There’s something magical about a big, naturally aspirated V-12 that revs to nearly 9,000 rpm. Even more impressive is the 789-hp engine carries a three-year/unlimited-mile warranty and only needs servicing once a year. Plus, it meets modern global emissions standards. Pretty crazy. The powerplant in question is in the Ferrari 812 Superfast, of course, and it’s my favorite engine currently available in any road car. Sadly, the 12-cylinder powerplant is on borrowed time across the entire industry.
I clearly remember my first experience with a V-12. I was in high school, working as a detailer at the local Mercedes dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The new W140 S-class arrived for the 1992 model year, including the top-spec 600SEL. I couldn’t believe the smooth, effortless torque of that 6.0-liter V-12. Soon after, I found myself wandering in Ferrari-collector circles, a highlight of which was an exceptionally quick passenger ride in a Giallo Modena (yellow) Ferrari F50 around Texas World Speedway. Around that same time, the Ferrari 333 SP was terrorizing IMSA events with its near-12,000 rpm V-12. I have fond memories standing in the infield at Daytona in 1996 watching “Mad” Max Papis flog the open-cockpit race car into the wee hours of the night during the Rolex 24. The sound was earsplittingly brilliant.
The growing popularity of modern turbo-diesels in Europe in the late 1990s and the resulting trickle-down of turbochargers to gasoline engines began the assault on the mighty V-12. Quite simply, the big, 12-cylinder engine’s primary advantage—tons of low-end torque—was neutralized by smaller, cheaper engines. Sadly, turbochargers came to the V-12, too.
I’ve never been a huge fan of boosted twelves. For example, the later boosted Mercedes V-12 never really impressed me, especially in AMG guise. It’s too diesel-like in its power delivery for my taste, and it lacks character. I found the powerful Mercedes SL65 AMG Black Series to be a disappointment as a result.
Now Mercedes is sending the V-12 to pasture. Audi stated its new A8 luxury sedan won’t get a 12-cylinder powerplant either. The VW Group does have a V-12 in the Lamborghini Aventador and it’s a fantastic engine but it’s hitched to a clunky, sequential-manual gearbox. And, yes, the automaker utilizes the W12 over at Bentley, but that’s another engine that I’ve never really clicked with. It’s always felt slightly lazy and soulless, despite gobs of torque and the trick, space-efficient engineering of the unique cylinder configuration. Plus, the Audi-developed twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 is a better setup in a Bentley no matter what self-satisfied owners might tell you as they proudly display their cars’ “W12” badge.
It’s the 500-cc-per-cylinder, turbocharged eight-cylinder engine in general that’s hurting the V-12 most across the board. Mercedes uses versions of its 4.0-liter V-8 in a plethora of vehicles, including its high-performance AMG and ultra-luxurious Maybach sub-brands. The Benz engine is even taking over at Aston Martin, with both the DB11 Volante and Vantage currently only available with the AMG-fettled V-8. It’s all for the better as far as I’m concerned, as when the Brits added a pair of turbochargers to their V-12 when the DB11 coupe launched, the big engine lost some character. That Mercedes-AMG V-8 is simply too good of a fit for the DB11, especially with its unique, Aston-tuned aural signature.
So where does that leave us with V-12s? BMW plans to keep its N74 turbocharged 12-cylinder around until at least 2023. Since Rolls-Royce uses a version of the Bimmer powerplant across its lineup, that’s surely a key reason to keep building the engine. A V-12 is a better fit for a Rolls than a BMW anyway, as those exclusive cars are all about low-end, smooth torque—and a high price (and there’s no diesel or V-8 at Rolls, at least not currently). In addition to the 812 Superfast, Ferrari has the GTC4 Lusso. Interestingly, the four-seat shooting-brake bucks the industry norm, where the V-8 version is typically better than the V-12. It helps that the 12-cylinder GTC4 Lusso includes an especially cool all-wheel-drive system. And the next LaFerrari-level hypercar must use a V-12. Unfortunately, Toyota dropped the V-12 from its ultra-luxurious JDM Century sedan. Alas, a hybridized V-8 took its place.
Which brings us to electrification, which is quite possibly the most emphatic nail in the coffin for the V-12. We’ll hopefully see companies like Ferrari and Lamborghini stick with the engine type, but hybridization will likely be required to make it emissions friendly. The next version of the Aventador is rumored to go even more upscale and gain hybrid tech. And the next hyper Ferrari will surely utilize hybrid tech once again. But the full-electric EV with its abundance of torque and lack of tailpipe emissions will likely finally kill the V-12 in the majority of applications. Until then, let’s celebrate the V-12 engines that we have left—especially the best of the breed, the naturally aspirated ones.
As a postscript, there’s a quirky and somewhat related positive news item in the world of internal-combustion engines: The inline-six is making a comeback. BMW has stuck with the perfectly balanced layout all along, but both Mercedes and Jaguar Land Rover are back in the game. A straight-six is basically half of a V-12, and the JLR engine plus the AMG version of the Benz powerplant have both an electric supercharger and an electric motor. Electrification in the form of hybridization looks like it will help extend the life of the internal-combustion engine—including the V-12. We can only hope.