Most car companies have been following the same strategy with engines: downsize and turbocharge. What used to be a V8 is now a turbo V6, what used to be a V6 is now a turbo-four… the idea is that these engines can get a better power-to-economy ratio, but in reality, I’m not convinced that really works. And there’s no way to replace the smoothness of a large engine. A staunch hold-out, however, has been Lexus. Lexus?
Different multi-cylinder engines generally have more personality, different power delivery, different sensations that keep things interesting, at the alleged expense of fuel economy. Though real-world figures prove that this hypothesis is dubious at best, with many last-generation N/A engines showing better real-world economy than modern turbo stuff. But the more concerning trend for me as an enthusiast is sameness. When every car runs a 2.0-liter turbo-four, we lose some personality and intangibles that we love about cars. Scientifically speaking, boost also can cover up a lot of engine design deficiencies that you have to work for with an N/A engine, and that work is what translates into a unique feel to every engine.
I’ll give you this, reader, from the get-go: the IS 200t is a 2.0-liter turbo-four that replaced a sweetheart 2.5-liter V6. Point one against Lexus. The IS 350 is still an old-fashioned naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 that is one of the best in the business; smooth and powerful while avoiding classic V6 ugliness. Point one for Lexus. Oh, and it still makes an excellent compact sport sedan, arguably the best in class. But that’s small fish. At least, compared to the leviathan Lexus/Yamaha 5.0-liter naturally aspirated V8 and the cars that it powers.
It’s the last true holdout of an era that we lived in for most of our motoring lives and left us as quickly as an echo. That V8 is one of the all-time greats, one of few things in our automotive epoch that isn’t necessarily objectively better than the competition but is just good on its own. Even better when you realize that the engine only lives in cars that feel classical, cars that have refused lifted suspension and plastic cladding, cars that are supposed to be dying: a couple of rear-wheel-drive sport sedans, a coupe, and one of the last and best personal luxury coupes. Cars that are dying because they’re less efficient and pollute more, which would be big concerns to Lexus as a mass-market brand, but the math isn’t so simple.
Nope, there’s no RX-F or RX 500, LX-F or GX-F yet. Core rivals have long since caved; every BMW X SUV save for the X7 has an M model, Benzes have stuff like the GLE 63, Audi has the RS Q3. The purist in me rallies against super SUVs as wasteful and ultimately lost endeavors for people who don’t know what they want. To the rest of us in the United States, it proves a stronger status symbol than any sedan and certainly has enough prestige for anybody to get the expeditious fuck out of the way. Lexus holds firm with three current F models and one planned 5.0-liter powered car: GS-F, RC-F, LC 500, and the future IS 500. No SUVs here. It feels refreshingly early aughts, and while I wouldn’t normally call a heavyish V8 sedan “pure” it certainly has more purity of purpose than a super-SUV.
The facts stand as this: Lexus is the last brand to have a naturally aspirated V8 luxury sport sedan, one of the last with an N/A V8 sport coupe, certainly the last brand with two V8 coupes, and the only brand preparing to release another V8 sedan. Lexus! Not to mention that the LC 500 is one of the most striking and gorgeous coupes ever made.
Alas, my surprise is limited. For anybody who took the time to understand the goals of Lexus as a brand and studied its origins in the ’80s, Ichiro Suzuki sought to build the world’s greatest luxury sedan with the 1989 LS 400. His mandate was simple and became the slogan of the brand: “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” He imbued the LS 400 with permanence and style, groundbreaking engineering and production methods, all while following an old-fashioned formula. A three-box 4.0-liter V8 luxury sedan ultimately broke the car world and birthed Lexus, and a 5.0-liter V8 luxury sedan may just cement Lexus as the last brand to get it, understand the intangible qualities of something classic, something proven.
The last naturally aspirated performance cars at any level are still around ten years old and that’s not an egregiously long time, but it feels worlds away. 2013 was the last N/A BMW M car, Honda turbocharged the Civic Si in 2016, AMGs went turbo V8 in 2015 (though we didn’t lose much in the sound department there) and will soon go turbo four-cylinder, and Porsche killed the N/A 911 Carrera in 2016.
The non-turbo luxury performance car holdouts? Uh, the nearly unobtanium Porsche 911 GT3, the more approachable but still-expensive Porsche 718 4.0, and some Lexus products. We genuinely live in the strangest timeline, where the Lexus IS drives and looks better than a BMW 3-series and we’re facing a future where new cars are becoming samey where Lexus is leaning into its core personality alongside Porsche. We do raise a torch to the Mustang and Camaro for having big ol’ V8s, but not they’re quite the same sort of smooth, suave luxury experience that I’m talking about.
OK, I’ll stop waving my fist and put my cane down now. Point is, an era has ended and those last few holdouts are exceptions to the new rule. Exceptions that will leave as quickly as water in cupped hands.
Big power and turbo shove is fun and all, but nothing beats the throb, resonance, and music of unmuffled valves opening and closing. We’ll always remember the tonal quality of a McLaren F1, a high-revving Honda, or a lumpy V8. For the modern turbo stuff, it remains forgettable. We hear more engine management, pulling timing, pseudo anti-lag (think F80 M3 with an exhaust), than actual tonal shifts from an engine. Keep the atmospheric engines alive as long as possible. Keep fighting the good fight.
I’ll give a pass for turbo induction sound, though. That’s good shit.