As 1977 drew to a close, my father finally agreed to let my mother have the new car he’d promised her earlier in the year. Mom’s Volvo was only three years old but it was already rusting and erratic in cold mornings. They went to some Oldsmobile dealership in Baltimore to see the new-for-1978 Cutlass Supreme coupes. It was the era of the personal luxury coupe and the Cutlass was the alpha dog in the pack. To Dad’s annoyance, however, Mom didn’t want the square-edged Malaise superstar. No, she wanted the one seventy-seven they had left in stock. Dark blue Supreme, light blue top and interior. Color-matched rally wheels. Most importantly, it had the 403. Absurdly oversquare engine. Whisper quiet but when the light went green it shoved. We went home from the dealer with what Dad considered to be a used car already. He didn’t really care, he was rocking a ’77 LeSabre sedan and Yves Saint Laurent prêt-à-porter, yo.
Once I was strong enough to pull the release and pop the hood, I’d stand on the front bumper and stare into the engine compartment. By the time Mom chopped in the Cutlass on a black Civic “S” the 403 was obscure and obsolete, simultaneously laughable for its gauche thirst and frightening in its deep-chested power. It was the last of its kind, the last to believe you could make it happen with cubic inches alone, the last Rocket V8, three hundred and twenty pound-feet, a dinosaur roaring alone on the showroom floor among the three point eight liter proto-mammals, staring unconcernedly at the bright flash in the sky.
Thirty-seven years later, it’s time for another extinction.
256 at the wheels is three hundred at the crank by the most conservative estimates. The last time mid-size family cars had three hundred crank horsepower was the pre-catalytic converter era. Even the Buick 455 only managed a rated 270 horses once the manufacturers put cats on and switched to SAE net. Toyota was the first “import” brand to put a V6 in a midsizer, and Nissan was the first to cross their fingers and stretch their block all the way to three and a half liters, but Honda is the only player in the game to still offer the combo of the big motor and the clutch pedal. At the end of the quarter-mile, it’s doing 103mph, dead-even with my Porsche 993. Not that Accord V6 drivers should challenge a 993 to a drag race. Having the engine, and the driven wheels, behind you is a nontrivial advantage. Still.
If Honda really loved its Accord customers, it would toss in the 3.7 from the TL Type-S before closing the books on the six-cylinder. I doubt they will — there has to be some reason, however minor, to pick the $44,000 car over the $31,000 one — but it would be nice. Make no mistake, however, those books are being closed. Toyota has confirmed the V-6 for the new Camry, but the “new” Camry is a facelift. The real new Camry, when it arrives, won’t have the room in the engine bay. Honda’s explicit policy that each new generation must be more fuel-efficient than the last is likely to leave even the EarthDreams 3.5 on the cutting-room floor for Generation Ten. (Where are we going? Generation Ten! When are we going? Real soon!) As for Nissan… who knows? Most likely they’ll do exactly what Toyota and Honda do, only a few years later.
Make no mistake, the Japanese have taken notice of the fact that the new Sonata gains a space-utilization and weight advantage from its shorter nose and forward cabin. Wait until you see what Toyota can do with a four-cylinder-only Camry. The thing’s already big enough inside so they’ll probably shrink the outside, just in time for six-dollar gasoline. Same for Honda. The current Accord’s already usefully lighter than the previous one. Cut three inches out of the nose and it might make a bid to be the first mid-sizer under three thousand pounds since the Clinton Administration. Somebody’s going to have to do it.
It would take a willful blindness to reality to argue that the price of gasoline is not going to spike dramatically in the next decade. Even if fracking and new exploration techniques combine to maintain the oil supply at current levels, there are two billion-person economies across the pond from us and they’d all like to have a car, or at least a scooter. Plus, if you haven’t noticed, they have all the money.
The smart money in family cars says we’ll return to the 180-inch length and the 2,900-pound weight in a search for Prius-equaling mileage in traditionally-shaped mid-sizers. There’s no room for anything but four-cylinder engines, augmented by turbochargers, hybrid synergy drives, or a combination of both. At some point, someone will build a decent combination of a forced-induction one-liter triple and a very strong electric drive, and then that will be the default powerplant.
Ten years from now, your children or younger friends will look at the Camry V6 the way I looked at the Cutlass 403: as a willfully atavistic throwback to a vanished past. The 403’s fate was sealed the minute consumers decided they’d accept a 3.8 Buick V6 in a GM mid-sizer and although the 307 was the last engine to ever drop into a G-body on the production line it was merely a curiosity long before it was a memory. By the same token, the arrival of reasonably powerful long-stroke four-cylinders a few years ago was all the man in the street needed to forget about the V6.
I don’t know if the Big Japanese Three will bother with doing turbo fours in the mid-sizers after they abolish the V6. It only takes a few miles in a Fusion or a Malibu or Sonatoptima to realize that the boosted two-liter is a pretty poor substitute for a 3.5 six. In their efforts to make the snail invisible, the manufacturers have made it tiny and the result is a non-thrilling powerplant with enough twist at idle to drop even a Lexus IS350 but an utter and pathetic breathlessness at high revs. You could do better just by increasing the size of the hybrid power pack and that’s what I’d expect to happen. The “high power” option of the future will simply be a bigger hybrid. Honda tried that with the short-lived V6 hybrid Accord but it was a case of engineering running wayyyy ahead of marketing. The next time it will be more successful. Tesla’s out there educating the consumer that electric cars can come in extra-fast variants and by the time the next-gen Camry gets here even your grandmother will understand.
In the meantime, if you want something that will sing to seven grand, if you want something that doesn’t shake and rattle the cabin at idle, if you want something that sounds and acts in a cultured manner beneath your bonnet, you’d better pop for the big six where, and while, you still can. The consumers of the future will still have a V6 option, but it will come attached to an Infiniti or a Lexus. The high-power prole-mobile is marked for death.
As with the musclecars, the last of the real ones will likely be the best. I’m partial to the ninth-gen Accord V6, but if you can live with a torque converter you might want to wait for this:
Forget the Hellcat. That’s the COPO Chevelle of our era. This Camry XSE will be the 1970 Road Runner. Not too expensive, not too rare, and faster than whatever replaces it. You heard it here first. The party’s almost over. There’s something shining in the sky overhead. Everything’s about to change. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a local back road, six cylinders, six speeds, and three hundred horses to run.