What would Steve McQueen have made of the fact that the Ford Mustang, the gloriously crude V-8-powered muscle car he flogged around San Francisco in the 1968 movie Bullitt, is soon to become a practical sport utility vehicle powered by electricity?
The answer is, it doesn’t matter what McQueen or anyone else of his generation would think.
Car companies are now trying to figure out what kinds of cars will excite the next generation of drivers, those who grew up dreaming about owning a Tesla rather than a Ferrari Testarossa. The only certainty is that, whatever else these new and exciting cars are, they will need to be fast. As for what’s under the hood, it will probably be a hybrid motor, maybe even a fully electric one. Either way, it almost certainly won’t just be a big old V-8 as was the case in McQueen’s day, and is, still often, the case today.
Markus Flasch, the new boss of BMW’s hot-rod M division, is adamant that now is not the time to be dogmatic about what technology belongs (or doesn’t) in a fast car. “Every technology has its time. We have seen turbocharged engines outperform naturally aspirated engines by far. … It’s the same with all-wheel drive, and the same will be the case with electrification,” Flasch says.
“Will there be electrified M cars? Yes,” he adds. “I can’t tell you when or to what extent, but we’re definitely working on it.” Electrified cars could mean either hybrids or fully electric vehicles, or both.
To purists, an electric M car is sacrilegious – akin to an electric Mustang SUV – but for a new generation of drivers, it’s a non-issue. It might even be cool. “Our customers are getting younger. Many of our customers today have never driven a normally aspirated engine, Flasch explains. “They don’t care; they want to have a high-performance car … This is why we’re not dogmatic.”
There is always a backlash from diehard fans when any new technology finds its way into their beloved automobiles. There will always be people who think the Porsche 911 got soft after it moved from air-cooled to water-cooled engines, or that power steering makes driving too easy. There are still people who prefer to ride horses, after all.
Keep in mind that teenagers learning to drive today have, for the most part, grown up in a world where electric cars share the road with gasoline ones. They don’t have the same hang-ups that older performance-car purists do when it comes to electric power.
Playing by the rules
Changing tastes and demographics are only half the story. The other reason that all of your favourite fast cars will eventually be hybrids or electrics is because governments around the world are trying to regulate gas-guzzling motors out of existence. “To enter some cities, for example, you will have to have electric drive,” says Oliver Hoffmann, co-managing director of Audi Sport, responsible for all the car company’s high-performance RS vehicles. Driving into the downtown core with a gas-powered car might be deemed illegal someday.
China, a huge market that carries a lot of sway with global automakers, is considering a ban on gasoline-powered vehicles in certain parts of the country. Several other jurisdictions, including Germany, Amsterdam and British Columbia, have proposed outright bans on the sale of new gas-powered vehicles. While Donald Trump is backing off on fuel-economy standards, the European Union is setting even more ambitious targets.
That’s a big problem for companies that make high-power, high-profit cars the good ol’ fashioned way, with high-strung internal-combustion engines. They’ll need to go electric. “We have a clear electrification strategy and we want to surprise our customers,” says Julius Seebach, the other co-managing director of Audi Sport. He and Hoffmann confirmed that the first-ever plug-in hybrid Audi RS models are on the way, in addition to the mild hybrid RS6 and RS7 that are already on sale.
The Mustang isn’t the only beloved performance car getting an electric makeover either. A Porsche executive recently hinted to Top Gear magazine that the next generation of the 718 Cayman and Boxster could be electric. Even Lamborghini, the last bastion of old-school, mid-engine V-12 supercars, has conceded that it too will make hybrids.
It’s about time.
Fast cars are about entertainment as much as they are about transportation, and the demands of entertainment dictate that a sequel must be bigger and better and more bombastic in every way. The problem is that the slightly more powerful V-8 you find inside your favourite fast cars every few years doesn’t tick that box anymore. These old-school engines don’t seem so big or so much better or so entertaining as they once did – not when they’re outgunned by a fully-electric, family-friendly Tesla sedan. Trying to make better and better versions of the V-8 seems a bit like bringing an improved knife to a gunfight these days.
If you read this story and cringed the whole time, don’t worry. Change happens slowly in the auto industry. For now, Ford will still sell you a V-8-powered Mustang. For a bit more money, they’ll even sell you a Bullitt special edition in which you can relive the muscle car’s McQueen-era glory days. Enjoy it while you still can.
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