The rumble and roar of big-displacement V8 engines has excited generations of young men and women, as well as serving as the battle cry against an endless imported invasion of “sport compact” cars. But while many see the recently-revealed 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat as a triumph of ‘Merican engineering, I see it as the last gasp of the dying V8 muscle car market, a last chance to bid a fond farewell to the American V8 engine.
Just like alligators survived the die-off of dinosaurs, big, loud, and powerful V8 engines won’t disappear for good, at least not soon. But the number of V8-powered cars has been dwindling for years, and even trucks are downsizing their engine options with an eye towards fuel economy.
The two latest examples of discontinued V8 engines is the 6.2 liter V8 found in the Ford F-150 and SVT Raptor, and the Chrysler 300 SRT8, which uses a 6.2 liter HEMI V8. The news that the Ford V8 has been canned means that America’s best-selling vehicle will only have a single V8 engine option, but three V6 drivetrains including a 2.7 liter EcoBoost with V8-like torque. The 5.0 V8 will be the biggest engine offered in the F-150, fueling rumors that the next SVT Raptor will be powered by a smaller EcoBoost engine, rather than a V8.
Meanwhile in Chrysler’s corner, sales of its SRT performance vehicles seem to be bottoming out. For the second time this year, production of the Viper (now branded as a Dodge) has been idled following abysmal sales. The once-popular Chrysler 300 SRT8 has also seen its sales slow to a crawl, with an average of just 75 units being sold each month this year, compared with the over 4,000 luxury sedans Chrysler is used to moving. Only the Jeep Grand Cherokee has kept SRT’s sales numbers afloat, and I’d hardly call that a muscle car.
As for the Challenger Hellcat, with its 707 horsepower 6.2 liter V8, it’s the most powerful American production car ever built, casting a shadow over even the mighty 662 horsepower Shelby GT500, the former record holder. How much higher are OEMs really willing to go? Rumor has it the Shelby GT350 Mustang could make a go at 750 horsepower, but I’m not sure I believe it.
Why? Because the numbers are stacked against V8s in more ways than one. That’s why the 2015 Mustang has embraced smaller engines with a 2.3 liter EcoBoost four-cylinder slotted between the base V6 and the GT model’s V8. Rated at 310 horsepower and 320 ft-lbs of torque, the EcoBoost engine is only 125 horsepower and 80 ft-lbs behind the much bigger and supposedly thirstier) four-banger.
With gas prices only poised to go upward, what matters most is the official MPG rating…though it should be substantial. The rest of Ford’s performance lineup is also anchored by EcoBoost engines in the Fiesta ST and Focus ST. If the Raptor goes EcoBoost as well, that means only the Mustang will offer a V8 performance engine. Why bother stuffing a V8 under the hood when a V6 or four-cylinder engine is nearly as good (and a whole lot lighter).
The next-generation Camaro is also rumored to be in for a downsized body and engine lineup as well, and the future of the Challenger or its replacement car is constantly being called into question. More likely than not, CHrysler will retire from the muscle car game as Fiat’s Italian tendencies temper enthusiasm for big engines. This is happening even in Chrysler’s truck division, where the Ram 1500 has been positioned the 3.0 liter EcoDiesel V6 engine, returning 28 MPG and stump-pulling torque.
Beyond the Challenger, Camaro, you’ve got the Dodge Charger, which shares a platform and engines with the Challenger, as well as the Chevy Corvette Stingray. The Corvette has a meaty 6.2 liter LT1 V8 that incorporates fuel-saving technologies like Active Cylinder Management to sip on fuel at highway speeds…if you can keep your foot off the pedal. Thanks to its lightweight body, the 2014 Corvette Stingray has a 28 MPG rating…and could come close to 30 MPG when it gets a new 8-speed automatic transmission.
Yet even the Corvette is at risk of going with a hybrid drivetrain down the road, as GM recognizes that making a bunch of thirsty V8-powered cars is going to make it difficult to meet the 34.5 MPG CAFE rating required by 2017. That’s why, rather than totally eliminate the V8, automakers are likely to only offer it in top-tier, $50,000+ vehicles.This keeps sales numbers down, meaning a lesser effect on fleetwide fuel economy.
The V8 muscle car may survive, but the cornerstone of their success, affordability, will likely be gone. In its place will be a new generation of smaller, lighter, but just as punchy performance cars with four and six-cylinder engines instead.
Engines come and engines go; but the obvious trend here is that V8 engines disappearing and mostly being replaced by V6 engines. I think we’ve got another ten years, or about two product development cycles, before we see the V8 engine completely phased out from the dwindling muscle car segment.
In other words, enjoy it while it lasts.