The No Longer Necessary V-8

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

They say that 40 is the new 30. I dunno about that.

But the modern high-ouptut/high-efficiency V-6 is arguably the new V-8. And you can make a case that the modern four — with direct injection, variable valve timing and all the rest of it — is the new V-6.

I just got done test-driving a new 2011 Ford F-150 pick-up. Its standard engine was a 4.6 liter V-8 that made 248 hp. Its new standard engine is a 3.7 liter V-6 that produces 302 hp, 54 more hp than the V-8 it replaced.

It also delivers several MPGs more gas mileage.

The three revived muscle cars — Chevy’s Camaro, the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger — all now have standard six cylinders that are in the 300-plus hp range. That’s more hp than all but the highest-performance V-8 versions of those cars were putting down during their heyday in the late 1960s/early ’70s.

A startling example is the original (1967-’69) Camaro Z-28. Its engine was a 5 liter V-8, equipped with a very aggressive camshaft (so aggressive that GM only sold the car with a manual transmission and without air conditioning) and numerous other specialty/high-performance components. It made 290 hp. The car did 0-60 in about 6.7 seconds.

The 2011 base (note: not the Z28) Camaro’s engine is a 3.6 liter V-6 that produces 312 hp. It propels the car to 60 MPH in 6 seconds flat — as quick or even quicker than the ’67-’69 V-8 powered Z-28. And it is capable of 28 MPG on the highway — easily 10 MPG better than the original, V-8 powered Z-28 could achieve.

It’s a similar story with the Mustang and Challenger.

And it’s not just performance cars that perform with less than a V-8 under their hoods. Most current family sedans either come with or offer as options V-6s that are in the 250-270 hp range. This is more power than all but a small handful of V-8s made in the ’70s and ’80s.

As a case in point: The early-mid 1980s Corvette came equipped with a 5.7 liter V-8 that made 245 hp. At the time, it was about the most powerful car on the road, excepting exotics.

Today, the Toyota Camry — a car that’s as vanilla as vanilla gets — has a 268 hp 3.5 liter V-6 engine.

What does it mean to you?

It means that you don’t need eight cylinders to get V-8 performance. Or more accurately, the kind of performance that most of us associate with having a V-8.

In the current Camaro or Mustang, for instance, the standard car gets to 60 PDQ (six seconds is quicker than nearly all the V-8 versions of classic-era muscle cars with V-8s managed) and has a top speed that’s more than high enough to get you locked up for a year. The V-8s that are available in these models make even that performance look a little soft, of course. But the point is the standard V-6s are no longer what they were Back in the Day — that is, gimpy loose-toothed embarrassments. Back in the Day, if you wanted adequate, keep-up-with-traffic acceleration (let alone performance) you had to get the optional V-8. Today, you get performance — very good performance — with the “base” engine.

The optional V-8 just ups the ante from very good to incredibly good.

It’s the same story with current four-cylinder engines, many of which are now cresting 200 hp (as in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata) while also delivering 30 MPG or even better.

Before about five years ago 200 hp was not a four cylinder number; it was a six-cylinder number. As it was with the V-8 vs. V-6 paradigm, people knew (back then) that you pretty much had to upgrade to the optional engine, unless you could live with a terminal case of The Slows.

People, though, haven’t updated their hard drives. Many still reflexively think of four cylinder engines as underpowered and under-performing, which just ain’t so.

Not anymore, anyhow.

Here’s an interesting fact: The slowest new cars — like the Prius hybrid — need just over 11 seconds to get to 60 MPH. That’s the exception. Most new cars — even subcompact economy cars — get to 60 in less than 10 seconds. The average is around 8 seconds. That’s more than twice as quick as an old Beetle — and easily 4-5 seconds quicker than the typical econobox of the ’80s.

So, here’s the beef: Don’t assume you need to go big guns and buy the optionally available V-8 (or V-6). Take a test drive in the V-6 (or four cylinder) powered version of the car you’re thinking about buying.

You might be pleasantly surprised to discover what you don’t need anymore.


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