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10 Cars with the Smallest Engines for the Highest EPA grades

Charles Krome
by Charles Krome
June 23, 2015
6 min. Reading Time
 Photo by Ford

Photo by Ford

Well, it turns out that there is a replacement for displacement, at least when it comes to the cars with the smallest engines in the industry, and the difference-maker is turbocharging—a technology that uses recaptured exhaust gases to drive a small compressor to force more air into the engine, allowing more fuel to be burned and more power to be made. With that technology now in the mainstream, automakers are deploying it on smaller and smaller engines to realize a customer-satisfying combination of fuel-economy and traditional performance.

As a result, our small-engine honor roll tops out at 1.5 liters, with the “biggest” unit making do with a mere three cylinders. And there actually are more than 10 engines smaller than that, but Autobytel wanted to bring more vehicle brands into the mix here to satisfy more of our customers.

2015 Ford Focus

The Blue Oval put itself on the leading edge of the tiny-engine trend with its 1.0-liter, three-cylinder EcoBoost unit, which was named “International Engine of the Year” for three consecutive years after it was first introduced. Today, that powerplant is found in some of the cars with the smallest engines in the world, like the 2015 Ford Focus, where it serves up 123 hp, 148 lb.-ft. of torque, and fuel-economy ratings that peak at 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway/35 mpg combined—albeit matched only with a six-speed manual transmission.

However, that premium engine is available for the mid-grade Focus SE trim, so it gets paired with standard features like a filtered climate-control system with rear-seat heat ducts, six-speaker audio with steering-wheel controls, and SYNC with MyFord technology, all with relatively affordable pricing that remains under $20,000.


2016 Fiat 500X

A key benefit of the Fiat-Chrysler merger was the fact that U.S. customers finally gained access to the former’s innovative powertrain technologies—like those behind the automaker’s 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine. The powerplant provides plenty of pop for a variety of the vehicles with the smallest motors in the marketplace, highlighted by the 2016 FIAT 500X.

Designed as a more rugged, crossover-style addition to the Fiat family, the 500X furnishes four doors and a versatile cabin capable of holding either five occupants or more than 32 cubic feet of cargo.

Also delivering more than a dash of fashion-forward Italian style, the 500X relies on its high-tech engine and six-speed manual transmission for 160 hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque, along with EPA scores of 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined.

Interesting to note, the 500X's engine can also be found in the hi-po Fiat 500 Abarth.

 Photo by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Photo by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

2015 Dodge Dart

The cars with the tiniest engines also tend to be exceedingly fuel efficient, and such is the case with the 2015 Dodge Dart Aero. The Aero model is the high-efficiency choice in the Dart family’s quiver, thanks to a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine with MultiAir valve technology and top EPA scores of 28 mpg city/41 mpg highway/32 mpg combined.

True, that’s when the car is configured with a standard six-speed manual transmission, but the Dart Aero also offers a six-speed automatic, with that transmission ringing up an EPA line of 28/40/32.

The Aero trim additionally adds upscale cues such as standard 16-inch aluminum wheels, Dodge’s signature “racetrack” LED tail lamps, a rearview camera, automatic headlamps, a leather-wrapped shift knob, a multi-function and leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a Uconnect media center with 8.4-inch touchscreen and voice recognition for Bluetooth functionality


2015 Ford Fiesta

Like its larger sibling, the 2015 Ford Fiesta relies on the award-winning 1.0-liter EcoBoost powerplant to reserve its place on Autobytel’s list of cars with the smallest engines. But although both vehicles enjoy the same 123 hp and 148 lb.-ft. of torque from that three-cylinder engine, there’s a big difference in curb weight between the two. The Blue Oval’s subcompact is more than 300 lbs. lighter than its compact contender, in both hatchback and sedan body styles, so the Fiesta brings peppier acceleration to the party along with higher fuel-economy ratings. The bottom line for the Fiesta, EPA-wise: 31 mpg city/43 mpg highway/36 mpg combined.

Because the Fiesta is a size class smaller than the Focus, it further showcases a smaller starting price, and that translates into more content for the money for folks who fit into the nimbler dimensions of the first car.

 Photo by Benjamin Hunting

Photo by Benjamin Hunting

2015 Mitsubishi Mirage

The 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage has firmly established itself as one of the most popular cars with very small engines, seeing record sales that, in some months, exceeded those of the Mirage’s mainstream Chevy rival.

Certainly helping matters, the Mirage provides the highest fuel-economy ratings of any unplugged, non-hybrid new car in the country, courtesy of its naturally aspirated1.2-liter, three-cylinder engine. The petite powerplant produces 74 hp and a matching amount of lb.-ft. of torque, complemented by EPA marks of 37 mpg city/44 mpg highway/40 mpg combined.

