I told a caller last Saturday on the air “buddy, you’ve got to get over the thought that 4-cylinder engines are like they were just five years ago”. It is all part of the changing automotive landscape. Who would have ever thought Ford would be selling more 6-cylinder trucks than V8s?
Some of the most exciting, technically intriguing engines today aren’t throbbing V-8s, exotic V-12s, trendy electric-gasoline hybrids or post-modernist hip European diesels.
Engines as small as 2 liters were long dismissed as weaklings fit only for little economy cars. Americans weren’t inclined to take an engine seriously if the total displacement of its cylinders was the same size as a 99-cent bottle of Coke.
Today, 2-liter, four-cylinder engines propel high-powered sport sedans, elegant roadsters and roomy crossover SUVs. For further proof, read my review of the Volkswagen CC this week.
“This is a huge transformation in the industry,” said Tom Murphy, executive editor of Ward’s AutoWorld magazine, which publishes the influential 10 Best Engines list.
After building mediocre four-cylinder engines for years, General Motors and Ford are at the forefront of the trend, offering high-powered small-displacement engines with the likes of Audi, BMW and Volkswagen. Japanese automakers have been slow to join the party, but Korea’s Hyundai and Kia are firmly on the bandwagon.
North American use of four-cylinder engines will grow 74% from 6.9 million to 12.2 million over the next 10 years, according to IHS Automotive. IHS predicts V-6 and V-8 use in North American-made vehicles will fall 17% to about 6 million in the same period.
The new four-cylinder engines produce as much power as six- or even eight-cylinder engines, but use less fuel and emit fewer pollutants. They achieve this thanks to turbocharging, high-pressure injection of fuel directly into the cylinders, electronic controls and new transmissions.
“Americans are willing to accept smaller engines as long as there’s power,” IHS analyst Aaron Bragman said. “This is where the industry is headed.”
A 2-liter direct-injection turbo powers the impressive Buick Regal GS. The engine’s 270 horsepower and 27-mile-per-gallon highway EPA rating proves equally delightful on a long, fast trip. The next generation of the engine is to make its debut in the Cadillac ATS sport sedan this summer.
“The power is off the chart. GM has polished that engine to a fine sheen,” Murphy said. Three of Wards’ 2012 winners are turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter engines from BMW, Ford and GM. A fourth engine on the list, from Mazda, has 2.0 liters and direct injection sans turbo.
“The trend to 2-liter engines is a phenomenon,” Murphy said. “Certain brands have decided they don’t even need to offer a V-6 in their midsize sedans. The new four-cylinder engines can power the vast majority of passenger cars and crossovers. This is the next generation of muscle cars.”
There are limits, however. The early consensus seems to be that Ford’s 2-liter works well in the 3,998-pound Edge crossover but struggles in the larger 4,500-pound Explorer.
Today, 2 liters is the sweet spot, but even smaller engines are coming. Ford — which calls the combination of turbocharging and direct injection EcoBoost — will offer it on a 170-horsepower-plus 1.6-liter engine in the upcoming 2013 Escape crossover and Fusion midsize sedan. Ford reserves its 237-horsepower 2-liter engine for performance models of those vehicles.
“Automakers are pushing displacement down and power up,” said Bill Visnic of Edmunds.com. Witness the 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter Chrysler will offer in the new 2013 Dodge Dart compact sedan.
The odds are there’s a small, powerful four-cylinder engine in your future.