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Downsizing? Sure. Just not at Geneva 2016

Downsizing. That’s pretty much all we’ve heard about in the powertrain world for the best part of a decade. Well, it’s not - there’s direct injection, turbocharging, friction reduction, combustion optimization, NVH/performance trade-off, but you get what I mean.

And I’m all good with the D-word. Downsizing done right is pushing engine boundaries across the board. Just look  at how good those Ferrari (458 and 488 in particular, and yes both are technically downsized products) and McLaren (650S, specifically) supercars are; and then, at the other end of the spectrum, VW with the 1.4 TSI Twincharger and most recently 1.4 TSI ACT, and Ford with the 1.0 EcoBoost, and especially the latter in the racy Fiesta Red/Black series models. Downsizing is good, they said; downsizing needs to be embraced, they said; and downsizing is a way of life, they said, like it or not. And with that, we all accepted the new world order and got on with it.

So how peculiar then, when, at this year’s Geneva International Motor Show, a few things happened that went against the smaller capacity, fewer cylinders running order. It was BMW first out of the blocks. At the center of the Bavarian engineering powerhouse’s Geneva line-up was not some next-gen i concept, armed with a 1.5 triple and powerful e-motors. No. Instead there was the 760i – a flagship limo boasting a new super-smooth 12-cylinder powertrain. Yes, a 12-cylinder! Hmmm, I thought.

One of my first interviews at Geneva on press day 1 was with Ferrari CTO Michael Leiters. With the GTC4Lusso unveiled to a huge media crowd, he took me behind the scenes in his exec pop up room to discuss all things engine – and in particular the importance of the V12 to Ferrari.

While an all-new 12-cylinder is hugely unrealistic, said Leiters, making key step-changes to the current V12 is what it’s all about for his engineering team. “Everybody is talking about downsizing and 6.3 liters isn’t downsizing, but for us the V12 is so important it is something we want to maintain, so we have to work on it and further optimize it,” he said.

While Ferrari continues to support the iconic 12-cylinder – but won’t be getting an all-new design anytime soon – over at VW Group, board members agreed to a fresh W12 for Bentley four years ago. Making its debut at Geneva in the Bentayga SUV, Rolf Frech, Bentley’s engineering chief, said 99% of the 5,950cc engine is new. “In fact, the biggest similarity is the W12 design,” he joked. 

The new TSI motor produces 1,000Nm torque and 720ps, but it also has the best CO2 and emissions output performance in the world for a 12, says Bentley, thanks to things like ACT, APS and MPI/FSI injection. But does economy really count in the land of 12 cylinders?

Interestingly, during a chat with Wolfgang Demmelbauer, the VW spark ignition engine development head said that perhaps today, given the added environmental pressures car makers are under, a new W12 might not be signed off as easily as it was four years ago, but “we’ve done it now”, he added. “I’m not sure the 12 cylinder is coming to an end. For a long time we’ll continue to see customers that want to drive such an engine in certain applications. And we continue to work hard on this engine, to launch it in different cars, and meet future emissions regulations around the world.”

As I left VW and Bentley, I headed over to Aston Martin, which was having the motor show of a lifetime, unveiling the new DB11. While most media fussed around the luxury British car maker’s new design icon, right to the side of the car was its new heart: a 5.2 twin-turbo V12. Yes, another V12! 

For me, it’s really heartening that there’s still life left in such engines. I get that downsizing is important and that sustainable transportation is what it’s all about, long term, and I’m not saying three-cylinder runners and steady hybrids can’t enthuse the masses, but the day the 12-cylinder bows out once and for all will be a sad day indeed. Luckily, judging by Geneva 2016, that day remains some way off.

 

16 June 2016

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