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Motor Mouth: Alternative facts, and the other lies automobile marketers tell us logo 2020-11-27 David Booth
a toaster oven sitting on top of a car: Cadillac's torque-based badging appears throughout its lineup. The '400' here refers to torque — but not pound-feet. Instead, it refers to a rounded-up figure in Newton-metres. Go figure. © Provided by Cadillac's torque-based badging appears throughout its lineup. The '400' here refers to torque — but not pound-feet. Instead, it refers to a rounded-up figure in Newton-metres. Go figure.

Man, I was excited. Performing my standard walkaround of Cadillac’s new XT6 in the dealership parking lot, I came across the 400 badging now affixed to its rear flank. Could it be? Did Caddy really slip the CT6’s old 400-horsepower, twin-turbo V6 under the hood of the revised XT6 without my noticing? Well done! Normally I’m right on top of new product developments, so I was a little surprised I somehow missed the addition of two huffers to the XT6’s powertrain. But, hey, this would definitely be one case where I’d be more than happy to be wrong.


Except, of course, I wasn’t. There is no twin-turbo version of the XT6, a fact made plainly obvious on the way home when I finally managed to exercise my right foot. Instead of 400 horses, I got 310, and the mountain of torque I was expecting turned out to merely be the 271 pound-feet of GM’s damned-near-ubiquitous, plain ol’ normally aspirated V6. Where the hell were the turbos, and more importantly, if they were indeed as absent as grace in Donald Trump’s (so far non-existent) concession, what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks did that 400 badge represent?

Fake news, as it turns out. Actually, “alternative facts” might be a better description. Automakers, as you probably know, have gotten pretty — let’s call it “generous” — with the numeric designations over the last few years. The digits displayed on rear trunk lids, like the 400 I’m raving about, used to mean something. By tradition, they indicated the displacement of the engines. A BMW 530i, for instance, was a 5 Series sedan with a 3.0-litre straight six. Ditto’s Mercedes E320, a similarly sized four-door sedan with 3.2L engine under its hood. Even if most of us didn’t know exactly what displacement was or what a piston might look like, we understood there was a distinct connection to a definitive attribute, namely the size of the engine.

Then along came turbocharging with its downsized engines. Turbo fours replaced sixes; EcoBoost V6s found homes were once V8s resided. Oh, thanks to exhaust-driven supercharging — the actual technical designation for turbochargers — their horsepower was at least equivalent. But were they to follow traditional model-naming convention, that all-important badge would have to smaller, wouldn’t it? Much smaller, in fact. What was once “30” or “320” would now have to be labeled “20” or “200.” In a land where bigger is better, consumers would not be happy with such a badging downgrade.

So, the major marques invented something called displacement “equivalency.” Essentially, they created the bigger numbering system they — and, well, their customers — were looking for based on the amount of horsepower an engine would produce, had it been naturally aspirated and not turbocharged. Of course, said equivalence is completely arbitrary. There is no officially mandated formula for ascribing some form of normalizing displacement bump as a result of turbocharging a small motor. It’s just what the manufacturer feels is an appropriate descriptor of its car’s performance.

Thus, did BMW’s 3.0L turbocharged 3 Series become a 340, because its 382 hp would be the performance one might expect from a 4.0-litre naturally aspirated V8. The 2.0-litre turbo-four in Mercedes-Benz’s E350 pumps out 255 hp, which, I guess, the company estimates is equivalent to 3.5 litres of normally aspirated V6.

Audi then upped the ante by adding hybridization into the fold, the performance boost of electrification now in the mix. Thus do both a full-sized A8L with a 335-hp turbocharged V6, and the relatively small Q5 with an electrified 2.0T (362 hp), share the same “55” moniker, ostensibly because they produce performance one would have expected — back in the day, when such now-antiquated beasts were common — from a naturally aspired 5.5L V8.

To Audi’s credit, it has — unlike any of its competitors — quantified its nomenclature with the specifics of its equivalencies. Dig deep enough and you’ll find that, in Ingolstadt, “40” represents any powertrain — even fully electric — that pumps out between 167 and 201 horsepower, while the aforementioned “55” is home to anything, regardless of origin or affiliation, boasting 328 to 368 horsepower. In fact, there’s an entire list — available here — starting at “30” and 109 horses and ending at “70,” which is anything over 536 hp.

The important thing to note in all this rigamarole is that the numerical designations are based on something we know. Or at least, think we know. Most people might not understand that horsepower is an artificial unit of measure representing the “rate at which work is done,” or that James Watt invented the term in 1776 as part of a marketing campaign to help him sell his newly minted steam engine. Even fewer will know that a single horsepower is deemed equivalent to the 33,000 pound-feet per minute the very strongest of 18th-century draught horses could draw from a well or coal mine.

But they do understand that 100 horsepower ain’t much at all, 200 horses is starting to get on with it, and anything over 300 is going to move along quite smartly. Ditto displacement. As I said, most of us might not know the displacement of an engine is the equivalent of the swept area of its pistons multiplied by the “stroke” in which they travel through. But even my dear old mater, who, as tradition dictated back in the day, left most of “that car stuff” to my dad, knew that two measly litres wouldn’t get you anywhere, three would be a little more fun, and you could make serious whoopee if you had a 5.0L V8 under the hood. We might not have understood the engineering, but at least the numbers had context.

And it’s this last that makes Cadillac’s latest numerical designations so completely cynical. They’re based on torque, and while most of us have heard the term bandied about — usually when we’re being bored to death by some gearhead — we don’t know what it means. Officially, torque is defined as the “measure of how much a force [the piston] acting on an object [the crankshaft] causes that object to rotate.” (If you want an excellent explanation of the difference between torque and horsepower, look here ). Few understand the concept and almost none of us have any context for how many “torques” — actually pound-feet — is good or bad, sufficient or exemplary. Just try bragging about your new BMW’s 443 pound-feet of torque before telling anyone that it’s a new M4 and see what kind of adulation you get.

But, I hear a few closet Bob Woodwards saying, “you just rambled a few paragraphs ago that the XT6 has 271 pound-feet of torque, not 400.”

Obviously, 271 wasn’t bigly enough a badge for General Motors’ marketing mavens. That’s when they hatched the plan that raised their dubiety to truly Trumpian “but-I-won-Pennsylvania” standards. They simply took those 271 pound-feet and converted it to the metric Newton-metres, by which measure their 3.6L V6 has 400 (actually 367, but, hey, the rounding error is the least of their crimes).

Now, as I said, not many of us understand what torque is and even fewer have any contextual grasp of what a pound-foot might represent. So, when GMC recently started bragging that its new Hummer EV had 11,500 lb-ft of torque — easy explained in a previous Motor Mouth as simply the tomfoolery of gearing — rare was the consumer who could recognize that as a fib of “stop stealing the vote” proportions. Imagine, then, if said braggadocio had been trumpeted in a classification system they’ve never used even once in their life. Hell, The General could have listed the electric Hummer’s output as 16,000 N-m (the metric conversion of those 11,500 Imperial pound-feet of torque), and I doubt if even one in a thousand Canadians would have raised an eyebrow.

That’s all a long way of saying that Cadillac is using a reference no one cares about in a measurement system no one uses, just so it can artificially inflate the size of its badges. And you thought The Donald was the only one using “alternative facts.”

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