Road Cars

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As enthusiasts we are used to scare stories that appear to threaten our enjoyment of motoring. If it’s not traffic levels, it’s traffic cameras or simply the fear that the venal and lazy ‘speed kills’ slogan of the road safety lobby might one day gain traction. I remember well the gloom around the Autocar office the day we learned catalytic converters would become mandatory equipment. Power would be sapped, engines muffled, fun excised. And yet through it all most of us are able one way or another still to enjoy our cars.

The latest cause for concern is the likely future direction of the development of high-performance engines over the next few years. In short, while they may or may not go on getting more powerful, it seems inevitable that they’re going to become a lot less enjoyable to operate.

The fear struck me just as I was changing up at 9000rpm in Ferrari’s new 458 (much more of which next month). The noise of the engine at that speed and the sharpness of its throttle response are two of the wonders of the modern motoring world. But soon they may be gone.

Why? Because the imperative of meeting forthcoming emissions legislation while driving down fuel consumption mean the large-capacity, free-spinning, normally-aspirated engines beloved of us all are becoming endangered as never before.

They will be replaced by smaller-capacity, direct-injection, turbocharged engines because they are more efficient, more easily controlled, lighter, easier to package and offer a simple, cost-effective route to more power when an update is required without expensive redesigns of the engine’s internals.

If you think I am scaremongering, consider this. Ferrari’s next generation of engines for its large and currently V12-powered cars will be smaller and turbocharged. The same is true for BMW’s next generation of ‘M’ engines, while Mercedes is already replacing its magnificent 6.2-litre V8 with a rather less stressed 5.5-litre turbo V8. And when a company as canny as McLaren designs an all-new supercar from scratch and chooses to power it by a small turbo engine, you’d need to be blind not to see the writing on the wall.

And it’s not just the supercars. As noted last month, forthcoming emission regs have killed the screaming Honda Civic Type R, while that particular roost is now ruled by the likes of the RenaultSport Mégane and Volkswagen Golf GTI, both of which are powered by comparatively low revving, dull-sounding turbo motors.

So why should we care? Gordon Murray reckons you cannot design a proper supercar with a turbocharged engine because a turbo will never provide the throttle response of a normally aspirated unit, and as the designer of what many regard as the world’s greatest supercar – the McLaren F1 – his words have weight. The exception which even Gordon acknowledges is the Ferrari F40, but that was saved in part by its sub-1100kg weight, an unimaginably and unachievably low figure for a modern-day equivalent. And with the likes of Ferrari, BMW, McLaren, Mercedes and who knows who else going down this road, it’s hard not to wonder how long it will be before Aston Martin and Maserati follow suit. Is this the end of the era where the sound and response of a supercar’s engine is at least as exciting as the raw power it produces? Right now, I wouldn’t bet against it.

I’m fascinated by pictures of the new Bentley Continental GT (right) and look forward to seeing it for real at the Paris Motor Show, whose contents I’ll report next month. In the meantime, what can be read into Bentley’s current mood from the new car?

After the frenetic activity of the last 10 years, during which it has not only rebuilt the factory and won Le Mans but also redesigned the Arnage, launched three Continentals (and their Speed and Supersports derivatives), the Azure, Brooklands and, most recently, the Mulsanne, Bentley appears inclined to consolidate.The new Continental appears more renewed than new. Not only are its looks clearly derivative of the old model inside and out, its length, height and wheelbase are unchanged. The W12 engine continues into its tenth season while, surprisingly, it retains just six gears, despite the fact that its maker ZF supplies eight-speed autos to other car builders, including Bentley’s Audi stablemate.

Such changes as have been made are small but considered. The engine is slightly more powerful, its output rising from 552 to 567bhp, the car’s mass cut by 65kg (though it’s still on the heavy side of 2¼ tonnes). Suspension work has reduced unsprung mass, while the revised 40/60 front-to-rear torque balance first introduced on the Supersports is now standardised.

But if those hoping for an all-new or radically transformed car are disappointed by this conservative approach, from Bentley’s point of view it’s easy to understand. Bluntly put, the Continental not only saved Bentley, it has turned it into perhaps the major player in the upper luxury sector. Thanks almost entirely to the Continental, Bentley has made more cars in the last seven years than it did in the previous 84.

Even so, the world is a very different place to that into which the Continental was launched, a fact Bentley has reacted to by announcing that in 2011 an all-new 4-litre V8 will appear under its bonnet, cutting emissions and economy by 40 per cent. That’s all the official news, but it doesn’t require much time with the crystal ball to deduce that it will carry twin turbos, offer 400- 500bhp and will be lighter by far, permitting lighter suspension, wheels and brakes, which could lop a three-fi gure sum off its kerb weight.

You could further speculate that the result will not only be cheaper to buy and run, but that it might also be more fun to drive, better to listen to and scarcely any slower. Crucially, it will also go almost half as far again on a tank of fuel. You might then consider that in time the V8 is likely to become the standard engine, especially as it’s bound to have been designed with a range of capacities and outputs in mind. That then calls into question the survival of the ageing W12 and paints a picture of Bentley facing the future armed only with V8s, as it did from 1959-2003. From where I’m standing, that sounds just fine.

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