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A Case for Naturally Aspirated Engines

It appears that we are nearing the end of good old-fashioned naturally aspirated engines. Small-displacement engines equipped with turbochargers are becoming the norm in regular cars in order to boost fuel economy without sacrificing too much power and torque. Hybrids and EVs are growing in prominence and dropping in price. Performance cars are using forced induction to continue raising the bar and staying competitive.

There are a lot of reasons why this can be considered a good thing, but there’s a group of purists out there who are clinging to naturally aspirated engines. I don’t consider myself part of this camp, but it’s a sentiment that I sympathize with and understand.

I’ve owned a couple of turbocharged performance cars, and I love what the turbo does for performance. It’s fun to hear the turbo spool up and enjoy the extra boost that it gives the engine as it finally gives off that satisfying blow-off valve noise once its work is complete. However, while forced induction is great, it’s less great when it threatens the tried-and-true naturally aspirated engine that’s slowly becoming a thing of the past.

I bring up this topic because Porsche’s head of GT motorsport and GT road cars, Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser, recently said in an interview that he wants to keep naturally aspirated Porsche road cars around for as long as possible, while denying the rumor that the next-gen 911 would only be available with turbocharged engines. “A normally aspirated engine still fits a sports car,” Walliser told Australian car media outlet Drive. “You cannot achieve the same with a turbocharged engine.”

Porsche isn’t the only brand hanging onto its traditional naturally-aspirated engines. Look at the American muscle car trio — the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger. All three cars come with old-fashioned V8s under the hood in the GT, SS and R/T trims — the way the automotive gods intended. I don’t know about you, but I sleep better at night knowing you can still get any of these cars with a naturally-aspirated V8 and a stick.

I don’t think there are a lot of people left, myself included, who believe that forced induction is “cheating” — and it’s hard to argue against the idea that its traditional drawbacks like turbo lag have been engineered out of existence. But there’s still a charm that comes with normally aspirated engines that no amount of boost can replace. There are inimitable characteristics of a Chevy V8 and a Porsche flat-six that purists are happy to sacrifice a little extra performance to have.

For my money, the Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang is cooler than the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. Part of the reason is the sweet, sweet sound of that flat-plane-crank, naturally aspirated 5.2-liter Voodoo V8 engine uninterrupted by a supercharger. Sure, the Hellcat has a bunch more horsepower, it would win in a drag race and the Hellcat V8 is a tremendous engine … but the engine in the Shelby is just plain cooler.

If you want the fastest car possible, by all means, get one with forced induction. But if you want an engine with a little less power and a little more heart and soul, maybe stick with a naturally aspirated mill.

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  1. Instead of nostalgia and remembering “the good old days” how about real data. Naturally aspirated engines are more responsive to throttle, and are easier to get into high rpms and I can’t lie, hearing valvetrain noise is super cool 🙂

  2. For my money there are two factors about NA engines I still like better:

    1. Throttle response
    2. Engine internals are less stressed (in theory). I’m very curious to see how well all these small displacement turbos age. 
    These are mostly performance car wants and needs. For basic transportation, small turbo engines make all the sense in the world (unless they prove unreliable). 
  3. I blame the countries that calculate annual road taxes based on engine displacement rather than fuel economy (China is a big culprit). They’re the ones essentially forcing automakers to squeeze more power out of low displacement engines without actually achieving better fuel economy (looking at you, Ford EcoBoost!)

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Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt is an author specializing in Oversteer content, new car reviews, and finding the best car, truck, and SUV deals each month. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Eric can often be found exploring the north woods on his 1983 Honda Gold Wing when the weather allows it. Father of four, husband of one, and unapologetic minivan enthusiast. Eric mastered driving stick by having a 3-cylinder Chevy... Read More about Eric Brandt

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