It's time for another update from the engine room, providing a quick reminder that the petroleum-fueled internal combustion powerplant still has plenty to offer in terms of high efficiency and fuel savings.
Working our way up, let's start by recognizing a sudden surge in the reputation of the three-cylinder engine. Just hearing those words '” "three-cylinder engine" '” used to conjure up visions of old Saabs and new Japanese kei cars, neither of which have ever earned much love from U.S. buyers.
But the recent news that Porsche is considering a three-cylinder in an entry version of its Porsche Boxster is just one reason to think that the odd engine configuration could gain more fans '” and buyers '” in the near future.
With modern technology allowing smaller engines to provide "acceptable" levels of horsepower and torque, a number of other automakers are also considering adding them to American models, or should be.
For example, recent reports indicate that Ford will use its EcoBoost engine technology on new 0.9- and 1.2-liter three-cylinder powerplants for the European Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta in coming years. Now, some analysts are thinking these might be too small for U.S. buyers, but as long as they deliver reasonable power, actual engine size shouldn't be a factor. And the 1.2-liter engine, for one, will likely be able to deliver 135 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque, a reasonable number for today's compacts and significantly more power than found in the current crop of subcompacts.
As a comparison, the current Ford Focus gets by just fine with 140 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque, while the Hyundai Elantra makes do with 138 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque. The 2011 Fiesta will holster a four-cylinder that makes 118 hp and 112 lb-ft of torque, and the comparable Hyundai Accent has no problems working with 110 hp and 106 lb-ft of torque.
Considering the growing name recognition for EcoBoost, and the success of six-cylinder EcoBoost engines in the Ford Taurus, Ford Flex, Lincoln MKS and Lincoln MKT, I'm betting more people will be interested in seeing that moniker on an engine than counting its cylinders.
Especially if other companies, like Mercedes-Benz, start jumping on the bandwagon. What, you don't think a vehicle wearing the three-pointed star would ever wear a three-cylinder engine?
Well, you might want to think again, as the M-B team is considering a three-cylinder powerplant for the next Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The big issue for the company is trying to reduce the extra noise/vibration/harshness inherent in having an engine with an unbalanced number of cylinders and lower the levels to "Mercedes standards." Which I guess must be higher than Ford's.
Beyond this, the German luxury marque also will be introducing a new four-cylinder engine for use in its E-Class, S-Class and SUVs. Putting the smaller engine in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Mercedes' flagship line, is a move that's as aggressive as it is risky.
That stuff I just wrote about counting horsepower vs. counting cylinders would get a stiff test at the top of the market, where big egos seem to need big engines. Plus, Mercedes is locked in an increasingly competitive battle for the German luxury segment with BMW and a resurgent Audi '” both of which are also cutting down on engine sizes, although not to the extent Mercedes is.
At BMW, the road to higher-efficiency will be powered by a four-cylinder diesel, which is expected to find its way into the BMW 3 Series and, perhaps, the BMW 1 Series. I'm expecting the results to be impressive, too, as a current BMW 328i sedan weighs less than 3,500 lbs and earns an 18/28/22 line from the EPA in terms of city/highway/combined fuel efficiency. True, a nice torquey diesel would add some weight, but it would also provide a double-digit increase in fuel efficiency while still unleashing some attention-grabbing 0-60 times.
The Bavarians are also making some adjustments at the peak of the lineup by launching a six-cylinder option for its BMW 7 Series. This will be the first time in more than 10 years that the Bimmer flagship has had anything less than a V-8 under a its hood; in fact, the current BMW 760 Li can be had with a monster twin-turbo V-12.
Not to be outdone, Audi is said to be considering a V6 option for its own top-of-the-line sedan, the Audi A8. This would fit right in with the company's other recent tactics, such as the way it modified its popular Audi A4 lineup. The A4 proper is now offered solely with Audi's 2.0-liter turbocharged four, while the more performance-oriented Audi S4 swapped its V-8 for a supercharged six-cylinder engine for 2010.
And let's not forget that the company successfully added a TDI diesel version of its premium Audi A3 hatchback to showrooms last year, with Audi stating that, "By year-end, TDI models accounted for ... 53 percent of A3 sales." That undoubtedly helps explain why sales of the A3 happened to be up 58.4 percent in December.
And it's undoubtedly proof that at least some U.S. buyers are recognizing that, when it comes to engines, size actually doesn't matter.