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Test drives: Favourite engines in action

The wheels gang selects its favourite engines from a four-pot all the way to a V12, and then beats the living daylights out of them down a twisting mountain pass.

  • Test Drives
    “We were all ordered to stick to the latest models, and pick our very favourite four, six, eight, 10, and 12-cImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • Test Drives
    Toyota 86 proves itself a David who can take the fight right up to the European Goliaths.Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • Test Drives
    Porsche’s 3.4-litre engine now breathes through a new flow-optimised air intake system, which draws its precioImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • Test Drives
    Ferrari 458 Italia gives you hope for the world. New emissions laws don’t mean that the supercar is a dying brImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • Test Drives
    Ferrari’s 90-degree V8 is easily our favourite on the market right now, for reasons that go way beyond its capImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • Test Drives
    “It’s a sensational machine that makes most supercars look like McDonald’s happy meal toys in comparison.” Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM

Brainstorming story ideas in wheels towers — or should we say 2x2 cubicle to be precise — often turns into a shouting match of who can think of a more ridiculous and completely unfeasible plan. I know, why don’t we go to Umm Al Quwain’s Motorplex and top out a Bugatti Veyron? Fine, do you know anyone who wouldn’t mind letting you loose in a Veyron? Er…

One time we planned to invite Mohammed Ben Sulayem to Jebel Hafeet for a Nissan GT-R showdown and a have go at his record, but for some reason he didn’t respond to any of our emails. Probably just his spam filter…

On another occasion Imran exclaimed how awesome it would be if he gathered together every generation of Pontiac’s Trans Am for a muscle car parade feature, but strangely all his car-enthusiast friends were doing something that weekend. And the next. And the one after…

Then Dejan came up with the brilliant pitch to hoon three superminis around Al Ain’s Raceway go-kart track, and that one had all the premises of actually going well had our photographer not left his camera back in Dubai. Once we wanted to race a boat to Abu Dhabi, but the only boat we could afford to rent was a rubber dinghy. Point being, not all great ideas are conceivable. But then Amit came up with this one: gather all our favourite engines in different configurations.

Dejan immediately exclaimed, “Mazda RX-7!” knowing full well it would be near impossible to source the rotary sportscar, and thus immediately winning the coveted ‘ridiculous and completely unfeasible’ argument award. Nobody could top that, until Sony professed that his favourite would simply have to be a two-stroke Saab twin-cylinder. Imran struggled and flexed his thinking muscle for a while, before deciding that his all-time dream engine is undoubtedly a Duesenberg straight eight.

Then editor Amit laid down the law, and we were all ordered to stick to the latest models, and pick our very favourite four, six, eight, 10, and 12-cylinder engines. It turned out to be a remarkably unanimous decision.

Sony will be representing the four-cylinder engine, choosing the new Toyota 86 sportscar, although really, we’re commending Subaru here. There could only ever be one manufacturer vouching for the six-pots, and that’s Porsche with the new 3.4-litre in the Boxster S left to Dejan, who also drew the lucky straw when it came to our eight-cylinder choice, the 4.5-litre V8 in the Ferrari Italia.

Imran likes them big, predictably, so bagged a 10-cylinder Audi R8, and Amit clutched the keys to the 12-cylinder Lamborghini Aventador firmly to his chest. The only thing left to do was beg our office manager for petrol money, and go wake up every inhabitant within a 20km radius of the sleepy mountain town of Huwaylat. The twisty road — precisely 10km long — carved into the Hajar mountain rock between the Sharjah-Kalba highway and Hatta would be our playground for the day, and since nobody died (only some roadside goats were left with permanent ear damage), we consider this feature a resounding success.

Toyota 86 – four cylinder

Evidently, I start off with a clear disadvantage here. With the top contender in the shootout armed with three times more cylinders than my lowly four-pot Toyota 86, it might seem a foregone conclusion that my Japanese ride will be shredded to smithereens seconds into the fight. Not only is the Toyota’s FA20 2.0-litre boxer four ‘cylindrically’ challenged, it’s also the least powerful of the lot managing just 200bhp and 205Nm. But fortunately, this is much more that a cruelly lopsided fight of horsepower and torque.

And when it comes to pure, unadulterated fun behind the wheel, the 86 proves itself a David who can take the fight right up to the European Goliaths. The free-spinning unit that peaks at 7,000rpm begs to be flogged and will make you work hard for your dollop of fun. To get the max out of the 86 calls for a lot of involvement from the person behind its beautifully weighted steering wheel.

Although the car willingly hangs its tail out at every corner, it takes more than just turning in and stomping on the pedal to sustain that drift for longer periods due to the lack of horses. Choosing the right gear, giving the right amount of input are all vital, and add to the pure old-school sportscar experience. On the open stretches of Maleha Road on the way to Huwaylat, the boxer proved that its meagre output is more than enough for the 1,180kg sportscar.

The linear power build-up and the progressively gruff note of the engine as the revs rise towards the red, do not betray any signs of deficiency compared to the better endowed competition. And once we got off the straight roads into the mountainous twisties, the 86, with its supremely well-balanced chassis and its extremely low centre of gravity, proved more manageable at the job than the rest save probably the new Porsche Boxster S.

