The Porsche Predicament

 

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Porsche has recently confirmed with Top Gear that in the not-so-distant future, every 911 model, except the GT3 variants, will have turbocharged engines. This decision to put forced-induction engines in their cars is keeping in line with the automotive industry as a whole. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, strict European emissions regulations, and other government policies have all forced automotive manufacturers to look for new ways to squeeze as much efficiency as possible without sacrificing power from their engines. Turbocharging technology has come a long way in the recent past, to the point where it seems to be working the best in the pursuit of simultaneous power and efficiency. This means auto manufacturers can put smaller displacement engines without sacrificing power from the old larger displacement engines. However, as an automotive enthusiast that puts driving pleasure over other metrics, this move away from naturally aspirated engines has me shedding a metaphorical tear.

Now Porsche has a history of turbocharged cars, so in their case it is not totally out of character for them. However, the people who like Porsches, love them. Normally this would be a great thing, but for Porsche this has created a bit of an issue.  Whenever the 911 model undergoes a major technological advancement (i.e going from air cooled to water cooled engines), all the Porsche fanatics go up in arms and protest the fact that the 911 will never be the same again. Yet, that is precisely the point. In order for the 911 to continue to be competitive in its respective market, Porsche has to update it and make it better.  Why would you want the old one when the new one is going to be better in every measureable way?

This same argument can be made for the industry trend of putting turbocharged engines in more and more cars. In every measureable way, the smaller turbocharged engines that have replaced the old naturally aspirated engines are better. They achieve better fuel economy numbers off boost by having a smaller combustion chamber, yet they can produce impressive horsepower and torque numbers when the boost comes on. The technology has come so far that even turbo lag has virtually been eliminated from many of these engines. So why is it that I dislike this trend when the positives of turbocharging heavily outweigh the negatives? It’s the same reason Porsche fans like the older cars; it’s because of the stuff you feel, not measure.

The sensation of driving a car with a high, revving naturally aspirated engine spiritedly on your favourite mountain road is like no other. The sound of the engine as it climbs through the revs is completely different from a naturally aspirated one than a turbocharged one. Turbochargers usually muffle the sound quite a bit, however Mercedes-Benz has demonstrated with their new 4.0L twin turbo V8 that a great sound can still be engineered into the exhaust note of a turbocharged engine. Still, take one listen to a car with a great naturally aspirated engine, say the new Porsche 911 GT3 or the Lamborghini Aventador, and there is no doubt that they have a magical sound to them. Another reason I am not too keen on this turbocharging trend is the affect they have on throttle response.  Although most modern turbocharging systems have virtually eliminated turbo lag, they haven’t got rid of it entirely. There is always some hesitation, no matter how small, between what your foot does and what the engine does. This does not happen with a naturally aspirated engine because the engine does immediately what the throttle pedal tells it to do.

Like the Porsche fans who insist that the older 911s are the best ones, I am convinced that naturally aspirated engines still have a place in this world. They use more fuel, make less power per litre, and produce more emissions, yet they have convinced me that they deserve to stick around and not totally disappear. Call me old fashioned, but I think a good naturally aspirated engine is magical. I guess Porsche agrees with me, because they are going to continue putting one of the best engines they make in one of the best cars they make.  The 911 GT3 will continue to be the old school brute that we all love. One last thought to ponder though: If the 911 range is all going to be turbo, what are they going to call their “turbo” model?

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