Is it really the end of the road for big engines?

We live in interesting times. The latest range of high-performance petrol engines are the best there has ever been – new technical developments have unleashed the piston-engine’s true potential, so much so that 500 bhp saloon cars are now commonplace, where it used to be the exclusive preserve of the supercar.

The new Jaguar XJ for example is a fantastic car; it is bristling with innovative technology and superb engineering. The engines are nothing short of remarkable, more power yet better economy, a very neat achievement.

But this car is also a turning point in the history of the marque. You see, I am fairly certain that this will be the last big piston engine Jaguar will ever build.

Let me explain why.

The development timeline

The current 5-litre V8 petrol engine was the last project I worked on as an engineer for Jaguar. Naturally I am very attached to it, having seen it grow up from its early faltering steps on the test dyno, to its coming of age as it entered production. And it is a spectacularly good engine, exceeding its design targets with ease, even though as with any modern engine, it took a huge amount of work to get it there. To quote someone much bigger than me; “..It’s been emotional”.

With it now happily in volume production, you would be forgiven for thinking that work should have begun on its successor, but despite a very long history of ever more impressive petrol engines at Jaguar, there will never be such a successor. No my friends, I think this is it. The most powerful production petrol engine Jaguar will ever make.

Of course there will be upgrades over the years, it may well win races as a competition engine, deliver even higher outputs than the current 503 bhp supercharged version, but that basic engine will not be replaced.

And it’s not just Jaguar either, far from it. Large, multi-cylinder combustion engines of all permutations grace some of the most exciting cars this year, but they too mark the swansong for the breed.

In the USA, where big V8s have ruled the market for decades, customer demand began shifting towards smaller and more fuel efficient cars. Then the recession hit, and some of these stalwarts fell on their knees, only kept alive with emergency CPR from the US government.

As part of this automotive rescue package the US car makers must achieve fuel economy and CO2 emission targets unheard of in the country that brought us Motown. It’s highly unlikely that the US government would sanction development of another new V8 engine, far less the cars they would be power.

So we’re probably looking at the end of the American V8 too.

Ford in the US are spending big bucks to stem the migration of their customers to Japanese brands and respond to the increasing appetite for small frugal cars in the land of pick-up truck. Click to view their latest ads on SkiddPlayer.

Now for the first time since the Model-T we see European cars such as the Ford Fiesta becoming serious propositions for the American buyer. Ford in the US have pushed big advertising budgets behind one of the smallest cars in their global portfolio, directly targeting those Japanese compacts that have stolen the hearts and minds of ‘their’ customers.

These are certainly changing times.

But what about supercars?

Ferrari has just launched their fastest road car ever, with a fantastic engine using the latest direct injection technology. They have an enviable track-record of designing some of the most fantastic V-engines in the world, but even they are not immune to the steady increase of tightening emission standards – the challenges we face in terms of diminishing resources and the environmental impact of fuel-hungry economies are global and ever car maker is affected.

Ferrari have 'reluctantly' joined the emissions race with their 599 HY-KERS, but we're more likely to see smaller engined and lighter cars before the Italian marque gives up on the piston-engine.

Ferrari showcased their 599 HY-KERS at this year’s Geneva Autoshow and whilst it shows their commitment to the development of new engine solutions, they are clearly reluctant to forego such an important ingredient in the character of their cars.

Amadeo Felisa, General Manager of Ferrari SpA, said recently “Our customers are looking for the essence of Ferrari – the emotion, the performance, the technology and so on. The way in which we fix emissions is not their problem but ours. If we are not able to fix it, only then will it become a problem for them.”

He then went on to say, “[Hybrids will come in] 2015, if we are forced to by the [government] regulations. The issue of emissions for Ferrari is more a political one than real one. Lowering emissions of every Ferrari will not save the planet, but it will cost us a lot of money… In the next five to 10 years, hybrid technology will develop and maybe something else will come up. Maybe it’ll be hydrogen, but for our cars only hybrid is ready.”

If Porsche's 911 GT3 R Hybrid were the future of motoring, then I don't suppose that any of us would mind.

So what happens next?

