Naming Rights

Not even the gimlet eye of a top contract lawyer could match the scrutiny cars that drove past me underwent when I was a kid. I like to think I’ve grown up a little since the eighties but my genes haven’t allowed me to completely discard the anorak. It’s been said many places before but thirty years ago the bootlid badges on cars were visual magnets for me and my ilk. They were precise and you might even be able to tell if a car had rear headrests or a cassette/radio just by glimpsing it’s tail. And of course, (it’s most important function) it told the world how many cubic centimetres of swept volume were to be found in the engine bay.

This did what it said on the tin (well 12cc off but 2002 sounds so good, no?)

The real engine size. No real need to even mention that it was petrol. You’d hear an oil burner starting up in the next continent. In those halcyon days diesels were not common and were even less attractive than now. If it said 1.6 GLXi it had a 1.6 litre fuel injected engine, a cassette player and rear headrests. Job done. It’s a bit different now I suppose when there might be twenty or so differences between each spec level. Funnily enough even though I much prefer when cars have numbers rather than names I quite like it when spec levels are named. Terra sounds much better than a plain l, no?

There now follows an uncharacteristic digression. I’ve often wondered when we reached “Peak Engine Size”. By P.E.S. I mean when the average engine sold worldwide was at it’s largest capacity. My guess for what its worth is 2006. Diesels were really hitting their straps (and even with the benefit of forced induction still needed to sweep at least 1700cc to make a ton of metal even vaguely resemble what we call a “car’). Small turbo petrol engines hadn’t kicked in yet. The thoughts of my erudite readership would be appreciated here.

Back to the nub of the argument now. I know not everyone put the size of the engine on the side of their car but it certainly was more common than not. it was really towards the end of the nineties that two things happened. Fewer and fewer cars were badged with their engine size and the “premium” players (notably Lexus BM and Mercedes) started to give a nominal value to their respective badges. (There were a couple of outliers like the turbo’d 745 but maybe their exclusivity lent them a get out of jail card). The first real generation of these lying numbers were subtly different from what lay under the bonnet. Tuning, charging and electricity were the main reasons given for the differences. A 240 Merc actually had a 2.6 litre engine and a 318i actually had a two litre. An LS 600 had a 4.6 and some batteries. I got it but I didn’t like it. I recognized it for what it was. The thin end end of the wedge.

I’m not sure at what point on the wedge we are at but we are getting pretty wedgy. No sign of things returning to where they should either. My father in law is on his fourth E class at the moment. The second last one was a 2007 E280. A 3 litre V6 with 190hp and 440 nm of torque. If really pressed it was pretty quick nudging 100kph in just 7 seconds. Official figures suggested 37 mpg was possible on the combined cycle. It sounded like a diesel especially on start up but wasn’t as unpleasant to drive as you might have expected.

He currently drives a 2011 E250. From it’s moniker you might expect it to be 10.71428% less good than it’s predecessor.

The newer car has 11 more horsepower and 60 more nm of torque. So in the out and out power stakes it’s between 5 and 15% better, with almost a full litre deficit. It officially returns 56mpg. A full 50% improvement. However the power bands are narrower so it’s slower to sixty and just slower full stop (not by much though). On paper then the new car should be an E310ish. Or the old one should have been an E250, give or take.

728i bootlid badge
If your new car sports this badge a 4 cylinder 2 litre is the order of the day.

The four cylinder engine is better in pretty much every way except in the way that matters most for a “premium” car. It sounds like a tractor when cold. It sounds like a quieter tractor when warm. While power delivery couldn’t be described as lumpy it’s nothing like the smooth willing surge the V6 effortlessly provided over a much wider rev range. Any form of driving other than pootling lets everyone know that the engine is working hard. Surely it’s only going to become more and more difficult for the manufacturers to decide on how to designate their cars. Perhaps they could hire a team of actuaries and coders to write a complex algorithm to decide what number should grace the bootlid. Even worse how are we to know what that number refers to? Power? Refinement? Acceleration? Speed? Number of cylinders? Please just tell us what size engine it is and we anoraks can take it from there.


7 thoughts on “Naming Rights”

  1. Yes, life was easier for a car spotter when I was a kid. Now, sad person that I am, when I’m driving a new car (which I do frequently), I often resort to looking up the engine size of a particular car by entering its registration number on an insurance website or the UK’s car licensing authority’s website.


    1. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be accurate when badging a car. It’s getting to the point where the badge can mean anything. Don’t be ashamed that you want to know what’s under the bonnet of what you’re driving, surely that’s the second most important part of any car?


  2. OMG can’t agree more with this article. Is it too much to ask that the number equals the displacement and all us intelligent folks can then work out that if the car is newer it probably has more power? If it’s got batteries then whack an e on the end and maybe a t if turbos. Maybe we should have some sort of treaty or hand it over to the folks that came up with the metric system. We also need to include cylinders. Maybe at the end. So we can have V6 and S6 for v config and straight.

    So let’s give it a run. The latest 328 is a 2 litre twin turbo straight 4 with no batteries. So that should be 320t S4. Sorted !!!


    1. This crazy situation assumes we’re idiots. Your system is clear and informative Clex i.e. exactly how it should be. That x28i engine you quote actually has similar power to previous x35i engines. So it’s a 2 litre straight four that they want us to think of as a straight six but actually has the power of a V8 of 15 years ago. I hope I got that right.


  3. I just read a review of the BMW 2-series. The two model names have been increased from 228 to 230 and … blah blah blah: the numbers are just inducative of relative strength and also to alert customers that the new engines are not the old engines. The marketing loons are behind this, for sure. At some point engine capacity and power output parted company and this is what we get: a 4-cylinder 2.0 litre BMW is sold as a 230. Eff eff ess, excuse me.


    1. The marketing loons were behind keeping it at 28 initially to reference the old 28 engine but maybe they felt it wasn’t working. I even prefer Volvo’s way of grouping similar powered engines together D2/D3 etc but really just tell us the actual f***ing engine size. Please.


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