Displacement Is Dying

By James Wong

AMG announced just a few weeks ago that their venerable 6.3-litre naturally aspirated V8 in their cars will soon be phased out for a new twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V8. And, just last weekend I attended the launch of VW’s new Golf R. The successor to the R32 will now have a 2.0-litre turbo from the S3 (a near-direct transplant), discarding the purring VR6 from the old car.

On paper it seems like an unquestionable decision. More power and even more torque from a smaller engine that gives better mileage. There doesn’t seem to be any drawback, is there? Well, while the advantages are undeniable, there are also some consequences that we should consider.

There is the issue of forced induction (FI) engines. They usually require more frequent maintenance intervals and would probably present a higher rate of wear and tear. This, in the long run, might offset any potential savings that might have been gleaned off from the lower fuel consumption and, depending on your territory, savings from road tax.

Then there is the erratic power delivery. On a good day, forced induction engines will give you gobs of torque that is great for everyday driving. However, good days are often rare as external variables affect a turbocharged or supercharged engine much more than a naturally aspirated one. A hot and humid day would decrease the efficiency of the engine by a staggering amount – as what I have witnessed in my Sepang track day. And, if you do decide to push the car hard, the FI engine will have a higher probability of running into overheating and technical issues, making consistent and continuous runs round the track more of an exceptional thing than the norm. This is ironic considering FI engines are commonly found in high-powered cars which are likely to be driven hard.

To quote the example of the R32 and Golf R, it is in my humble opinion that much of the soul of the VR6 did not make it pass the transition to the new R. The R32 always held a very unique position in the Volkswagen lineup, just like how the Passat once used to have a W8 under its bonnet. It was something special that thankfully was not cannibalised by the VAG Group. The S3 had the smaller, 2.0-litre turbo with a bigger K04 turbo while the R32 had the big displacement (for a hot hatch) NA engine. The two cars could not be any more different in character; which also meant they sat nicely in their own niche markets.

Now, with the Golf R, I can hardly tell it apart from the S3 in its mechanicals. Instead of having its own identity, it instead took the same engine, same gearbox, same configuration (3dr and 5dr) and regrettably, the S3’s heftier price tag (depending on where you live, again). While the VW is still cheaper than the Audi locally in Singapore, it is regrettable that its uniqueness has been traded away for a bunch of numbers that supposedly add up to a better driving experience.

While I have to admit that the new car is faster and more nimble due to its lighter engine and increased power output, it did not engage me like the R32. You could not call the R32 slow – it isn’t – but you can’t call it fast either. A simple tune-up to the GTI or, indeed, the Golf R, will leave the R32 way behind in a straight line. But as a sensory experience, the rev-happy VR6 helming the VW is hard to beat. It gave deliciously fluid power that is put down to the road with what can only be described as a ‘creamy smooth’ delivery. Blip a few gears down and hear those 6-cylinders sing; you know that you are driving something special. Actually, if you must, you could also view the R32 as a ‘no action, talk only’ car as it made more noise than pace as compared to the new R. But should we only look at pace alone as the sole indicator of a great car? I don’t think so.

However, it’s important too that we see the purpose of downsizing an engine. Whilst in the case of the Veedubs, it made the Golf R a bit too close for comfort to the S3, it seems to be a more sensible move for AMG. You see, AMG vehicles are not the all-out sports cars. In fact, in the world of M, RS and AMG, AMG is probably the one most slant towards giving a great real-world performance while at the same time adding a bit of spice to the drive of a Mercedes. And when we talk about real-world performance, especially the type that drives heavy saloons, then FI engines do have a strong case. Their strong torque figures are a boon for shifting that weight around rapidly and the old 5.5-litre supercharged V8 was a great example of an engine that was endeared by many. Its superlative torque figures continue to impress up till today as the public’s reaction to the 6.3-litre NA V8 was mixed. While it was a great engine that was exhilarating and primal, it did not fit the job description of an AMG engine quite so well due to its high-revving nature and relatively torque-light motor. This is especially so for big saloons like the S-Class which are better off with their in-house V12 twin-turbo engines. I wonder if that is the reason why AMG moved to the new 5.5-litre twin-turbo engines – emissions regulations notwithstanding – and well, I think it is a good move.

You see, it’s all about personal preferences. There are some of us who are more than ready to give up some of that soul and character for outright pace, and then there are those of us who appreciate those values in a car very highly. It depends on which car the engines are given to, and whether it serves to better the car in any way.

If you ask me, I’ll still go for the last batches of R32s that are still on sale… But then again, I have an extended test drive for the Golf R coming soon so that may just tip my choice in its favour.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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