GRR

Top Normally Aspirated Engines We Miss

18th July 2016
Ethan Jupp

A lot of nostalgia for the days of normal aspiration is met with staunch riposte about how modern turbo engines have better torque, economy and a more usable power band. This is entirely correct. Let the record show that we know they’re objectively better. Concessions made, let’s get on with the list. 

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Honda Civic Type R K20A Four-pot

Turbocharging hasn’t just engulfed the sports and supercar markets, you know. One of the great free-breathers of the past 20 years was the K20A of EP3 Honda Civic Type R fame. An expertly sorted chassis, magical driving position and gorgeous gear-shift coupled with an 8800RPM-revving 2.0 VTEC made for one of the most scintillating driving experiences south of an M3 or a Boxster. Naysayers will critique its difficult-to-exploit power band, but that’s part of the joy of these types of cars. Developing skills to get the most out of the machine. The FK2 does well to emulate the EP3’s performance-prepared tension, and for a turbo unit the new engine is exciting, but it lacks the K20’s ferocity and hunger for punishment. The K20 isn’t better, but we miss it. 

BMW M5 V10

We can count a long line of M5s with spectacular atmospheric engines all the way back to the ’80s. In 2005 the last of the N/A M5s arrived with a guttural howl. The 5.0-litre 500bhp V10 in the E60 is not the best performance engine. It demanded revs to get anything out of it, but therein lies the joy. That sound was absolutely magical, and what a gloriously ridiculous engine to bolt into a family hack! The 4.4 twin-turbo in the F10 that followed it just couldn’t fill those juvenile shoes. 

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Audi 4.2 V8

The seminal Audi 4.2-litre V8 died with the B8 RS4. It was terribly ineffective in most of its applications. The B8 was too heavy for the torque-lite lump to haul in a market populated by turbo M4s and C63s, and the R8 to which it was fitted not two years ago is now slower point to point than the fastest current TT. And the point is missed yet again. The yowl that thing used to emit made RS5s feel as exotic as the people who bought them thought they were. The twin-turbo V6 that is due to replace it will be so much better, objectively. We doubt it will titillate like the old V8. 

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Porsche Boxster/Cayman flat-six

It’s when you start chopping cylinders off and turbocharging that the ache for smooth symphonic old free-breathers really becomes apparent. The 3.4 litre six-pot in the old Boxster and Cayman wasn’t a hugely special power-plant, but it sang beautifully and in the slight and sorted 981 platform it was the perfectly balanced power-plant. The new flat-fours perform the role and don’t upset the balance, as per their tuning, but their gruff growl serves to wilt the semi-exotic vibe that the Cayman and Boxster have cultivated over the years. 

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Lexus LFA V10

No, the LFA has not been usurped by a turbocharged successor, but that doesn’t mean we don’t miss that V10… What an engine! F1 derived, it could go from idle to 9000rpm in just over half a second, thus necessitating a digital tachometer because analogue was too slow… This thing is representative of everything that is glorious about natural aspiration.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are objectively better NA engines we could cite, but we think our selection serves to demonstrate that the joy of these things is often not in their function. And as much as we miss NA, these new blown lumps are getting better. Lead the way, Aston DB11…

What do you think of our list? What would top yours? 

  • Honda

  • Porsche

  • Lexus

  • Audi

  • BMW

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