From naturally aspirated V8s to race-ready rotaries.
When it comes to power and speed, nothing enhances the sensation of a fast car like the sound it makes, whether bouncing off the redline or crackling with shifts. The most significant influences on a car's sound are the number of cylinders, the firing order of those cylinders, and the exhaust system.
Once upon a time, a car's sound was a pure expression of the engine through a straight pipe or set of pipes. However, throughout history engineers have learned to tune the sound to appeal to our ears. But the engine is still the key. If the engine isn't special, neither is the sound that comes out of it. The list of great-sounding cars is a long one, but we doubt many petrol heads will dispute that those listed below are truly exceptional.
You can debate whether the Lamborghini Murcielago's sensational V12 sounds better than the Aventador in the comments, but we're firm on this. The Murcielago houses the final iteration of the original Lamborghini V12. Its lineage can be traced back to the engine that, as legend has it, Ferruccio Lamborghini paid engineer Giotto Bizzarrini a bonus for every horsepower more it made than Ferrari's V12 at the time. It features two banks of six cylinders, a 60-degree angle and, in its final form, had 6.5-liters of displacement. It generates, depending on model, anywhere from 572 horsepower to 661. In any iteration, it growls, barks, and then delivers one of the fiercest howls we've heard from a modern road car.
Forced induction adds a new element of sound to a car, and when you add the shrill whine of a 2.8-liter supercharger to a drag strip bred 6.2-liter V8 engine to create 808 hp, you're going to get something special. The SRT Demon's supercharger whines over the guttural growl then shrieks over the engine's roar as it takes off, making it one of the most characteristic sounding cars on the road. You'll need race fuel to get the full 840 hp, 770 lb-ft of torque out the V8, but when you prep correctly, the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon can hit 0-60 mph in 2.3-seconds and lay waste to the quarter-mile in 9.54-seconds.
The F136 engine is often called the Ferrari-Maserati engine and it first appeared in Maserati vehicles. The engine sings to the soul in the Maserati cars, but in the Ferrari 458 models, it becomes truly operatic. The Maserati and Alfa Romeo versions use a cross-plane crankshaft, but the pure Ferrari version gets a flat-plane crank, and the sound wells up into a defiant shriek as it approaches 9,000 rpm. Everything about the 458 is automotive theater, and a good show needs the perfect soundtrack. It's also a swan song, as the 4.5-liter F136 in the 458 is the last naturally aspirated Ferrari V8.
The sound an engine makes depends a lot on the firing order of the cylinders. However, a V10 has a unique 5:2 frequency ratio that gives it a distinct sound. Add to that the Lexus LFA's V10 engine was developed with the sound in mind and Yamaha as a partner, and you have something amazing. Its 4.8-liter engine revs out to 9,000 rpm and evokes everything from old school muscle at idle to a high-pitched Formula 1 styled scream when flat out. It's the best example we can conjure up of an engineered sound mated with actual outright performance.
You can't talk about howling engines without bringing up the Pagani Zonda R and its bonkers 6.0-liter GT 112 engine pulled from the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR racecar. The Zonda R is a pure track day car, and the V12 lays down 740 hp. The sound exits through an Inconel 625 and ceramic coated Formula One-style exhaust system. It comes fast, with the Zonda R hitting 62 mph in 2.7 seconds and topping out at 233 mph. It's one of the most spine-tingling sounds we've heard outside of a full-on race car.
Porschephiles can argue for hours on the best sounding engine from the German sports car maker. If you whittle it down to 911 models, though, the 997 generation's GT3 RS is top of the pile. Its 3.6-liter flat-six engine positively wails its way through the rev range. A 3.8 and 4.0-liter version followed through the GT3's iteration, but the 3.6 was in the sweet spot. Curiously, Porsche made its own top five list of Porsche engine sounds, and ranked the 991 generation GT3 RS in third place. It's certainly the loudest 911, but it's not the most resonant, and the 997 sounds amazing at full throttle.
Nobody takes the enjoyment of hooliganized executive cars more seriously than AMG. Under the hood of the C63 AMG is a version of the M156 V8 from the SLS AMG, and the last naturally aspirated V8 to go in an AMG Mercedes. The C63 AMG makes 510 hp at 6,800 rpm and the M156 engine burbles and growls with the malice of a Rottweiler eyeing an intruder's jugular. At full chat, it sounds like a particularly sonorous DTM car.
Moving into full race cars, we can't ignore the brutal yet creamy sound of the Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2's turbocharged five-cylinder engine. The Quattro S1 E2 was Audi's final Group B rally car and featured a recirculating air system for the turbo that allowed it to keep spinning at a high RPM when the driver came off-throttle. That reduced turbo lag considerably. Audi claimed 592 hp for the final factory cars generated at 8,000 rpm, but what we're interested in here is that cacophony of pops, bangs, and wastegates releasing that punctuate the growls and howls of that wondrous engine.
Mazda's rotary engines have always been distinctive, but none of the road cars sounded anywhere near as wild and furious as the Le Mans-winning 787B race car, which you'll probably recognize from Sony's Gran Turismo if you're under a certain age. At low RPMs, the four-rotor engine snarls angrily, but when the taps are opened, its 700 naturally aspirated horsepower is something to behold. The 787B revved out to 9,000 rpm in race form, but according to lore, the 3.5-liter engine could go to 10,500 rpm and make 900 hp. It's the only non-piston-powered car to win overall at Le Mans, and while the engine wasn't the most powerful, the low weight and improved fuel economy carried it to victory. However, it also screams like the battle cry of a long-forgotten god of war.
If you want the most brutal, naturally aspirated V8 engine in modern racing history, look no further than the Corvette C7.R. The 2015 Le Mans winner. Part of the reason it sounds different from other competitor's V8s is that C7.R's lump is a two-valve pushrod engine. Chevy engineers avoided moving to overhead cams for the last front-engined Corvette race car, saying that would mean: "Bigger, heavier, giant heads. Cams in head, higher center of gravity, bigger package, in most cases more weight." The pushrod engine design is lighter, more reliable, but the sacrifice comes in fuel efficiency.