Once Upon a Time, The Holy Grail Was a V16 SUV

In the recent past, automakers considered bulking up Escalades, Range Rovers and Yukons with enormous V12 and V16 engines. None succeeded.

January 23, 2023 6:28 am
The Cadillac V16 engine, built by Katech, that was featured in the Cadillac Sixteen concept car. The automaker considered putting it in an SUV.
The enormous XV16, featured in the Cadillac Sixteen concept, was considered for the Escalade.

You can’t talk about automotive excess without mentioning our current crop of high-performance full-size SUVs. Still, these multi-ton behemoths, outfitted with over-the-top horsepower, have remained restrained in one specific area: cylinder count. 

Despite a number of ultra-luxury sedans and coupes from Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin and Bugatti that feature engines that split their Vs across as many as 12 and 16 cylinders, there has yet to be a modern sport-utility vehicle to walk the same path. In fact, it’s been three decades since a brand brought an SUV to market that boasted more than eight cylinders under the hood: the “Rambo Lambo” LM002, Lamborghini’s brutal V12-powered dune tamer that ended production in the early ’90s. 

The last 30 years have seen automakers like Land Rover and General Motors experiment with breaking through the V8 barrier. However, the end results have always remained tantalizing but forbidden fruit as economic realities, fuel-mileage nightmares and the mainstreaming of turbocharging all conspired to keep these over-cylindered oddities out of the showroom. 

The second-generation Range Rover P38A driving at Eastnor Castle in December 2012, marking 50 years of off-road testing at the U.K. castle
Land Rover once stuffed a V12 into a second-gen Range Rover like this one.
Jaguar Land Rover

The BMW-Powered Range Rover

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the first legitimate heir to Lamborghini’s 12-cylinder mantle hailed from the British Isles. Land Rover’s lengthy off-road history was intertwined with Jaguar’s heritage as builder of superlative luxury and sports cars, having had their fortunes mashed together under the auspices of the British Leyland merger in the late ‘60s that lasted until the mid-‘80s. 

During that period, Land Rover engineers had ample exposure to Jaguar’s extensive experience designing and building V12 motors for their various coupes and sedans. The idea of importing this tech into the Range Rover family — which was increasingly viewed as a premium hauler overseas — must have been appealing, even if the company lacked the resources and the business case to make it work in that era.

When Land Rover was scooped up by another major automotive conglomerate a decade or so later, the idea of a 12-cylinder Range Rover was once again revived. This time, however, the money was there to make it happen, even if the technical expertise was sourced from the other side of the English Channel. New corporate parent BMW had more than a casual interest in seeing whether its own in-house V12 (borrowed from the 7 Series sedan) could elevate the Range Rover into six-figure territory, as it viewed an uber-SUV as a quick way to fill company coffers with only minimal investment.

Land Rover built a pair of prototypes featuring the monster motor. The drivetrain required extending the front end of the truck in order to maintain proper cooling and fit the required bits and bobs. However, the long-nose Range Rover was shelved after initial testing, and the business shake-up that followed soon after (namely, Ford’s acquisition of the company from BMW) killed the concept entirely. 

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Cadillac Mines Its Heritage, Twice

Just a few years later, another car company with a (distant) history of building high cylinder count engines was exploring its own big-boned engine option. Cadillac introduced the world to the mass-produced V8 all the way back in 1914, but 15 years later it had ventured further afield into the production of both V12 and V16 engines, each of which would stand throughout the 1930s at the apex of the automaker’s offerings.

Roughly six decades later, Cadillac revived its many-cylindered heritage with a pair of concept cars. The 750-horsepower, V12-powered Cadillac Cien arrived in 2002, while the eponymous Cadillac Sixteen followed the year after, producing an astounding 1,000 horsepower from 13.6 liters of displacement.

Even crazier? Cadillac managed to shoehorn a version of the Cien’s V12 between the front fenders of its ultra popular Escalade SUV to create a running and driving test bed for the technologies embodied by the Cien. Based on similar architecture as the company’s line of Northstar V8 engines, the 12-cylinder XV12 motor pioneered features such as direct fuel injection and cylinder deactivation, and was tuned to provide a more reasonable 500 horses when MotorTrend was allowed to drive it in 2003.

At the time, the XV12 Escalade wasn’t slated for production, with Cadillac bosses instead hoping to one day stuff the engine into a full-size sedan. Was this because 12-cylinders weren’t seen as offering enough shock and awe in GM’s full-size sport-utility platform? It certainly seems as though that might have been the case, because in a recent interview with GM Authority, the Escalade’s current product manager revealed that the Cadillac Sixteen’s mammoth motor was seriously considered as a potential motivator for a high-performance version of the SUV. General Motors even went so far as to build a drivetrain mule for the XV16 engine in the form of a modified 2003 GMC Yukon. As with the Land Rover, the Yukon’s front end had to be stretched (by 16 inches) to accommodate the test motor, which was built by corporate partner Katech. 

Robert A. Lutz, GM vice chairman for product development, stands with the 2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI on January 6, 2003
Bob Lutz, at the time GM vice chairman for product development, with the Cadillac Sixteen concept in 2003.
David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty

V8 Reigns Supreme Over V16

It’s easy to see why the Range Rover never fulfilled its V12 potential, given the platform limitations (which would have precluded a certain level of off-road competence) and financial uncertainties surrounding the company at the time.

The Escalade backing away from the over-eight-cylinder brink was the result of a more nuanced collection of circumstances. Much of the business case for Cadillac’s colossus centered around its platform sharing with high-volume pickups and SUVs built by lesser brands such as Chevrolet and GMC, which allowed the luxury badge to post massive profits by leveraging parts commonality and economies of scale. Adding a bespoke 12-cylinder engine into this mix would no doubt boost the brand’s image among a small subset of customers, but it’s more difficult to guarantee enough cash flow to make it worthwhile to GM accountants. Add in the fact that the Northstar engine was on its last legs developmentally (it would leave Cadillac showrooms by the end of the decade), and the V12’s fate was seemingly sealed.

What of the Cadillac Sixteen’s mill? Despite its much higher production cost, in terms of technology there was more of a future to be found in its 16-cylinder acreage, given that it was an offshoot of GM’s popular LS engine family. This allowed the V16 to act as a stalking horse for future top-shelf Cadillac models for nearly 15 years, until the production of the Blackwing twin-turbo V8 took its spiritual place in the short-lived CT6-V sedan.

Cadillac’s full-size SUV waited longer for its own under-hood hammer punch, but when it arrived just last year, the Escalade-V shunned both the ghost of the V16 and the current specter of the stunningly high-tech Blackwing V8. Instead, it featured a supercharged LS V8 shared with other members of the automaker’s hi-po family, thus hewing to the General’s philosophy of parts bin commonality as a path to profitability for even its most super of SUVs.

As for the rest of the sport-utility pack, in a world where a twin-turbo V8 can reliably produce over 600 horsepower, and a supercharged 8-cylinder can count on more than 700 ponies, the need to add four or more cylinders to the equation feels like a brute force solution to a problem that’s already been solved with elegance (and economy). 

The days of needing more than one hand to count out each cylinder bank under the hood of an SUV are long behind us — and with the advent of ultra-ferocious EV torque monsters, near-future customers will instead be using both hands to load the frunk, not keep track of the vehicle’s pistons.

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