In fact, even the Hatta mountain roads seemed too wide for the Toyota’s perfectly composed dynamics. High end torque is quite impressive, as I found out when the 86 despatched steep passes without a huff or a puff even in fourth gear. It’s not a match to the sinister styling of the Aventador, or the appealing lines of the R8. It might not have the emotional pull of a Ferrari Italia or the sophistication of the Boxster S, but the 86, with its four-cylinder boxer, gives infinitely more fun for your money than the rest.

Porsche Boxster S – Six cylinder

The choice was bewildering here. Audi’s recent supercharged 3.0-litre V6 just might stand above even BMW’s sublime straight-six turbo, but then how can we overlook Nissan GT-R’s evolving 3.8-litre V6, that generates more and more power thanks to precise blueprinting and ever-closer tolerances with seemingly every passing model year?

But there’s to be no crescendo here, no drumroll, and no surprises. You’ve seen the pictures, and you already know that in the end the Porsche Boxster S made the cut, with its 3.4-litre flat-six mounted in the middle. Why is this our favourite six-cylinder on the planet right now? Because it makes this car.

The Toyota 86 apparently has a lower centre of gravity than a Boxster, so boasts the press material, but you’d be lying if you said you could totally tell. You can’t: the Porsche is more composed, runs much flatter, reacts quicker, and pivots into a corner off a spot directly beneath the driver’s butt.

All along, the flat-six delivers an uninterrupted supply of horses up to almost 8,000rpm, every single one of the Stuttgart steeds entirely manageable. – 315bhp isn’t a whole lot to be honest, but in the Boxster S the loving relationship between engine and chassis combine for that rare ten-tenths driving experience, where the average enthusiast driver can extract every last drop of performance from his tool.

Porsche’s 3.4-litre engine now breathes through a new flow-optimised air intake system, which draws its precious oxygen from both flanks of the car instead of just one like before. The Boxster S additionally features a controllable resonance flap to free up more torque at lower revs, and engineers also worked hard to get a more resourceful combustion while still managing to keep stress loads and internal frictions lower.

This is a sportscar, and you can expect it to be fast, but forward thrust isn’t electric, especially after climbing out of an Italia or a Lambo. What sticks out is the flat-six’s eagerness to maintain pace high up in the rev band, using its elastic torque characteristics to get you out of botched corners, and instant response for mid-turn corrections. With the lively 3.4-litre flat-six in the Boxster S, remember, the steering wheel is just as effective as the throttle. Zuffenhausen’s engineers even managed to ensure we see a 10.0 litres-per-100km weekend average from this 315 horses roadster. Call them free range horses if you like.

Ferrari 458 Italia – Eight cylinder

When I first strapped myself into the Italia two years ago and headed for the hills, I was touched in places I didn’t know existed. There is a sort of lobe dangling somewhere behind the top of your jawbone, deep inside your ear. When you open the throttle of a Ferrari 4.5-litre V8 and brace yourself all the way to 9,000rpm, this little lobe starts gyrating furiously, feeding masochistically on the engine’s aural onslaught and giving the brain strict orders to expel immense amounts of dopamine. I’ve never felt that dangling lobe before, the one that clenches your jaw shut, glues your eye lids open, and electrifies your spine into a neurosurgeon-approved posture.

Or maybe it’s just the 458 getting to me again? On the one hand I’m convinced the flat-plane crank V8 sitting behind me in the Italia, counts on as much processing power as NASA’S Curiosity rover. On the other hand, the engine’s behaviour is so primeval, sadistic, and barbaric with its sounds, its smells, its furious attacking cavalry some 570 strong, that you find it hard to believe the black magic of electronics could possibly be involved. Specific displacement is 4499cc in this V8, which with its direct injection and compression ratio of 12.5:1, coupled to that free-spinning flat-plane crankshaft, develops 570bhp at 9,000rpm for 127bhp per litre.

The sound splitting the atmosphere out of those three exhaust pipes is loud, but you also know you’re hearing the engine itself; the punching cylinders and violent explosions, the rushing oxygen and workaholic valves. Ferrari’s 90-degree V8 is easily our favourite on the market right now, for reasons that go way beyond its captivating performance.

It’s our favourite because it makes you appreciate every second of life, every fraction of throttle pedal travel. As the manic needle keeps blurring up the tachometer, leaping between five and nine thousand revs, the Ferrari 458 Italia gives you hope for the world. New emissions laws don’t mean that the supercar is a dying breed. It just means that only the strongest will survive. Long live the 458.

Audi R8 5.2 – 10 cylinder

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m scared stiff of this R8 V10. Why? Because we have a little history, the Audi and I. Amit had the car for a review a while back and I was begging for the key. I got my way and took the beast out for a spin... And nearly saw the pearly gates. I almost suffered a cardiac arrest when I foolishly buried the throttle. The 5.2-litre 10 cylinder motor leapt into full, unadulterated fury, obliterating the 100kph mark before I had blinked twice. It left me a quivering wreck.

