Styling draws us to the cars that we dream of owning, but the majority of time spent by engineers is on the oily bits. With cars becoming ever more reliable, the occasion to look under the hood for the average car owner is rapidly becoming something that we’ll speak wistfully of to the generations that follow.
Still, looking under the hood can say a lot about the intent of the engineers, designers, and product planners who make different cars for different people. Let’s look at full size luxury sedans to get a sense of how an engine compartment can telegraph the intent of an automaker.
This is the engine compartment for the Lexus LS 460. It’s completely encapsulated, as if to tell you that yes, this vehicle is powered by an engine and not the undocumented workers that will cause you problems in your reelection campaign. There’s a dipstick and a brake reservoir cap, and that’s it. Of course, both of those things are monitored by computers, so I’m sure the car will let you know when it’s time to roll in to your service concierge. We can see from looking at the badge on the plastic cover of the engine that it’s a V8. This car is for someone who desires a lifetime of quiet, trouble-free service and has no interest in how that service is achieved, only that it is achieved in the end.
This is the twin turbocharged V8 engine from the BMW 750i. There’s more to see here, like the beautiful castings for the top of the shock towers, and molded plastic implies 8 intake runners and 8 cylinders. It’s a turbo because, well, it says it right on the plastic cover. The tubular steel braces here seem a bit crude for a $100K sedan, almost like a last minute patch to add rigidity to a frozen design. BMW makes great engines, technically innovative and with every modern feature extant, but they are not that great to look at. This is an engine for the brochure reading car fan, someone who knows specs but not the fundamentals of how an engine works. This engine says that it’s expensive and high tech (hey! my car is powered by a Predator head!) and very little else.
This is the 4.2L V8 engine from the Audi A8. You can tell it has 8 cylinders because you can see the intake runners on top of the engines, as well as the ignition coils on top of each cylinder. You can tell the car has direct injection from the enormous bulges that cover the fuel rails. This luxury sedan has an engine that would look at home under a glass cover, and it’s something that 99% of owners will never see. Even the hoses and fuel pressure regulators are thoughtfully routed and look like something you’d see in a jet fighter. Audi fans are unusually technically oriented, and the DIY community around these cars is amazing. This is an engine for someone who really wants to see an engine.
This is the twin turbocharged engine from a Mercedes S550. While there is a fair amount of cladding on top of the engine, you can tell from looking at it that it’s twin turbocharged by looking at the intake piping, particular the aluminum pipes leading from the intercoolers. The exposed heat sink for the ignition module on top of the engine is also a nice touch. Mercedes has a long history of making great engines and racing them, and you can see their pride here. This one is interesting- Mercedes S-Class owners do not care a whole lot about how their engines look, if the difficulty I had in securing a photo of the engine is any indication. This says to me that the engineers at Daimler-Benz, who also work on some of the most successful racing engines in the world, are simply proud of the work they do.
Clearly, I’m having a little fun here with my wild-assed speculation here, and I’m not trying to drive a direct relationship between the appearance of the engine and the quality of the engineering that went into a car’s design. However, looking at these engines does beg the question: if the design of an engine shows a lavish amount of attention and care, what does that say for the rest of the car?