A Nation of Torque Junkies

Back in Detroit’s Golden Age, fans of imported sports cars viewed big block domestic ”muscle cars” with disdain. As they saw it, any true connoisseur of the automobile recognized that the real joy of motoring lay in skillfully working the pedals, shifter, and steering, not in being able to deprive one’s frontal lobe of oxygen through the simple act of putting one’s right foot to the floor.

Even as recently as a decade ago the smaller, higher-winding engines in imported cars were viewed as a more intelligent approach than Detroit’s reliance on cubic inches. Why did GM need a 3.8-liter V6, when the Japanese did well with 3.0s, and the huge Mercedes S-Class required only a 3.2? Similarly, Cadillac’s and Lincoln’s 4.6-liter V8s seemed excessive compared to the 4.0 in the Lexus LS and the 4.4 in the BMW 7-Series. GM talked about downsizing the Northstar in response.

And yet, today, I cannot visit any forum, foreign or domestic, without reading that this car or that one has no low-end torque, and that this is a dealkiller. Most recently I found this criticism lodged against the Porsche Cayman S, a car whose 3.4-liter flat six musters up “only” 251 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.

Let’s get some perspective. When I started driving back in the mid-1980s, the Porsche 911 got by with a 3.0-liter flat six good for 175 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm. Even the mighty V8 in the 928 offered only 265 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm. In other words, the Cayman S’ engine has about as strong a midrange as Porsche’s 1980s flagship.

Today you can still buy a few truly torque-free sports cars, most notably the Honda S2000 and Mazda RX-8. While I personally have no problem with the 160-or-so pound-feet of torque in these cars, I can see how some people might. But that the Cayman S should become the target for similar criticism is beyond me.

Why don’t I have a problem even with the Honda and Mazda? I suppose because I drive manuals and have no qualms about downshifting to secure the desired forward motivation. Find a nice curvy country road and keep the speed over 30, and you’ll never have to experience the low end in either the S2000 or the RX-8.

Perhaps the problem is that these driving conditions are not typical. More often than not, people experience acceleration at traffic lights. So they’re accelerating from a dead stop, and the feeling of thrust from zero to thirty is key.

Add an automatic transmission to the mix, and the desire for low-end grunt gets kicked up another notch. The involvement provided by the clutch and shifter is absent. With an automatic on your typical straight suburban boulevard, all there is for the driver to do is put his or her foot to the floor. The car does the rest. And so the only thrill to be had is being thrown back into the seat by a wave of torque.

Then there’s the matter of satiation. With a classic sports car on a curvy road, joy follows from honing one’s skills with the pedals, shifter, and steering through turn after turn. One doesn’t grow tired of a good car in this context. In contrast, the mind builds up a tolerance for torque. Yesterday’s rocket becomes today’s slug. An ever-increasing amount of the stuff is required to maintain the buzz.

And so we find that even as quick a car as the Cayman S still doesn’t have what it takes. And that the typical Asian brand family sedan can be had with a 3.5-liter V6, with even larger engines just over the horizon. In the near future the 911’s engine will probably grow to 4.0 liters. The Lexus LS is now powered by a 4.6-liter V8, and the BMW 7-Series by a 4.8 liter V8. And Mercedes? It employs a 5.5 liter V8 in its big sedans. After making fun of Detroit’s ridiculously large engines for decades, the imports are now offering engines that are just as large or even larger.

Where does it end? It’s already possible to buy a huge Mercedes coupe with a twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter V12 good for 738 foot-pounds of torque at a low, low 2,000 rpm. Sports car? Not even close. Instead, the SL65 is the ultimate muscle car. And once you’ve experienced 738 foot-pounds, how long will it be before you need 800?

Apparently Detroit had the right formula all along.

Michael Karesh is owner and editor of TrueDelta.com – TrueDelta is a vehicle research firm.

Author: Michael Karesh

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  1. Torque is a wonderful thing in a car, especially when you have lots of waiting for you down low. It feels like someone has kicked the car forward like a boy kicking a push-toy when you have enough of it. It is intoxicating.

  2. Sure, but the best thing of all is a creamy broad torque band with a great low end and a top end where you don’t run out of breath. Those are wonderful engines, strong and willing all though the torque curve.

  3. Bang on, Michael. This is one of the better articles I’ve seen from you.

    What this makes me wonder is, why oh why haven’t Americans latched onto diesel-powered cars? They’re almost too perfect for the American driving style; great gobs of torque available from very low rpm, great cruising efficiency for our wide and straight American roads.

    I don’t buy that many modern Americans remember the God-awful GM Diesels of the 70s. When you ask most people about diesel they conjure either an 18-wheeler, or that bald-headed actor guy.

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