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Goodbye, V-8s, the Engines That Could

This time, probably for good. And now even V-6s are in trouble.

By 8.24.12

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V-8s are on the way out -- again.

The first mass extinction occurred circa late 1970s/early '80s, as a result of the first round of the government fuel economy edicts known by the acronym, CAFE -- or Corporate Average Fuel Economy. CAFE mandated that cars (but not trucks) achieve an average of at least 22.5 MPG or else the automakers who continued to build such wastrels would be hit with "gas guzzler" fines, which they in turn would pass on to the consumer. This made the formerly commonplace full-frame, rear-drive (and V-8 powered) family car economically impossible -- at least, given the technology of the late '70s era.

So, they -- mostly -- disappeared.

V-8s (and mass-market large cars) made a comeback in the '90s and through to the present day as technology -- especially fuel injection and overdrive transmissions -- made it possible to make the 22.5 MPG CAFE cut. Or at least, come close enough so that any "gas guzzler" fines were economically manageable. Even something as stunningly, obstreperously powerful as a 2012 Cadillac CTS-V -- packing a 6.2 liter, 556 hp V-8 -- can manage 19 MPG on the highway, thanks to the efficiency improvements of the past 20-something years.

But no technology in existence today -- or on the horizon -- will get the CTS-V or anything else with a V-8 under its hood close to the new CAFE mandatory minimum of 35.5 MPG, which goes into effect come 2016. That means -- in all likelihood -- that V-8 powered cars are about to go away again, this time probably for good.

In fact, the die-off is already happening.

The 2013 Jaguar XF -- which since its introduction in 2009 has always come with nothing less than a five liter V-8 -- will come standard with a 2.0 liter four next year. The optional engine will be a six of about 3 liters' displacement.

Lexus has dropped the V-8 as an available upgrade in the 2013 GS series sport sedan, which is now V-6 (and hybrid) powered only. Audi has retired the A8's 4.2 liter V-8, replacing it with a V-6.

Mercedes is going to introduce a new hybrid version of the E-Class for 2013. The V-8 version of the E will still be offered, but with a starting price of almost $60,000 it will not be a mass-market car.

V-8s are becoming engines for the rich-only. More on this in a minute.

Even sixes are in peril. BMW has shunted the formerly standard inline six in both the 3 and 5 Series, in favor of a new (twin-turbocharged) four.

It's a clear trend -- and the fact that we can see it developing on the luxury-performance end of the automotive spectrum is the proverbial canary in the coal mine as regards more modestly priced, large-engined cars such as the Chrysler 300 and -- probably -- much-anticipated but likely to be very short-lived models like the 2014 Chevy SS sedan.

If Jaguar, BMW, Audi, and Lexus can no longer afford to build V-8 cars (at least, in large numbers, as mass-market models), then it's a dead certainty GM and Ford and Chrysler won't be able to, either.

That includes trucks, incidentally.

The new CAFE standard -- 35.5 MPG, average -- doesn't apply just to passenger cars, as the original 22.5 MPG CAFE standard did. Everything short of commercial vehicles is now lumped together in the same category. There is no more "light truck loophole" -- the loophole that made it possible, back in the '90s, for the car companies to do an end-run around CAFE for passenger cars by putting big engines into bigger vehicles that could be categorized as light trucks -- and which they called SUVs.

Hence, Ford is discreetly -- but very clearly -- moving away from V-8s in its big trucks, such as the full-size F-series pickup. There's still one available -- for the moment. But the rest of the engine lineup -- the mass market engine lineup -- is all V-6. Ford calls these engines -- tellingly -- Ecoboost. They're smaller displacement engines with a turbo (or two) bolted on to provide on-demand power but the better fuel efficiency of a smaller engine the rest of the time.

Turbos -- and superchargers -- are seen as the only technically feasible way to match (or at least, come close to) the power/performance of V-8s while still making the CAFE cut.

Well, is all this actually bad?

That depends on your perspective.

From the perspective of the automakers, it's good. Because it gets Uncle off their backs -- at least, temporarily -- and increases their profit margin, since they simply pass on the costs of the more expensive powertrains (including maintenance costs) to customers.

From our perspective, as consumers, it's not such a good deal. We pay more up front -- and while that will be somewhat mitigated by reduced fuel consumption, those savings may -- and probably will be -- swept away by down-the-road maintenance and repair costs. Smaller, higher-stressed engines tend not to last as long as larger, less stressed engines. A force-fed (turbocharged or supercharged) engine is not likely to be a trouble-free 150,000 mile engine. Maybe these new-generation turbo'd and supercharged engines are built tougher -- and will last longer. Or at least, as long as a similarly powerful, but less stressed, V-8. We'll see. If they don't, look out. Replacing a turbo on a late model car is typically a $2,000-plus job. Many of these CAFE-engineered new cars have two of them.

That's that. Another thing is that the fuel economy gains are often not very impressive -- on an individual vehicle basis. For instance, the current Ford F-truck's available 5 liter V-8 rates 15 city, 21 highway. Not great. But the EcoBoost 3.5 liter V-6 (which makes about the same power as the V-8) comes in just slightly better, with a 16 city, 22 highway rating.

You'd think that extra 1-2 MPG would be irrelevant, but it's crucial…. CAFE-wise. Ford sells on the order of half a million F-trucks each year. If each one costs Ford (and thus, customers) even as little as $300 more in gas guzzler taxes per vehicle, when multiplied by half a million, that becomes real money, real quickly.

So, here's what to expect:

V-8s are going to get scarce. And I mean exotic-scarce. Last go'round, CAFE made it a lot harder for a working class person to own a V-8 powered new car. But if you were comfortably middle class, it was still feasible. There were Crown Vics and Town Cars.

Upper middle class, no problem. $50k would do the trick -- doable for a professional couple.

This time, V-8s will become the exclusive playthings of the very affluent only -- people who can afford to spend $70k-plus for a low-volume (and so, CAFE irrelevant) car. Jaguar, for example, will probably continue to offer a V-8 in the ultra-performance (and ultra-expensive) XF-R version of the XF luxury-sport sedan. Mercedes will still offer V-8s in the E and S Class… for those few who can handle the freight.

What there won't be anymore are cars like the currently available Chrysler 300 C Hemi and the bet-you-it-gets-canceled-soon Chevy SS; that is, cars -- and trucks -- for regular people and intended to be sold in volume.

Of course, Obama -- and the next Dear Leader -- will still get to drive around in cars powered by big V-8s that get far less than 35.5 MPG…with the gas bill paid by taxpayers.

And that's just the way they want it.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.