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Where Has the Naturally Aspirated V-8-Powered, German Sedan Gone?

Once common, its now an extinct species

The throttle response is immediate and there’s a lovely, honest growl from the 5.5-liter V-8. If it wasn’t for the ‘E550’ badge on the trunk, most people would simply think it’s a typical V-6-powered E-Class. My friend’s 2011 Mercedes-Benz is a proper, sub-5 second 0-60 mph car but it’s not overly sporty and it isn’t trying to be. The subtle, powerful four-door German is about cosseting luxury and effortless, torque-rich power. Sadly, the naturally aspirated V-8-powered sedan is on borrowed time.

Things have changed dramatically in the world of German sedans. Unless you’re in the minority that’s into the wagon, if you don’t want a 2.0-liter turbo-four powering your E-Class, you must buy an AMG. I don’t have any issue with Mercedes’ sporting brand, but the extroverted styling and more aggressive suspension tuning isn’t for everybody. The only way to get a V-8 in an Audi A6 is to bump up to the S6, while BMW only offers an engine with eight cylinders in the similarly-focused M550i xDrive. And those V-8s carry throttle response-dulling turbos.

I clearly remember when the V-8 engine gained popularity in the German E-segment, as it was shortly after I earned my driver’s license. Until the 400E (and extra-speciual 500E) arrived in 1992, the new-for-1985 W124 E-Class soldiered on with only four and six-cylinder powerplants to choose from. BMW followed suit in 1994 with the eight-cylinder 530i and 540i. Lemmings do as lemming do and Audi joined the party in 2000 with the A6 4.2. Outside of subtle fender flares on certain models, these torquey sedans were far more about pleasuring the driver than showing off to your neighbors.

Shortly thereafter, however, fuel economy and emission concerns began gaining popularity. Diesel became the preferred fuel for the midsize luxury segment in Europe while downsized, turbocharged gasoline engines took the place of the naturally aspirated V-8. Manufacturers also figured out they could simply play the soundtrack of a muscular engine through the audio system and not worry about the actual thrum of what’s under the hood. The last naturally aspirated V8 German luxury sedans in the segment in the U.S. were the 2011 Audi A6 4.2 and the aforementioned 2011 E550 that inspired this column.

However, there are still options in the marketplace if you’re willing to curb German snobbery and open up your brain to offerings from other locales. Infiniti offers the Q70 and Q70 L with a 5.6-liter V-8 good for 420 hp, the Genesis G80 is available with a 5.0-liter V-8 making the same power, the Chrysler 300 can be had with a 363-hp 5.7-liter mill, while the Dodge Charger is offered with a 370-hp version of that 5.7-liter V-8 as well as a 485-hp 6.4-liter one.

If you act quickly, you may be able to find an outgoing 2017 Lexus LS 460 or a discontinued Chevrolet SS on a lot before they’re all gone. The big Japanese sedan offers 386 hp from its 4.6-liter V-8, but the engine makes way for a 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6 for 2018, while the Australian-built Chevy comes with a 415-hp, 6.2-liter V-8. (Chevy even offers a 6-speed manual but we’re not going down the three-pedal path in this column.)

The future of the naturally aspirated V-8-powered sedan is bleak. None of the above is exactly fresh and the SUV craze has dramatically cut into the sedan’s popularity. But there is some hope for the naturally aspirated V-8.

While downsizing and turbocharging produce impressive fuel economy gains in EPA testing, the advantage over naturally aspirated engines is less impressive in real-world driving. There is growing talk in Europe of rejiggering their testing procedures to be more accurate and representative of how people drive on public roads. Depending on what regulators decide, it may spark a resurgence of naturally aspirated powerplants. We can only hope.