Smaller Engines Getting More Respect

Back in the late 1960’s, over 90% of new cars were offered with some kind of V8 engine. Then came the gas crunch, and big V8’s went out of vogue in place of smaller 4-cylinder engines. Yet America has always had a love affair with big, powerful engines. While lately the number of V8-powered cars on the roads has dwindled, many people still opt for the largest available engine when given the choice.

That is changing though, as automakers constantly improve their smaller engine lineup. 47% of new cars bought so far in 2010 have 4-cylinder engines. That is quite a jump from just a few years ago.

Surprisingly, fuel economy isn’t the only driving factor here. While I’ve had nothing but good things to say about my ancient and underpowered 4-cylinder Mustang, many four-cylinder engines were just plain old unreliable. These days though, four-cylinder engines are making great strides in both power and reliability. Ford’s 2.0 liter EcoBoost engine, which will be the premium engine choice on the 2011 Ford Explorer, makes 237 horsepower and 250 ft-lbs of torque while delivering 30% better gas mileage than the outgoing V6.

The trend is most prominent in mid-size sedans, many of which offer base four-cylinder engines as well as “premium” V6 engines. According to the Detroit News, 70% of Ford Fusion buyers opted for the four-cylinder engine this year, compared with 55% in 2007; and 93% of Nissan Altima drivers choose the 175 horsepower four-cylinder engine rather than then 270 horsepower V6. Really though, if all you plan on doing is hauling the kids back and forth, do you really need the extra 100 horsepower? My guess is no, you don’t.

I’m willing to bet the economy has something to do with this too. Even people who can afford a new car in this market are only buying what they need in a car. Many V6 engines cost a premium of $2,000 or more, and often you get sucked in with other bells and whistles like heated seats or navigation system—known as “forced features.” Some people just want a car sans the bells and whistles.

This is good news for the automakers, who are throwing a lot of weight into making small engines “acceptable.” It seems they are really reading the public for once. I am holding out for an EcoBoost Fiesta or Focus myself. Good gas mileage + lotsa horsepower = Happy Chris.

Source: Detroit News Image: GM

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.