Get ready for a new generation of cars equipped with surprisingly powerful three-cylinder engines that, according to early reviews out of Europe, have both the zip and zoom Americans expect in the four-cylinder compact sedans they buy today..
"This engine is a game-changer," Steve Cropley of Autocar magazine, a British publication, said of the three-cylinder Ford Focus that just went on sale in Europe
A 2012 Ford Focus with the three-cylinder EcoBoost engine. Based on technology used in much bigger vehicles, the engine will pack 100 to 125 horsepower. (Ford / February 10, 2012)
The car companies are encouraged by how quickly Americans have downsized from larger engines to four-cylinder power plants. Almost half, or 47%, of the cars sold last year had four cylinders, according to auto information company Edmunds.com. That's up from 34% in 2007. Many small sport utilities, and even some larger ones such as the Ford Explorer, also come in four-cylinder models.
"Three cylinders shouldn't be much of a stretch," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for automotive consulting firm AutoPacific Inc.
Downsizing engines is part of an auto industry strategy to meet federal fuel economy standards that require the combined industrywide fleet to average 34.1 mpg by the 2016 model year, and a proposed 54.5 mpg by 2025.
The new 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder — the smallest engine Ford has ever built — is turbocharged and patterned on the same technology used in much bigger vehicles, including Ford's F-150 pickup truck. The engine will pack 100 to 125 horsepower, depending on the configuration. British drivers will pay about $400 extra for the engine over the base five-door Focus.
Its horsepower and torque outputs are equivalent to or better than many 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engines now on the market, said Derrick Kuzak, Ford group vice president of global product development.
Both Ford and BMW are said to be developing even more powerful three-cylinders — engines that could pack upward of 150 ponies, making them stronger than many of the four-cylinders that come in cars today.
Engine sound will be one of the things engineers will be sure to consider as they ready the new three-cylinder engines for the U.S. market, said Sullivan of AutoPacific. Small engines can sound tiny and cheap to some American consumers. BMW and Ford's Lincoln division are both using the internal audio systems of vehicles to enhance engine sound in larger vehicles.
"This could be used on a three-cylinder engine to make it sound like an inline four-cylinder engine or a V-6 via the speakers in the car," Sullivan said. "If you could offer a 175 HP inline three that sounds like a V-6, would you buy it?"
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