It usually takes at least seven years to bring a new engine from concept through to full scale production – durability testing in extreme environments, running cars for hundreds of thousands of miles, fine tuning any glitches, and building and testing production tooling, the list goes on. In short, it’s a substantial and costly task.

The latest Jaguar V8 started life on a piece of paper in 2001, it recognised that we demand more performance, but also that emissions regulations and CO2 targets would be tougher too. Since then the world has concluded that it’s socially irresponsible to produce unnecessary green-house gases (unless of course from aeroplanes), and so zero emissions has become the moral badge of honour paraded by the likes of Honda, Toyota and Nissan in their recent products.

The world has changed, and so the plans for the next decade have shifted towards zero carbon emissions, rather than just a little less.

Honda and Nissan still have a lot of work to do before they can appeal to the enthusiast driver.

For decades major car makers have had vague plans for electric cars in ‘the future’. Prototype and experimental cars have been displayed at motor shows, but the plan to put them into production always got pushed back. Until now.

After the huge social and economic challenges of the last couple of years, all those ‘future’ plans have been brought forwards with astonishing pace, the first step will be hybrids as the infrastructure and familiarity builds, then once customers are used to the idea we’ll see more full electric-powered vehicles. And this will probably happen over the next ten years, so there is absolutely no point in anyone designing a new big piston engine.

According to Nissan President and CEO Carlos Ghosn, when the Nissan LEAF goes on sale later this year – which will be the first of eight all-electric models to launch – the company will be able to mass-market up to 500,000 zero emission vehicles.

In fact Nissan has already received 13,000 orders in the U.S. and Japan for its new electric car, the LEAF, exceeding current production capacity.

Is there any good news in all of this?

But that doesn’t mean the end of performance cars; on the contrary, as electric drive technology finally gets some proper funding the performance will match, and then exceed that of even the most powerful petrol cars.

Imagine having a 1000 bhp hub motor on each wheel, ultimate control over traction and stability, but with the power of four Bugatti Veyrons…

You see there is one thing that always drives engineering forward, and that is human desire. As car enthusiasts our basic desire is for obscenely powerful cars, no matter how that is achieved. Make no mistake, the future is still bright.

The Tesla Roadster is a genuinely entertaining car to drive, despite its lack of aural appeal its torque is instantaneous and highly addictive.

If we look back into history we can see people lamenting the end of steam power, but very soon after the big corporations started putting real resources into diesel-electric engines and the technology soon matched and then exceeded the efficiency of even the finest steam engines.

Much the same thing is happening now with electric powered vehicles, and we can expect to see parallels between the modern piston engine and those steam powered engines of old. There will probably always be piston engine enthusiasts, just as there remain steam enthusiasts today. There may well be a few niche companies still making one off piston engines in the far future, and crowds will gather as these relics of a bygone age are fired up – there is nothing quite like the growl of a V8 or the howl of a V12 at full chat to stir the soul.

In fact engine sound is a very emotive thing, it changes the way we feel, alters our mood and affects our decisions.

It’s such a powerful factor in our driving enjoyment that engineering companies such as Lotus are developing and synthesising the most appealing sounds and integrating them as a part of new car designs. It might sound like cheating, a bit artificial even, but it works, and it’s likely to become an important option on the spec lists of future electric cars.

Time to sing one last beautiful song

Going back to the latest 5-litre Jags, if you can afford it then buy one whilst you still can – seriously. Not only because it’s such a good car, but because it is the triumphant finale of more than a century of development of the good old piston engine. The next ten years will see further improvements in these engines, special editions, race versions and hybrids in a superb closing chapter, like the final piece of the most rousing orchestra. It has all built up to this moment and we, the audience, should be on our feet cheering.

Jaguar's 5-litre V8 engined models are the last of their kind, so make sure you enjoy them whilst you still can.

It’s a rare moment in time, a turning point, something that will be written about in the history books. So however you choose to receive the advance of these new electric-powered vehicles, make sure you enjoy the heck out of the current V8, V10 and V12 combustion engines – they’re not long for this world, so let’s give them a thoroughly LOUD send-off.