I used to think there was no better sound than a lazy American V8 but the soundtrack of this German beast gave my ears multiple you know whats. As pleasurable as that was, I was so taken aback by the brute force of the R8 that I promised I’d never sit in one again until I was mature enough to treat it with a little more respect. Probably when I was 50 and having a mid-life crisis. But, at the tender age of, err 33, I was again handed the key of this raging monster. It’s got the look of a psychotic killer.

That evil smirk is highlighted by piercing LEDs. That sideblade, extended sill and huge diffuser just add to the drama, as if it needed any more of that. I’d go as far as saying that it didn’t even need two extra cylinders and around 100bhp more than the original 4.2-litre V8. That one was crazy enough but this V10 is borderline insane. 0-100kph in 3.9seconds, 525bhp, 530Nm of torque and a redline set at a glorious 8,700rpm makes for one heck of a car.

It was so good that I insisted on driving it to the mountains and back. No way was this one for sharing. I didn’t even get out of the plush cabin, complete with a suede flat bottom steering, when nature called. Because when you have a R8 V10 for the day, nature takes a back seat. Which the Audi doesn’t have, but still. You sit low to the ground in here and this makes 100kph feel like 200kph. But I was never going to push this thing to its top speed of 317kph. I’d been bitten once by this thing before… The only thing I didn’t take a shine to was the R tronic six-speed gearbox.

Those cogs shift with a jerk and leave your head bobbing back and forth but that’s the only criticism I’ll accept of the R8. The rest of it, including the magnetic ride dampers (there’s not an iota of roll) ceramic brakes (it stops as hard as it goes) and the Quattro all-wheel drive (it’ll get you out of trouble all the time) is simply sublime. And that’s before you engage sport mode. Each gear change is denoted by a ferocious roar from the quad tips and that sound itself is reason why I’d take this V10 over any other out there. That includes the Gallardo, which has more juice in its motor and which it kindly donated, albeit detuned, to the R8. But, I don’t think my heart can take it…

Lamborghini Aventador – 12 cylinder

As I blitz the throttle past the first bend of the many on our test route in the Hajar mountains, the crushing 50-degree heat is permeating through the Aventador’s cabin, aggravating the sweaty palm syndrome usually associated with driving a big Lambo quickly. Unsurprisingly, the AC isn’t up to scratch, but the massive 6.5-litre V12 seems to be working just fine. As the revs rise, the engine note becomes louder exponentially, and as you near the 8,500rpm redline, you get a sense the gateway to the underworld has flung open unleashing a pack of blood-thirsty Cereberus which are now snapping at your heels.

This is how a supercar’s V12 should sound. However, amidst all this aural indulgence it’s easy to forget that by the time you’re out of second gear, you are already doing in excess of 120kph, and unless you don’t mind ending roof-first in a ravine, it’s not the brightest idea on roads where tyres start howling in protest and letting go at anything over 80kph. Of all the cars congregated here, the Aventador is decidedly the most intimidating to drive on this narrow mountain pass riddled with severe hairpins and sphincter-tightening blind corners.

Add to this the ISR gearbox that delivers a Chuck Norris-tribute kick to your lower spine in Corsa mode, and actually unsettles the back of the car, and you’ve got a pure white-knuckled terror machine in your hands.The Aventador develops 700bhp and hits 0-100kph in 2.9 seconds, easily making it the fastest and the most powerful car in this company.

I’ve driven the V8-engined 458 Italia; it’s magical and on these spaghetti roads, I’m convinced that it will match the Lambo move for move. However, there is something otherworldly and sinister about the Aventador; it’s a sensational machine that makes most supercars look like McDonald’s happy meal toys in comparison. Our favourite V12 car? Without a shadow of doubt.


Specs and ratings

Model:  Toyota 86

Engine:  2.0-litre flat-four

Transmission:  Six-speed manual, RWD

Max power:  200bhp @ 7,000rpm

Max torque:  205Nm @ 6,600rpm

Top speed:  220kph

0-100kph:  7.7sec

Price:  Dh95,000 (base)

Model:  Boxster S

Engine:  3.4-litre flat-six

Transmission:  Seven-speed PDK, RWD

Max power:  315bhp @ 6,700rpm

Max torque:  360Nm @ 4,500rpm

Top speed:  277kph

0-100kph:  4.8sec

Price:  Dh217,000 (base)

Model:  458 Italia

Engine:  4.5-litre V8

Transmission:  Seven-speed auto, RWD

Max power:  562bhp @ 9,000rpm

Max torque:  540Nm @ 6,000rpm

Top speed:  325kph

0-100kph:  3.4sec

Price:  Dh910K

Model:  R8 5.2

Engine:  5.2-litre V10

Transmission:  Six-speed auto, AWD

Max power:  525bhp @ 8,000rpm

Max torque:  530Nm @ 6,500rpm

Top speed:  313kph

0-100kph:  3.9sec

Price:  Dh579K

Model:  Aventador

Engine:  6.5-litre V12

Transmission:  Seven-speed auto, AWD

Max power:  700bhp @ 8,250rpm

Max torque:  680Nm @ 5,500rpm

Top speed:  350kph

0-100kph:  2.9sec

Price:  Dh1.6 million

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