The death of displacement.

February 8, 2012
DeathofDisplacement Sm
It was a nice try. Those logical German engineers at BMW and Mercedes came up with logical naming strategies that would help those logical German car buyers immediately identify a car’s model and engine displacement just by the badge on the back.
Show Chris Cardork a Mercedes C280 and he’ll explain that “C” identifies the car as Benz’s small sedan, and “280” means it has a 2.8-liter engine. Ask Gary Gearhead what a 525i is, and he’ll use the “5” to identify it as BMW’s mid-size sedan, and the “25” to confirm that it’s 2.5 liters of piston displacement under the hood.
That naming scheme worked, most of the time, for a while. Of course, it took Mercedes a while to figure out that “300E 2.6” or “300SL-24” or “190E 2.3-16” or “450SEL 6.9” were a bit confusing. And BMW fibbed where it was appropriate (319i and 327i sounded strange, so we had instead a 318i and a 325e, which sounded better to the marketing folks.) But at least the marketing departments’ logic was, well, logical: the 1979 745i got its name thanks to a turbocharger that helped the 3.2-liter straight-six make about as much power as a 4.5-liter engine would have.
But now? Take four BMWs from the last couple of years with badges ending in 25, 30, 35, and 40, and there’s a good chance they all have a 3.0-liter engine under the hood. Likewise, a Mercedes GL450 doesn’t have 4.5-liter, just like an S350 doesn’t have a 3.5-liter. A Euro-spec SL500 has the same engine as our SL550: which is it—5.0 or 5.5 liters? Last year’s 528i had a 3.0-liter six, but year’s has a 2.0-liter four.  At one point, a 550i had a 4.8-liter V-8; then it earned two turbos and dropped to a 4.4-liter. Even devout car enthusiasts can’t keep up with this insanity.
What happened? Well, the logical German engineers have now completely handed over the reins to the illogical marketing types. And if you’ve spent as much time in Germany as I have, you’ll know that Germans don’t excel at marketing.
Americans? That’s what we do best. So we need to help the Germans out here.
Here’s my solution: now that mainstream cars are moving toward in the direction of downsized, down-pistoned, turbocharged, balance-shafted, active-sound-managed, who-knows-what’s-under-the-hood-mobiles, let’s forget about displacement and talk about the only measure that matters: horsepower.
Under my rules, it wouldn’t matter that a BMW 325i had a one-cylinder or a V-12 under the hood. The “25i” would tell me that it had 250 horsepower. A 540i? 400 horsepower. A 730d? 300 diesel ponies.
Likewise, a Mercedes S500? 500 horsepower. A CLK200? 200 horses. An E320? 320. You get the idea.
Displacement isn’t, of course, totally irrelevant: a 400-hp turbocharged 1.0-liter 2-cylinder would certainly have a different personality than a 400-hp 8.0-liter pushrod V-8. But at least when I pulled up next to a Whiz-Bang OMG350 at a red light, I’d know that I’d need an OMG400 to beat him.


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