Turbocharged Ferraris


I have often wondered what that great engineer WO Bentley would have made of the turbocharger. His view of the supercharger is well known, as he once famously fumed that to add such a device to one of his engines was ‘to pervert its design and corrupt its performance’. Yet superchargers provided additional torque right through the rev range, which you’d have thought he’d have liked, with no penalty in terms of either engine sound nor, crucially, throttle response. I expect therefore he’d have loathed turbos with a rare passion.

And yet normally aspirated performance cars are finished. Or at least that’s the view of Tobias Moers, the head of AMG and perhaps as fine an engineer and certainly as a rabid a petrolhead today as was WO then. ‘With the global emissions legislation we have today, the penalty in CO2 and fuel consumption is just too great.’

Bentley (centre) with 1924 Le Mans winners Frank Clement and John Duff

Others seem to concur. From this autumn, all standard Porsche 911s will be turbocharged. This doesn’t mean all will carry 911 Turbo badges, offer 500bhp and the ability to leap into the next county at a moment’s notice, for these turbos will exist far more to lower CO2 than raise power. BMW, whose M cars were once near enough defined by their small capacity, high revving, normally aspirated engines, has surrendered entirely to the turbo for all its high performance cars too.

But to me the real surprise is Ferrari, which is now installing turbocharged engines in its road cars for the very first time. Actually that’s not entirely true, but its previous forays into this arena have been highly specialised models even by Ferrari standards, such as the limited edition 288 GTO and F40 which used derivatives of the motor it built for Lancia’s LC2 Group C contender, and the 208GTB turbo which was built specifically to circumvent Italian tax law.

Now however, if you buy any V8-powered Ferrari, it will be turbocharged. And this puzzles me. Why of all engines should a Ferrari’s be saddled with turbochargers? Is the potential extra power and reduced fuel consumption for a given capacity they bring so important it’s worth sacrificing that soundtrack, that rev range and that throttle response? If ever there were a car whose owners simply could not care less how much fuel it uses or how many tons of CO2 it blows into the atmosphere, of them all surely that car is a Ferrari?

Of course Ferrari defends it to the hilt, saying when you drive one your fears will be allayed. I have and I’ll get to whether it was right or wrong in this regard in a minute. In the meantime, back at Porsche, its senior engineers will glumly tell you that it is the way of the world and an inevitable corollary of belonging to a large automotive group. Indeed, and in private there are those at Porsche who are sizeably cheesed off that the company is being forced to bear what it considers to be far more than its fair share of the burden of reducing VW Group fleet emissions.

On the other hand you might also observe that when even the least powerful, 2.7-litre Porsche Boxster can’t manage better than a claimed and certainly optimistic 33.6mpg, it’s perhaps time the issue was addressed.

And yet some have still be able to raise two fingers to the legislators. All Lamborghinis, including the new Huracán, provide all their power breathing air at atmospheric pressure as, significantly, will Porsche’s next generation of 911 GT3s. Even Ferrari seems to be hedging its bets, saying that while its V8s will be turbocharged, its V12s will continue to be normally aspirated, aided and abetted by hybrid electrical power.

So what of that new Ferrari V8? Does it corrupt the design and pervert the performance of the cars made by the company with the greatest reputation for high performance engines the world has known? I shall review the new Ferrari California in the next issue of the magazine, but for now be advised that though the car is flawed, such issues as it has are not to be found in the engine bay.

Its new 3.9-litre V8 offers not only 552bhp, but a sharp sound, peak power at 7500rpm and throttle response you’d scarcely credit for such a motor. In the forthcoming 488GTB, a highly evolved version of this engine will offer 662bhp and an 8000rpm red-line, while offering better fuel consumption and lower emissions than the 458 it replaces with precisely 100bhp less.

And yet for me at least the jury is still out. The Ferrari engine is amazing, incredible even for a turbo unit, but you still have to offer that qualification. In a cruiser like the California it matters not a jot, but in a pure sports cars like the 488GTB it needs to do more still, a feat Ferrari acknowledges and says the engine achieves. But will it sound as good at 8000rpm as the 458 motor does at 9000rpm today? Will the period between the request for power and its arrival remain undetectable to the human brain? If so, Ferrari will have broken new ground with turbo technology.

I also wonder where this is all heading. This drive to lower corporate group emissions to avoid swinging penalties is all based on the way that CO2 and fuel consumption figures are calculated. And, in Europe at least, the way these figures are arrived at are so laughably irrelevant to the way any of us uses any car, let alone a Ferrari, that for them to be utterly useless would actually be a considerable improvement.

But if you really want to make a mockery of the system, add a plug-in hybrid to your powertrain. This allows, for instance, Porsche to tell you with a completely straight face that its 2-ton Panamera hybrid, with a 410bhp, 3-litre supercharged V6 really does produce around a third less CO2 than a 59bhp, 1-litre VW Up.

One day the world will wake up to this nonsense, devise a way of advising the consumer with at least reasonable accuracy how much fuel his or her car will likely use, and then the entire basis on which we decide which cars are actually least damaging to the environment and most affordable to run will be transformed. This may or may not then have dramatic ramifications for those who’ve bet the farm on turbo power.

Of course it’s hard ever to see a time when normally aspirated engines will play the numbers game as well as turbos because turbos will always offer more power for a given capacity, but will the tables always be so stacked in favour of the turbos for even the likes of Ferrari to be unable to ignore them? No-one knows, but for what very little it’s worth, I actually doubt it.


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