Spannerhead Dot

On the Return of Iconic Engine Layouts

September 7, 2012 by Matt

Audi TT RS Engine Motor 07K.3 CEPA

So yeah, it’s sideways. So what? At least there’s a brutally turbocharged 5-cylinder back under the hood of an Audi (the TT RS), where it belongs.

I give Audi a lot of credit for recognizing and acknowledging their engineering legacy, and I’d like to think that it was an intentional engineering decision; in other words, that it was more than just a happy coincidence that 5 cylinders ended up working better than 4 or 6, and Audi decided to capitalize on that fact from a marketing standpoint. Whatever the case, it’s wonderful to hear the distinctive rasp of the 5-cylinder firing order again. With the configuration’s reintroduction, the German automaker establishes a real, tangible connection with their legacy—it’s more than lip service paid to some abstract tuning philosophy; the engine layout that powered their all-conquering Group B rally cars is under the hood of a current offering, in honest-to-goodness cast iron and aluminum. It counts for a lot to be able to touch, hear and experience an automaker’s history in real time.

How incredible would it be if other automakers followed Audi’s lead in fitting a car or two with an engine configuration inspired by their manufacturers’ greatest hits? BMW could roll out a “reimagined” update of their classic “big block” (M30, M88, S38) six. Nissan and Toyota could reintroduce fresh takes on their legendary twin-turbo straight sixes (JZ, L, RB, etc). Volvo could develop a modern version of their vaunted Redblock turbo 4 from the 200- and 700/900-series. Porsche could fit at least a few of their myriad flavors of 911 with an actual air-cooled flat-6, an engine that left with the much-missed 993 generation. And finally, Mazda, whose signature engine, the rotary, has most recently been given the axe, could breathe new life into their stalled 16X program.

The sad fact is, though, that in our current regulatory climate, it’s doubtful the reintroduction of any of those configurations would be possible. Ballooning front crumple zones (as well as the marketing allure of the almighty V8) killed the big straight 6, and emissions and efficiency considerations spelled the end for the air-cooled mill and the rotary. Furthermore, part of the character of those classic powerplants is wrapped up in their lo-fi technology, like single overhead cams and distributor ignition systems. With the understanding that those certainly won’t be returning, how far would a prospective “throwback” engine have to go to maintain a connection with its inspiration? In Audi’s case, the recipe was simple—5 cylinders, between 2 and 2.5 liters of displacement, and a turbocharger—but it’s not as cut-and-dried with other automakers. It is fun to think about, say, a lighter, simpler post-F10 BMW M5 with a big, free-revving naturally-aspirated straight six under the hood, but with modern materials and styling. One can dream.

Filed under: Audi, Technical

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