For whatever reason, engines sound really, really good. We’re not experts in psychoacoustics (in case that first sentence didn’t give that away already), but the sound of fuel being burned in a cylinder, the sound of the delicate and precise ballet of mechanical parts, the sound of exhaust gas flowing through a pipe… it speaks to us. And you too, we’re willing to bet.
Unfortunately, that wonderfully mellifluous and sonorous sound is, at its core, the sound of inefficiency. If engines were 100 per cent efficient, they’d make no noise and generate no heat. This is, as far as we can tell, a physical impossibility, so engine noise is safe for now. Y’know, until electric cars take over.
So the inefficiency remains. But car makers have emissions regulations to comply with, tax bands to duck under and fuel efficiency targets to hit, even under new, more rigorous testing. So what happens? You guessed it – engine management programs as stingy with petrol as a broke teenager giving his equally broke friends a lift. High-efficiency turbochargers that, by their very nature, muffle exhaust and intake noise. Smaller-capacity engines and smaller cylinder counts. Obviously not saying that small engines or cylinder counts necessarily mean bad sound – just ask anyone who drives a Lancia Fulvia or, y’know, rides a motorbike.
But in the case of so many cars, the tempest of sound – be it a furious snarl, a burbling basso profondo or anywhere in between – is being replaced by a monotone buzz. So what are carmakers to do, caught between the hardest of places and the least forgiving of rocks? Well, apparently, give up and rely on artifice instead. You’ve likely heard of BMW’s descent into digital simulacra, but the rot has spread much further than executive rockets. The Peugeot 308 GTI is actually a fabulous hot hatch – right up until you turn sport mode on, and it winds up for its fake climax.