It all seemed set in stone. The naturally-aspirated engine in Europe was as dead as a squirrel on the Autobahn. Everywhere we looked manufacturers were announcing smaller, turbocharged engines with fewer cylinders and no little effort poured into making them sound like a forward step rather than an ignominious retreat.
We lost a whole load of great engines in a decade of downsizing. The fondly-remembered AMG 6.2; the Maserati 4.7 – which was like having your ears caressed by angels – and even the sharp, perky 1.6 from the second-generation Suzuki Swift Sport were all casualties of an era that prioritised lower CO2 emissions above all else.
The problem with that was the testing system. The NEDC was, like most automotive legislation dreamed up by the EU, initially a bit rubbish. It allowed – encouraged, even – manufacturers to manipulate their engines and gear ratios to score low emissions on the test regardless of real-world results. That’s why we saw such a big swing towards smaller, blown engines that could be driven according to NEDC spec while staying off-boost and finding all the little loopholes in the system.
To be fair to the rule-makers, they did eventually realise that they’d cocked it up. NEDC was replaced by WLTP in September 2018 and the switch made a drastic impact on those dinky turbocharged motors. Suddenly they were presented with a more real-world challenge and – shocked face – it turned out they weren’t actually all that good on fuel because they frequently need to work too hard. Now downsizing is dead.
As time is rumbling on, it’s becoming clear just how much those updated rules have shaken things up for the automotive establishment. From dire prophecies of doom for all fun naturally-aspirated engines, we’re suddenly in the 2020s and people are talking about all-new six-pots and long futures for high-revving 4.0-litre sports cars. It feels like we’ve been slapped across the face with a mouldy kipper but then served a mountain of jelly and ice cream.
Everything we thought was on the cards for engines this decade is now different. If things had carried on on the 2017 trajectory, by 2030 all interesting cars would have been reduced to four bland cylinders or less and the industry at large would have placed a mourning veil over the golden age of internal combustion performance.
The World Light Vehicle Harmonised Test Procedure was and is seen by most car makers as a bit of a kick to the shins. Their fleet average CO2 emissions rose as a result of more accurate testing and it’s much harder for them, now, to meet legally-binding emissions targets. On the other hand, it has clearly opened up new and exciting possibilities with some brands, largely because driver favourites like Porsche and Mazda are skilled and determined enough to develop large-capacity, driver-focused engines that still meet emissions laws.
Porsche has recently confirmed that its spellbinding 4.0-litre flat-six, currently serving in cars like the epic Cayman GT4, should last to at least 2026. There’s a good chance it could go beyond that with appropriate tweaks and no unexpected legislative hiccups. As for Mazda, cast your minds back to the leak last year where it emerged the company was planning lightly hybridised six-pot SkyActiv-X petrol and diesel engines. One of those has recently emerged in patents.
At the humbler end of things the VW Polo GTI gained 200cc because it could afford to. The car is better for it. The Ford Focus ST‘s engine has grown to 2.3 litres, the car having previously used a 2.0-litre lump. These are changes we probably never would have seen if the NEDC cycle hadn’t been taken out back and euthanised.
We know time is limited for us to enjoy new internal combustion-powered cars, especially when the UK Government says it wants to ban the lot of them - hybrids and all - by 2035. But the future, for now, is much brighter for petrolheads than it was.