Does your car fake it? Secret, phony engine noises exposed

As car technology improves, insulation, materials, and engine design have also gotten better—which means there’s a lot less noise in the cabin. Less road and engine noise is generally desirable and associated with luxury and higher-end cars. Generally. But certain types of drivers, in certain types of cars, actually want to hear some engine and exhaust sounds. For them, the super-quiet cabin takes away part of the driving experience.

So what’s a modern day car manufacturer to do? How do you provide the quiet, civilized experience for those who want it, while also letting the more sport-inclined hear the sounds they want to hear? Two words: fake it.

That’s right—no one talks about it much, but there are a lot of top manufacturers using fake engine and exhaust sounds to provide those parts of the driving experience that used to be more readily audible from behind the wheel. And they’ve been doing it for years; you’ve probably been totally duped by fake engine noises in a car at least once, and not even known it.

Who does it?

Almost everyone does—Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Porsche, Lexus, Audi, Chevy, and Kia, to name a few. It seems that while everyone likes more fuel-efficient new engines—which are smaller, more powerful, and more fuel efficient—most car buyers have the perception that a car is less powerful or somehow substandard when they go for a test drive and can’t hear the engine. So all these improvements can end up being actually bad for business.

Every kind of car, from the burly Ford F150 to the svelte and sporty BMW M5, is susceptible to this aural chicanery. A Ford pickup owner wants to hear that engine roar, and a BMW driver wants to hear the revs as they run through the gears. If they stomp on the gas, they expect an aggressive response both mechanically and audibly. (Maybe this starts in childhood, back when we all put playing cards in our bicycle spokes?)

How do they do it?

This soundshaping sleight of hand can be achieved several different ways, but most of the time it’s done through the car’s existing stereo speakers.

Because these sound liberties are not something most manufacturers really promote, a lot of people are unaware of them. One big exposé was back in 2014, when Road & Track was doing a test drive of the Ford Mustang with EcoBoost. (That model has a smaller, more fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engine, and as a result it doesn’t make as much noise as its V6 and V8 stablemates.) 

No one was the wiser, until R&T’s Jason Cammisa pulled a fuse in the test car. That silenced the stereo. And… the engine. It didn’t cause the engine to stop running, mind you… it just caused it to stop making noise. And that’s when R&T’s reviewers realized that something was up. They later confirmed that the Mustang with EcoBoost was fitted with what Ford calls ‘Active Noise Control’ as well as ‘Active Noise Cancellation.’ The combination of the two basically means noise cancellation, as well as addition of supplemental and enhancing engine sounds and exhaust notes. Coming right through the stereo speakers.

In other cars, there are dedicated (hidden) speakers that pipe in the phony sounds. In the Volkswagen Golf R, for example, a device called a SoundAktor (German for ‘sound actuator’) is a speaker located in the engine compartment. The SoundAktor has an audio file stored on it, and it’s activated by certain acceleration patterns.

Porsche’s method, which they call a ‘Sound Symposer’, was first installed in the 911 back in 2012. It doesn’t so much add fake sounds as it amplifies existing ones. It’s essentially a diaphragm inside a tube, with a valve that opens when it’s activated. It’s activated when the driver presses the ‘Sport’  or ‘Sport Plus’ button, and the diaphragm amplifies the mechanical sounds into the cabin.

Electric cars

Electric cars are a whole different matter when it comes to engine sounds, because they of course have no engine, no gears, and no exhaust. So they’re basically silent. It makes a car feel faster, that silent, linear, drive-by-wire acceleration. But it also lacks some key parts of the driving experience; everyone who grew up driving a car with an internal combustion engine takes a lot of visceral cues (and satisfaction, for many of us) from the sound of a revving engine that responds with every press of the accelerator. There’s also a safety issue—pedestrians and cyclists can’t hear a Prius creeping through a parking lot, or a Tesla rounding a blind curve.

So manufacturers are often adding sounds to those as well… which might be brilliant, but mostly just seems ridiculous. The Porsche Taycan, for example, has a $500 option called ‘Porsche Electric Sport Sound’ (yes, the acronym is ‘PESS’, which they maybe didn’t think through). It does come standard on the top-of-the-line Taycan Turbo S, but buyers of the rest of the pricey electrified Porsche lineup will be paying for it. It’s basically engineered to emulate the sound of the 911’s legendary flat 6.

Tesla owners can plug in a USB drive and make their EV sound like any car they have a recording of. And it’s definitely ridiculous (and not in a good way). Here, for example, is a Tesla emitting Dodge Hellcat sounds.

Whether gas-powered or electric, chances are that what you hear when you hit the gas is not a faithful representation of your car’s actual sounds. But it’s been this way for years, so we’ve all probably become more or less used to it, if unwittingly.

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