Rewind back to the 1950s and 1960s, the V6 was something of anomaly. There were some offered in new cars at this time but they were few and far between. In fact Buick rolled out an efficient V6 during the 1960s (with 198 CID and 225 CID displacements) called the Fireball V6. But there was no real market for the V6 so after 5 models years (in 1967) Buick sold its engine to Kaiser-Jeep. Most cars during the 1960s were powered by V8s. If a buyer wanted 6 cylinders a straight-six was what most automakers offered their buyers. The straight-six made sense, it was more efficient than a V8 yet it still provided good torque and adequate horsepower. The straight-six was so popular in pickup trucks and fleet vehicles during the 1960s since it provided excellent low-end torque and decent gas mileage.
It seemed all was well with this formula until the 1973 oil crises smacked automakers where it hurt. They were left scrambling to find any means to increase gas mileage and drop engine weight to a bare minimum. The sturdy and dependable straight-six motors were heavy and couldn’t provide the efficiency and weight savings that a generally smaller V6 could provide. Buick realized this really quickly and installed an old junkyard Buick Fireball V6 from the 1960s into a Buick Apollo production test car. The efficiency and weight reduction of its old V6 so impressed Buick brass that they went to AMC (which had purchased Kaiser-Jeep in 1970) and eventually convinced them to sell the tooling and rights to the old Fireball V6 back to Buick. After the buyback Buick dropped the Fireball name and made a few changes to the old V6 in order to ready it for production for the 1975 model year. This Buick V6 block would see its popularity explode in the 3.8 liter (231 CID) displacement configuration during the 1970s and it would eventually power many different rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive GM cars for the next few decades. Most automotive experts will agree not only was it the most mass produced American V6 but the most reliable. The Buick V6 was offered on many GM cars and some Jeeps from 1962 to 2009. Only break in production was from 1972 to 1974 where AMC decided to stop production of the V6 (in favor of its more torquey straight-six for Jeep applications).
By the 1980s most automakers were offering V6s in many different cars and the straight-six was a rare entity mostly used in light truck or SUV applications. Fuel-injection gave the V6 an increase in horsepower, torque, and fuel efficiency. It was during the 1980s when the V6 surpassed the V8 in terms of production, and the V8 has been in retreat ever since.
That’s not the end of the story. Even though the V6 would gradually gain horsepower and torque over the years, it still had the stigma of being second class citizen in comparison to the V8. For it wasn’t buyer choice that pushed the V6 into the limelight but government mandates in the form of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards which forced American automakers (for most of their cars) to ditch their V8s and rear-wheel drive and move to V6 or 4-cylinder engines powering the front wheels. For performance fans it was a sad day. But not as bad as you might think since vehicle weights greatly dropped so a 140 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque V6 during the 1980s packed more punch than the raw horsepower and torque numbers suggested. Imports during the 1980s especially from Japan tended to be standard with 4-cylinder motors but did offer optional V6 engines which provided good horsepower and ample torque for the times.
The dynamics of the V6 will never match a V8. The V8 is the most melodic of engines providing a beautiful tone and exhaust resonance. The V6 on the other hand provides similar sounds but not as harmonious. The V8 is like a lion with a deep roar while the V6 is more like a bobcat with a growl that cracks and seems whiney at times. Fortunately over the years automakers have learned to tune exhaust notes with improved exhaust designs to get the best possible type of sounds from V6s.
Even with that said, there’s always the thought in the back of any driving enthusiast’s head that a V6 equipped car is missing 2 cylinders. With many normally aspirated V6 engines now producing close to or over 300 horsepower these thoughts are begging to wane. Not to mention that many are providing at least 250 lb-ft of torque which was not too many years back torque numbers reserved for only V8s. If that’s not enough there are turbo and supercharged equipped V6 engines which easily surpass 300 horsepower with some producing over 400 horsepower. The turbo 3.8 liter V6 powered 1986 Buick Grand National was the first car that proved a V6 had the potential of being a true high-performance motor. Bone stock, it accelerated the 1/4 mile in high-13 second range. It was the fastest accelerating American performance car that year easily usurping the 5.7 liter V8 powered 1986 Chevrolet Corvette. The Buick had a 235 horsepower rating which was nothing short of laughable, true output was around 300 horsepower which was 65 horsepower more than the 1986 Corvette’s 235 horsepower.
If you aren’t convinced that high-performance V6 engines aren’t on the rise and pushing the V8 into extinction, you only need to look at Ford’s current 2016 F-150 full-size pickup offerings. It wasn’t too long ago that the V8 was what Ford F-150 buyers almost anonymously wanted. How the times have changed the base 2016 engine is a 282 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque 3.5 liter V6. Not surprising since a V6 has been base engine on the F-150 for quite some time. What is surprising is that optional is the twin-turbo 2.7 liter EcoBoost V6 producing 325 horsepower and 375 lb-ft of torque and the twin-turbo 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6 producing 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. There’s still a 385 horsepower and 387 lb-ft of torque 5.0 liter V8 option available with the 2016 F-150 however don’t expect it to remain more than a few more model years since the twin-turbo V6s can provide V8 horsepower and torque with better fuel efficiency than a V8. And if the current F-150 line-up doesn’t convince you the 2017 F150 SVT Raptor is the nail in the coffin. The last production Raptor (2014 model year) was standard with a 411 horsepower and 434 lb-ft of torque 6.2 liter V8. The 2017 Raptor will be equipped with a twin-turbo 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6 which will produce 450 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. How’s that for a kick in the V8’s face?
If you look at other automakers the story is the same. Rumors have emerged that FCA may be phasing its 5.7, 6.2, and 6.4 liter Hemi V8s out of production by 2019 in its truck and car lineup. FCA’s Maserati division currently has a twin-turbo 3.0 liter V6 which produces 404 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque so you can expect more high-powered V6 engines from FCA in the near future.
GM may be tight lipped right now about the future of its current V8 lineup but for a little foreshadowing you need not look any further than its new rear-wheel drive 2016 Cadillac ATS-V which is powered by a twin-turbo 3.6 liter V6 with 464 horsepower and 445 lb-ft of torque. If the ATS-V had made its debut a few years earlier it would have been equipped with a 435 horsepower 6.2 liter V8. Oh, how the times have changed.
For the poor V8 the writing is on the wall, the continual uptick in CAFE standards are forcing automakers to replace V8s with V6 engines. This is not all good news for the V6, since now where the lower powered V6 engines were once king of the jungle the high-powered 4-cylinder engines are taking over. The name of the game is pushing future engines to fewer cylinders and lower displacements. The end result from this change doesn’t mean the V8 will go into complete extinction however the final result will make them extinct enough where it will cost a minimum of $100,000 to become a member of the V8 club thereby keeping them out of reach of most American car and truck buyers.
In closing, it’s amazing how high horsepower and torque ratings have increased for V6 engines. Even for a V8 lover like myself it’s time to make peace with the V6.
Written contents in this article – © 2015 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved