Feel The Noise!
Years of advancements in controlling NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) have made cars quieter than ever. Insulated firewalls, laminated glass, triple door seals, even electronic noise cancelling have all conspired to give our cars a coffin-like silence. Not just luxury makes either. They may have escalated the the war on noise, but the technology has trickled down to even the most lowly of vehicles. Small cars that were once notorious for being not just tiny, but tinny as well, now offer peaceful passenger compartments that rival grandpa’s Buick.
A quiet ride is delightful for long drives, or enjoying music at appropriate volumes, or having a pleasant conversation in a normal tone of voice. There is a particular segment of car buyer however that won’t put up with the silent treatment. If you’re buying a performance vehicle, you want to enjoy the sounds coming from the engine bay. You just paid for a whole bunch of sweet tech; you want to hear it sing!
We’re not talking about the fast and furious little customs with their aftermarket tomato can exhausts blat-blat-blatting around the neighborhood, waking up babies and scaring pets. We’re talking about stock vehicles that recognize the driver's need for sonic amusement without garnering them unwanted public attention. And they have come up with some clever, and in one case controversial, solutions to make this happen.
The most basic, purest solution is to simply run some sort of tube or pipe from part of the engine to the passenger compartment. Different manufacturers are doing this with varying degrees of complexity. The feverishly anticipated Scion FR-S/Subaru BRX twins simply run a rubber tube from the air intake to the passenger-side footwell.
The upcoming Ford Focus ST, the performance-oriented cousin to the garden variety Focus family, uses a somewhat tricked-out version of the same. They call it the Active Sound Symposer, and while it still pipes sound from the engine to the passenger compartment, it uses an electronic valve to adjust the amount of aural assault based on driver inputs, like engine speed, accelerator pedal position and gear choice. So expect more fun sounds while launching, less while cruising. Download this to hear for yourself.
Porsche’s Sound Symposer uses a similar, even more complex solution that frankly defies easy explanation. Tunable Hemholtz resonator anyone? Ultimately though, it's still real live engine sounds making it into your ears.
The controversy begins when a car maker starts using engine sounds that aren’t actually generated by the engine. BMW’s Active Sound Design uses digitally created engine sounds played through the car speakers. Let that soak in a second. You’ve just spent a boatload of dough on an M5, with one of the hottest, most advanced V8 powerplants in history, and when you floor it, the sound you hear is coming through the stereo. This is not unlike adding a laugh track to Shakespeare, and it has been reviled accordingly.
Granted, there is a place for this sort of chicanery. Electric cars have no engine sounds because, well, they have no engines. Generally, the early adopters of electric cars appreciate the quiet whir of electric motors and have no use for artificial engine audio. Pedestrians however, may have a different opinion. It’s tough to recognize when you’re in danger of being mowed down when the only approaching noise is rolling tires. As a result, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act will mandate that any car capable of operating solely under electric power generate some sort of sound to warn pedestrians. The Fisker Karma and Toyota Prius V emanate sounds somewhere between a Star Wars light saber and the Jetson's space car.
Find the car that sounds best to you using AutoBuying101.com’s Research Autos section.