There’s a stranger under the hood

"Stay out of the engine compartment.”

"Stay out of the engine compartment.” That’s what you automakers are saying, or at least implying, when we owners lift the hood of our cars, and are confronted with nicely-finished plastic coverings as far as the eye can see — but precious little actual mechanical or electrical components.

Some makes, like BMW, have even got rid of the engine oil dipstick, replacing it with a sensor and a dash readout.

I didn’t ask to be born this way, but I am one of those people, and I know there are more than a few of us, who actually like to pull out the engine oil dipstick on occasion, to check the level, AND to contemplate the cleanliness of said engine oil. See it with our eyes, so to speak.

The other reason I would lament the demise of the dipstick, is that it just might be one of the best words in the automotive lexicon. Dipstick.

You can’t even say it, without the slight anticipatory joy of maybe using it to describe a loved one or a colleague in the near future.

Try that with its possible successor… “I can’t believe you just did that, you, you sensor with a dash readout.” Just doesn’t ring true.

But with or without the dipstick, the entire plasticized engine compartment is still, in my books, a questionable modern advancement.

As we mentioned right off the top, it basically says, “don’t touch.” Do they think most of want to fondle an exhaust gas recirculation valve, just for the fun of it? Give us a bit of credit here. It’s a bit like those labels on aerosol shaving cream cans that advise us to keep them away from open flames. I mean, even if you did that once, you’d never do it again.

The other aspect that galls is that it’s hard to see the actual design of the engine components and of the engine itself. Sometimes you can’t even tell if it’s a four- or a six-cylinder motor under that maze of wires and plastic.

Back in the day when engine compartments were less busy, you’d proudly throw open the hood to show off the sheer bulk of your big-block V8 — a very recognizable shape. Lots of engines were equally visually interesting and recognizable, like VW’s flat-four, Chrysler’s slant six, and Jaguar’s DOHC straight six.

Does anybody know what his or her engine looks like these days? Would you recognize your Camry’s 2.4-litre I4 if it accosted you on the sidewalk one day?

My final point, is that an engine compartment that looks like the insides of a computer, is just another marker in the road that’s evolving the automobile into more of a commodity and/or appliance, and to a place where it is less defined by what it’s packing, “under the hood.”

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for over 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

 
 
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