5 of the most over-engineered cars of all time
Why make something simple when you can make it really, really complicated?
KISS – “keep it simple, stupid”. It’s a phrase drilled into engineering students from a young age. Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus, would use the mantra “simplify, and add lightness” when describing his philosophy. Finding the most straightforward solution is almost always the best plan, because the simpler something is, the less there is to go wrong.
Well, here are five cars that stick a middle finger up to that idea. Like a diving watch that’ll descend the Mariana Trench, but that you take off to go in the swimming pool, there’s something desirable and delightful about cars that are engineered to take on the world, but rarely venture further than the grocery store. Long live the over-engineered*!
(*as long as they have regular maintenance)
There are countless Mercedes that you could point a finger at and accuse of being over-engineered; it was very much The Thing in Stuttgart for a very long time and we could fill this whole article with three-pointed stars. But the Geländewagen, better known as the G-Wagen or latterly the G-Class, is a prime example.
First built in 1979, the G-Wagen had been built to mix Merc’s already-impressive build quality and reliability with the off-road prowess of a Land Rover Defender. In that aspect, the W460 G-Wagen was a huge success, and was easily capable of off-road marathons, leading explorers across deserts and over mountain ranges. It also found favour with militaries around the world, and was so technically capable that an all-new model wasn’t introduced until 2018 (the different versions until then had just been revisions of the original). Oh, and they still make the original for military use today. Not bad for a design that’s more than 40 years old.
So it’s almost a shame that the vast majority are driven by rock stars and the wealthy to cruise from casino to club. They don’t even get their tyres dirty. Pff.
But thanks to our friends at Prizeo, you can get a chance of winning a G 550 by clicking the link below. US residents only, sadly.
The sheer amount of engineering that was needed to even make the Veyron driveable was mind-boggling. Today, the car that relaunched Bugatti is rightly revered as a masterpiece, a benchmark of automotive performance and design, but it was a struggle to get there and it remains a hugely indulgent machine.
The Volkswagen Group had acquired the rights to the Bugatti brand in 1998 and over the next year started dropping concept cars that foreshadowed the Veyron. Ludicrous expectations were set, including the idea of a W18 engine and mind-boggling performance.
Four years later, when the engine had been downgraded to a W16 because Bugatti couldn’t get the W18 to work properly, journalists assembled at Laguna Seca in California to see a prototype Veyron be driven around the track by a professional driver. Who promptly spun it front of the world’s press. Several years of delays followed as engineers desperately tried to make the Veyron conform to the lofty promises that VW Group boss Ferdinand Piech had given. It would have 16 cylinders. It would have 1,000 horsepower. It would do 252mph, like a Porsche 917. It would swim faster than a shark. Ok, not that last one.
The engineers eventually cracked it, and today the Veyron is a significant milestone in the history of the automobile. But it was quite the journey. And even with a price tag of $1.7 million, Bugatti sold every Veyron at a loss.
The Phaeton was a flagship car for Volkswagen, the realisation of a dream by VW Group boss Ferdinand Piech, who envisaged an engineering masterpiece that.... Wait, this all sounds familiar. Did he want a W18 engine in it?
Sure, there are some similarities in concept to the Veyron, but the Phaeton wasn’t meant to smash speed records. Piech wanted VW to go up in premium brand appeal, and to do that he envisaged a car that would out-swank the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. As with the Veyron, he came up with various criteria that the car should meet, to which a large number of engineers declared that it couldn’t be done. What were those criteria? Well, most were kept secret, so we’re not sure. But the one that was released was that it should be capable of keeping a 22ºC internal temperature while it was 55ºC outside. While travelling at 186mph.
More than a billion dollars was spent on development and the Phaeton was eventually produced with a range of engines, the most headline-grabbing of which was a W12 pinched from Bentley. The engineering underneath was Bentley too, and VW crammed in all sorts of modern tech, from adaptive cruise control to air suspension.
It went on sale in 2002 at a loss for Volkswagen, and despite getting five facelifts over a 14-year period, was a massive flop. Turns out people don’t really want a really expensive Volkswagen, no matter how swanky it is.
Nissan Skyline R34
OK, it’s not the whole R34 Skyline that was over-engineered; it’s the engine. Released in 1999, the R34 was the latest in a long line of Skyline sports cars from Nissan, all with a history of racing versions alongside the road cars. The R34 had a new 2.6-litre engine and at release, it made 276bhp. Depending on the story you believe, this was either in line with a gentleman’s agreement between the Japanese manufacturers that they wouldn’t exceed this figure, or it was because of the Japanese racing regulations that stipulated such a maximum output.
Either way, while the engine may have developed 276bhp out of the box (it was probably more, but that’s a different story), it had been designed to cope with a whole heap more grunt than that. Nissan’s engineers knew that the Skyline would have lots of racing ahead of it, so it designed the components to be far stronger than needed. That’s why so many tuners have gone bonkers with the engine, which can easily push out north of 550bhp. Stick on some turbos and beef up a few bits, and you’ll get 800. Easy-peasy.
You might expect over-engineering to be particularly prevalent on luxury or performance cars, and for the most part that’s true. But the Audi A2 was a small hatchback that was ahead of its time in many ways.
The year was 1999 and Audi wanted to establish its green credentials by making the most efficient car it could. So it created a small hatchback, largely from lightweight aluminium, with a super slippery shape that gave it a low drag coefficient, making it even easier on fuel. The diesel version had an engine capable of 94mpg, which is pretty darned impressive.
So it’s a shame that it bombed then. It was so ahead of its time that customers weren’t really interested, especially as its styling was pretty out there for the period. But it’s since developed a low-key cult following from those that appreciate its talents.