The thought appeared during a twin-test between a Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30. An innocent comparison, which unexpectedly reminded me of how fun and enjoyable non-boosted engines can be.
The question dawned as I flicked between a high-tech, forced-induction Mercedes-AMG and old-school Americana at a racetrack. Both had their merits, but the Ford Mustang Mach 1’s powerband had a certain effervescence in that environment.
The answer came as I plonked myself behind the wheel of a 13-year-old Honda Civic Type R powered by the brand’s legendary ‘K20A’ engine. Here, clipping 8500rpm was a visceral, rewarding experience that’s just no longer found in mainstream automotive products.
Nearly all modern cars feature some form of forced induction, and it’s overwhelmingly turbocharging. Looking at the market in detail, there’s only a handful who offer products devoid of compressors.
A quick squiz sees Mazda, Hyundai, Honda and Kia maintain the formula mostly in select pedestrian-spec vehicles. Jeep does so in the more rugged field. Lexus is the overwhelming majority provider, but nearly all are efficiency-driven applications.
So many are irrelevant to someone seeking the genre’s more performance-aligned attributes.
It’s slim pickings – unless you have large cash reserves.
So what are we missing?
The sensation of earning an engine’s paper figures feels more rewarding when it’s naturally aspirated. They don’t feel regulated by anything other than your foot.
Engines that rely solely on atmospheric pressure create power, and more importantly torque, in a linear fashion. They naturally crescendo upward, winding up peak turning force at a point relatively high in its RPM spectrum.
That’s compared to something turbocharged, where an air pump pressurises an engine and forces its pistons to produce more torque much earlier.
There comes an even larger degree of separation, however, when your foot is in turn forcing the spooling turbocharger riddled by electronics that ultimately decides how much air to flow.
The keyword there is electronics. Mechanical, old-school turbocharged cars are different again. In other words, the laggy ones.
The ones that have their own niche and cult following. Cars like the ‘widow maker’ – code word for Porsche 930 turbo – come to mind. These were fierce engines, mechanically boosted, and almost experimental.
Even some of the later Japanese metal, which had nothing more than a basic on/off solenoid regulating vacuum to a mechanical wastegate, still retained enough of a mechanical link.
They too were riddled with foibles – from which our minds seem to extrapolate character from.
Modern turbocharged cars, however, have clever, purely electronic boost-pressure management systems and other forms of regulation that promote a sturdy, flat torque curve.
This invisible, digital barrier of 1s and 0s is what saps the soul I believe. It’s clever programming that feels clearly artificial.
On the flip side, digital turbocharging smarts has resulted in engines being cleaner than ever before. Careful monitoring systems are a lifeline for fast, internal combustion cars. It enables them to meet ever stricter environmental standards.
This must be acknowledged.
So what about supercharging?
Belt-driven blowers seek to maintain a naturally aspirated engine’s inherent qualities, while also solving the power-per-litre issue. They do suffer from parasitic loss, however, which has the tendency to rob an engine of its brightness.
Then there’s the issue of heat, which requires exotic metallurgy to solve – and that ain’t cheap.
However, maybe technology can resolve these concerns? Who knows?
Do you miss naturally aspirated engines? I do.
Give us your thoughts in the comments below.
Do you miss naturally aspirated engines?