Naturally aspirated cars are becoming a rarity these days, the need for more low-end torque to push along increasingly heavier crossovers and SUVs has seen turbocharged engines taking over.
The comparatively better fuel economy figures of turbo engines have also seen them introduced into the lower end of the market too, although exactly how much better that efficiency really is, remains a contentious issue.
Sports cars have by and large moved over to forced induction, the massive increase in torque over a naturally aspirated motor gives them serious acceleration capabilities but they do have some shortcomings too.
Throttle response, engine sound and high-rev performance all favour the naturally aspirated engine and, done right, they can be every inch as effective as a turbocharged engine.
To prove the point, we have selected some of the best naturally aspirated cars that you can still buy today as well as some modern classics that rewrote the rulebooks.
The new ones
Our first group are cars that you can buy new right now, in a sea of turbocharged rivals they are a rarity to be savoured.
The selection includes both affordable roadsters and pricey supercars, each offering uncorrupted, linear power delivery for maximum driving enjoyment.
The MX-5 has resisted the move to turbocharging and in its latest incarnation has returned to the design brief that made the 1989 original such a hit. That means a light chassis mated to a revvy little engine.
182 bhp 2.0-litre inline-four
The engine in the nose of the 370Z is not a ground-breaking design but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to drive.
Producing big slugs of torque low down the rev-range, the 370Z is responsive and feels just like the old-school GT car that it is.
328-344 bhp 3.7-litre V6
Ford Mustang GT
The Mustang is finally available to buy in the UK, replete with a brawny V8 engine it is totally impractical for our narrow roads but who cares when it looks this cool.
It may not be equipped with the range-topping flat-plane-crank 5.2-litre V8 that you get in the GT350 but there is nothing wrong with the standard V8 and its laid-back nature suits the Mustang to a tee.
444 bhp 5.0-litre V8
The second-generation R8 refines the original two-seater sports car formula and retains the naturally aspirated mid-engined powerplant although the V8 is no longer an option.
The remaining V10 is based on the unit found in the Huracan and despite being slightly down on power, still hurls the R8 along at supercar speeds. It also sounds better than most junior turbocharged supercars from McLaren and Ferrari while costing almost half as much.
610 bhp 5.2-litre V10 (R8 Plus)
Lamborghini Huracan Performante
The Huracan Performante is the ultimate derivative of Lamborghini’s V10 supercar.
It may share some components with the less exotic R8 but it offers more of everything from power to chassis tweaks and suspension upgrades. Whether that is worth another £80,000 over the R8 Plus is up to you.
630 bhp 5.2-litre V10
0-62 mph: 2.9-seconds
Porsche GT3 RS
The GT3 is the last non-turbocharged car in Porsche’s entire range. It retains its unboosted motor because the linear power delivery and explosive top-end punch is exactly what you want on a race track.
The latest turbocharged Carrera’s may feel even stronger low-down in the rev range but none can deliver the kind of sound and pace that the GT3 can once its fully on song.
513 bhp 4.0-litre Flat-six
0-62 mph: 3.2-seconds
Lamborghini Aventador SVJ
The Aventador SVJ is an old dog that has been taught some new tricks to make it one of the fastest supercars around a track regardless of what powerplants they may have. In the case of the SVJ it has a reworked variant of the standard engine which now produces 70 bhp more than the standard Aventador.
Combined with serious aerodynamics and a track-honed AWD system and the SVJ is a serious piece of kit.
760 bhp 6.5-litre V12
0-62 mph: 2.8-seconds
Ferrari 812 Superfast
Enzo Ferrari used to say that when you bought a Ferrari you bought an engine, the rest of the car was thrown in for free.
While that is not quite the situation any longer, in the case of the 812 Superfast the engine really is the focal point of the package.
While it is the same capacity as the Aventador’s, the Ferrari V12 actually produces more power which makes it the most powerful naturally aspirated engine ever put into production.
789 bhp 6.5-litre V12
0-62 mph: 2.9-seconds
The modern classics
These are the greatest hits from the past three decades, vehicles that defined their segments and created fanbases that continue to tout their virtues many years after they stopped being made.
