Joana Fidalgo – JLR’s architecture lead for powertrain strategy at the time of writing – discusses the differing views of what makes a car the best. All opinions expressed here are Joana’s and not that of JLR.
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my partner about the current state of the automotive industry when he made a bold statement: in his opinion, all the best cars have already been built. I shook my head at his revelation. To concede that he could be right would be to undermine the purpose of my whole career. As engineers, we strive to improve – our work is evolutionary, bettering at every iteration.
His statement played on my mind though, and it wasn’t until I decided to put my professional ego aside that I could truly understand, and even partly agree, with the sentiment. From an engineering point of view there is absolutely no question that cars today are peak technology. Year on year we are launching cars that are safer, smarter and with more efficient powertrains than ever. However, I must wonder if our diligence is also our downfall.
The problem is that my partner’s definition of ‘best car’ does not depend on any of those attributes. It can’t be measured under any of our engineering targets. His ‘best cars’ are the ones we had plastered on our bedroom walls growing up. The ones whose rumbling engine noise was forever imprinted on our brains after we attended our first motorsport event as kids. The ones that made us want to work with cars in the first place. And the ones we can’t build anymore because, as exciting as they were, they were also flawed and would not comply with today’s complex regulatory demands.
It is easy to blame electric powertrains for causing the demise of the real petrol-head car. However, I think this journey started long before. That’s not to say that any of us have not done our job, because we have gone above and beyond. This is rather a reflection of the industry landscape we’re in now. As emissions legislation tightens, we are forced to add ever more expensive technology to our internal combustion engines. Meanwhile, cost targets are as inflexible as ever as we divert our future investment into supporting the oncoming electric revolution.
In the right measure, design constraints are a beautiful way of fostering ingenuity and bringing out the very best problem solvers in us all. This is part of what made the 1990s and early 2000s such a special era for ‘best cars’. We were not only graced with some truly iconic supercars like the Lamborghini Diablo and the McLaren F1, but also saw some really interesting engines come to life. I can recall the first production five-valve engines, used in Mitsubishi’s kei cars and most famously in the Ferrari F355; we had Toyota’s JZ engine family, the rise to fame of VTEC with the C30A engine in the Honda NSX and the F20C in the Honda S2000, the last big hurrah for Mezger’s race-derived creations and, in my opinion, one of the best-sounding engines ever to grace us from Munich – the S54 in the E46 BMW M3, which is what powers my daily commute today.
But now, as the regulatory walls close in, there is only so much we can do. Engines have become so meek that we have had to artificially re-engineer sound into our cars. And exhaust burbles are so precisely calibrated that you know how many pops you will get before you even lift the throttle. The majority of current cars are a caricature of our bedroom poster heroes.
Once again, this is not our fault. We are doing what was asked of us by our legislators, and making sure these engines are the most efficient they could possibly be. The environmental threat is a big and real one and we all want to be on the right side of history. But as we approach what most OEMs have already announced as their last IC lifecycle, I can’t help thinking how sad it is that the mass-production ICE swan song has been sung.