150 ever got.

    The only downside is that my son says my new truck is “not manly, it’s sophisticated”

    • Hi Steve,

      I happen to have a ’98 Frontier also – by far the best truck I have ever owned. I like it so much that I got another (2002), which my wife drives. Neither has asked for more than the usual basic maintenance; neither has ever let us down. The ’98 still looks only 4-5 years old (paint shines; no rust) even though it (unlike the 2002) is parked outside and only gets washed when it rains….

      I do think – no, I know (based on recent evidence) – that Ford has much improved its quality control since ’99.

      But it would take a lot to make me go back, too…


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