Some of the cars here are still within reach while others are the playthings of the seriously wealthy.
When it comes to high-revving four-cylinder engines, Honda has a back-catalogue of all-time greats that puts most other manufacturers to shame.
The pinnacle of their achievements can be found in the nose of the 1999 S2000 roadster. It featured a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine equipped with Honda’s VTEC system and could rev to a stratospheric 9,000 rpm.
Japanese versions actually made even more power and while it may have been a bit light on torque, once you got the revs up it performed like a thoroughbred sports car.
237bhp 2.0-litre inline-four
0-62 mph: 6.2-seconds
BMW M3 CSL
BMW know a thing or two about naturally aspirated engines too, and if the S2000 was the pinnacle of four-cylinder engine technology then the E46 M3 CSL had arguably the finest six-cylinder engine when it was introduced in 2003.
It made more power per litre than any non-turbo contemporary Porsche 911 and it turned the accomplished base M3 into something that would rival far more powerful rivals on the track.
355bhp 3.2-litre inline-six
0-62 mph: 4.8-seconds
Ferrari 458 Speciale
The 458 had the last naturally-aspirated mid-mounted V8 fitted to any production Ferrari and its development peaked in the limited edition Speciale model in 2014.
Combined with the lighter and sharper Speciale chassis, this screaming V8 delivered instantaneous blasts of power at virtually any revs and has remained one of the very best supercars Ferrari has ever built.
The 488 Pista may offer more power and torque but it cannot match the sound and immediacy of this special machine.
597 bhp 4.5-litre V8
0-62 mph: 3.0-seconds
BMW M5 V10
The E60 M5 was launched in 2005 and quickly established itself as the most intense and capable super saloon ever made. The manic 5.0-litre V10 and brutally effective but rather lurchy SMG single-clutch gearbox were both its best and worst features.
The fragile gearbox and thirsty motor made little sense for the daily commute, but it delivered supercar levels of speed and excitement on the right roads.
Emissions regulations and the move to turbos and EVs have ensured that it will remain a rare reminder of what the M division was once capable of without resorting to forced induction.
507 bhp 5.0-litre V10
0-62 mph: 4.7-seconds
Porsche Carrera GT
We tried to limit our modern classics list to one for each cylinder configuration but it would be sacrilege to exclude the 5.7-litre V10 Carrera GT from our selection.
This mid-engined supercar can trace its development back to Porsche’s racing program and it goes a long way in making this one of the companies most impressive road cars ever. The soundtrack alone would be enough for this engine to make the cut.
603 bhp 5.7-litre V10
0-62 mph: 3.9-seconds
The F1 was a once-in-a-lifetime car that needed to be built at the right time by the right people with the right technology.
That time was 1992, well the launch date in any case, and towering talents in the form of designers Peter Stevens and Gordon Murray were allowed to create a masterpiece of engineering that is unique in the motoring world.
Despite initially wanting a Honda powerplant, BMW offered the best combination of power and weight with its 6.1-litre V12 engine. It gave the F1 a level of performance that took almost two decades for rivals to match.
At 240.1 mph it remains the fastest naturally aspirated production car to this day and is still one of the most intense and quickest supercars ever built.
627 bhp 6.1-litre V12
0-62 mph: 3.2-seconds
The Aston Martin Valkyrie is a welcome sign of what the future may hold for the naturally aspirated engine, like the Ferrari LaFerrari which used electric power to boost its 6.5-litre V12 powerplant to 949 bhp, the Valkyrie takes things to the next level.
It too has a 6.5-litre V12, developed by Cosworth in this case, and a Rimac-built Hybrid battery system which combine to develop 1,160 bhp.
The lack of any turbo or superchargers help lower the car’s overall weight and eliminate lag while the electric system adds the necessary torque to provide explosive acceleration at any speed.
1,160 bhp 6.5-litre V12 + electric motor
0-62 mph: 2.4-seconds (estimated)