Skip to content

Fake car noise even worse than silent treatment

THE new BMW M5 is one heck of a machine. Face-melting acceleration. Internal-organ-rearranging cornering. Brain-boggling top speed. It is in every way superior to all the M5s that came before. Except for one thing.

THE new BMW M5 is one heck of a machine.

Face-melting acceleration. Internal-organ-rearranging cornering. Brain-boggling top speed. It is in every way superior to all the M5s that came before.

Except for one thing. This new M5 is equipped with something called Active Sound, a system whereby the engine note is reproduced faithfully through the luxury sedan's fancy-pants Hi-Fi audio system.

Now, I love BMW. I love their big, fast sedans. I love that the new M5 can hang with supercars while comfortably carrying four people. I even think the new 5-series is a good-looking car. Again. Finally.

However, and with all respect to the blue-and-white roundel, this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. A BMW where they had to fake the engine noise? In an Mseries car?

Here's the thing: I understand absolutely why they did it. Bimmer's ruthless dedication to making the 5 as silent as a tomb when cruising

at autobahn speeds has resulted in a car that's a little TOO quiet. It's all well and good to strap booster rockets to your mausoleum, but that doesn't make it a fun experience.

By the standards set in the Animal Kingdom, human beings have an extremely limited range of hearing, yet sounds are very important to us. Not just music either: think of the tension created by an ominous movie soundtrack, the soft crunch of snow, the relaxing patter of rain, the visceral tug of a crying child.

So too with cars. To provide the best driving experience possible, your car has to play you a nice tune while you drive it. If it's a great car, you'll want to roll your window down to fully engage in the experience. If it's just a really fast car with engine muzak piped in, then . . . hohum.

Cars are faster than they've ever been. We live in an era where horsepower levels are completely ridiculous and still we demand more. Last week I was driving around in a Hyundai Genesis sedan with their lovely five-litre V-8 which produces - wait for it - 429 horsepower. Four. Hundred. And. Twenty. Nine. Horsepower. In a Hyundai!

Yet to my mind, cars are becoming less and less engaging. You are more isolated from the road. What was fast then feels slow today. It's like riding aboard a jet airliner in the centre seat: you're travelling at a scarcely credible pace, and yet you feel nothing. Well, except for the jerk next to you who's hogging the armrest.

So the white-coated engineers try to inject a little more zip back into the car that another bunch of white-coated engineers have just spent years trying to turn into a mobile library. The result? Automotive light mayonnaise.

But fret not. When I cast my mind back through the catalogue of new cars I've experienced this past year, I can quite easily identify several that sound great.

The Volkswagen GLI for instance. By sport-sedan standards, it's a bit poky, with only 200 horses. But the noise that little turbo four-pot puts out is as growly as a basket-full of annoyed bulldog pups. You can't help putting your foot down, just to hear it bark.

Then there's the Mini Coopers S (any Mini product, really), which flarps and parps and blows big percussive raspberries any time you come off the throttle for a hard downshift. It's such a rude little scamp, you can't help grinning. I would chuck it under the chin, if it had one.

Beyond the forced induction fours, there is little that can touch the throaty roar of an American V-8, and both the Mustang and the Camaro retain the audible qualities of their 1960s ancestry. Real gearheads can tell if it's a blueoval or a bow-tie from miles away.

The king of metal, however, is quite clearly the 6.2-litre V-8 from Mercedes' AMG line. It is beyond ferocious: pushing the starter on a C63 is like prodding a snoring Tyrannosaur in the ribs. There's a sharp snort and then the sort of rumble you get when somebody's about to get their head bitten off.

Add two more cylinders and you get the V-10 of the Lexus LFA. It's a car I don't really like - it's far too expensive, and not very pretty and somewhat tainted by the fact that Paris Hilton has one - but it's not really a car at all, it's a musical instrument. The banshee howl that emanates from the triple exhaust pipes would raise the hackles on even the most dedicated Ferrari or Lamborghini fan.

But it's not a V-12, and it's not Italian. There simply is no substitute for the noise made by a Ferrari or Lamborghini with a 12-cylinder. They are complicated, and expensive, and brittle, but they are the Pavarottis of the automotive world.

Like Pavarotti, they're probably not going to be around forever; the sound of the future is the pious hum of the electric vehicle.

These too can sound great - think of the warp-speed whirr you get out of a Tesla Roadster - but I was never into electronica. I like rock n' roll.

So sorry BMW, but I'll stick to my own kind of Active Sound system. It's this button here, right on the armrest of my car's door. All I have to do is push it and my window rolls down and that sweet boxer rumble rolls in.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.