Cacophonous powertrains

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It befuddles me how some engine-use strategies can possibly make it all the way through group approvals by educated, mature men and women at multimillion or -billion buck companies, only to have it dawn too late that, oops, they missed something glaringly important along the way. What was possibly an air-tight engineering solution on paper, in reality – and only once production has started – becomes a real clunker.

So, we start talking up the seeing-the-bright-side notion of “well, let’s wait for the next generation and that one should be really, really good”. How can this happen in these days of hyperactive checks and balances, and supposed zero wiggle-room budgets?

I refer specifically to the misguided dreams of one Henrik Fisker and his former namesake company’s futurama adoption of the Quantum Q-drive plug-in system to then be range-extended (is that a verb now?) by a fairly common GM Europe 255 horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder Ecotec acting as generator to the hefty lithium-ion battery slab. If the Quantum project called ‘Aggressor’ had ended up as a US military covert operations supercar and required the Ecotec in tow, then the US Special Ops department would have been the loudest stealth group in the free world.

Honestly, the Karma as it stood then, and as it still stands now, is a failure. I don’t question the tech nor the creature comforts nor the fitment, no, no, no! It’s how the tech is implemented that’s the issue. Here, I have invested heavily in a green car that goes fairly fast and when the four-cylinder Ecotec ‘generator’ kicks in and starts frantically freewheeling while the passage of the exhaust is happening inches from my toes en route to the very cool-looking side pipes, I become utterly confused by the business case for such a powertrain experience.

And to think that the Karma had come so far so quickly, changing pricing a few times mid-stream, and it was announced almost as an afterthought that there would be this Ecotec anchor aboard. In the end, the Fisker experience is a good one – if only because it’s exactly what anyone imagining such a start-up should be memorizing and taking to heart. How can you do all of that damned work and then have an expensive premium car that sounds like an unfettered four-cylinder?

This all came back to me when I tested the current green poster child car – the Volkswagen XL1. I love and adore the massive VW Group cashflow that enables it to commit to whatever it wants. And they generally do everything well. The XL1 is very well done – but only to a point. Having cut the 1.6-liter TDI in half to obtain an 800cc TDI running the tiniest Garrett turbo I’ve ever seen, the need for some extra NVH stuffing in the thin-walled CFRP body – even just carpets – would have struck me as fundamental. I was tipping into the amp pedal and frequently (at least as frequently as the Fisker’s Ecotec) the little two-cylinder TDI clanked on loudly behind me. They insisted that once the powertrain warms up, the “little tractor” effect would go away. It didn’t.

So, Volkswagen, learn from Fisker: you have a wonderful idea and great message in the XL1, but you must do something quickly about the awful two-cylinder diesel noise. Or no one will care.

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