Now, it must be mentioned that those numbers are with the Mirage’s available continuously variable transmission, but the standard manual model realizes ratings of 34/42/37, and many smaller-engined choices don’t offer automatic transmissions at all. Both models are practically priced, too, with the manual Mirage starting at $12,995 and the CVT available for an extra $1,100.


2015 BMW i3

While the standard 2015 BMW i3 has no engine at all—since it’s an all-electric vehicle driven by a sophisticated hybrid synchronous motor—the version equipped with an internal-combustion “range extender” really raises the bar for cars with small engines. But it does so by shrinking the size of its own gas engine to a tiny, naturally aspirated, two-cylinder unit with .65 liters of displacement and outputs of 34 hp and 40 lb.-ft. of torque. 

More importantly, by adding that powerplant to the i3’s pre-existing electric-propulsion system, itself capable of 170 hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque, owners enjoy not just 72 miles of zero-emissions EV driving, but also an EPA-certified 68 miles of gas-powered range.

And because the i3 is a BMW, owners enjoy all that in a package that blends enthusiastic rear-wheel-drive vehicle dynamics, leading-edge driver-assistance measures and an impressive dose of Deustchland’s most desirable luxuries.

 Photo by BMW

Photo by BMW

2015 MINI Hardtop 4-Door

Backed by a BMW-sourced engine, the 2015 MINI Hardtop 4-Door has a well-deserved reputation as a fun-to-drive, hot-handling hatchback. Yet like a lot of the cars with small engines available today, it also stands out for its impressive fuel-efficiency ratings. Thus, this MINI can manage to achieve EPA ratings of 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway/33 mpg combined—even though BMW engineers have deployed the full gamut of TwinPower turbo technologies to squeeze 134 hp and 162 lb.-ft. of torque from just three cylinders and 1.5 liters of displacement.

It’s also worth noting that, despite its small physical footprint, the Hardtop 4-Door can fit up to five adults or up to 40.7 cubic feet of cargo, making it a surprisingly practical daily driver that further features standard six-speaker audio and a leather-wrapped, multi-function steering wheel, and a long list of available upgrades.


2016 Smart Fortwo

Sure, the current Smart lineup is a leader among cars with smaller engines, but the brand-new 2016 Smart Fortwo will manage to make things even smaller. In fact, displacement drops by about 10 percent, with the car’s next-gen three-cylinder engine sized at .9 liters and set up with the latest Mercedes-Benz turbocharging technologies. But as a perfect example of how much the 2016 Fortwo has been upgraded versus the 2015 model, outputs increase to 89 hp and 100 lb.-ft. of torque, representing jumps of 27 percent and 47 percent, respectively. 

Meanwhile, similarly strong improvements are found throughout the new Fortwo, which also will rejigger its roster with three new trim levels—”passion,” “prime” and “proxy”—to better match customer content preferences. Keep in mind, too, that the new amenities will include especially high-demand tech features like smartphone integration and real-time navigation.


2016 Chevrolet Trax

The 2016 Chevrolet Trax, in truth, is just one of a bunch of Bowtie-brand vehicles with little engines: Entries like the Chevy Spark, Chevy Sonic, Chevy Cruze and Chevy Volt also boast powerplants of 1.5 liters or less, with that first trio sharing the same 1.4-liter turbo that comes standard in the Trax crossover. Needless to say, that kind of new-found small-car expertise has been welcomed by both the brand and customers alike, with the Trax igniting particularly powerful interest from customers in the quickly growing compact-crossover segment. 

It probably doesn’t hurt that the Trax further touts a high-tech package of standard and available content like 4G LTE connectivity, a mobile wi-fi hotspot, navigation (via the BringGo app), keyless entry, push-button start and a rearview camera system.

Moreover, with 10 standard airbags and safety-cage construction that leverages ultra-high-strength steel, the Trax has earned a 5-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA.


2016 Buick Encore

Fresh off a sizzling sophomore selling season, the 2016 Buick Encore premium compact crossover continues to build sales as one of the more luxurious vehicles with small engines. 

A key, of course, is that the Encore enables superior levels of connectivity, with 4G technology from OnStar, a mobile wi-fi hotspot that can support multiple digital devices, the Buick IntelliLink setup with a 7-inch color screen, Siri Eyes Free for select iPhones, Bluetooth, and text-messaging assistance. Nor does the encore stint on creature comforts, as the Encore also can be configured with a premium leather cabin that provides heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, seven-speaker Bose audio, forward-collision warning and lane-departure alert. 

Oh, and about the Encore’s pocket-sized powerplant: It’s GM’s popular 1.4-liter, four-cylinder unit that serves up 138 hp, 148 lb.-ft. of torque and EPA ratings of 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/25 mpg combined.



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