Much like hybridization was the favored emerging fuel-efficiency technology a decade ago, downsizing is the current hot setup for car-company engineers charged with improving the fuel economy of current — and future — vehicles.
Expensive gasoline has pushed fuel economy to the top of the list of “must-haves” for new-car buyers and there seems to be a distinct and increasing consumer intent to make an environmental and economic difference by, at least in some cases, choosing fuel-efficiency over power. There are also the pending fuel-economy regulations mandating most automakers’ lineups average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Both these factors are driving the auto-industry shift toward smaller engines with fewer cylinders.
Take a look at a couple examples from the mainstream of the market: General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet division and the nation’s longstanding best-selling nameplate, Ford Motor Co.’s F-Series pickup truck.
At Chevrolet, consistently one of the nation’s biggest-selling brands, the percentage of retail customers for all Chevrolet models opting for 4-cylinder engines climbed from 23 percent in 2007 to 46 percent in 2011 so far this year, GM’s largest division said. When you consider that full-size pickups mostly powered by V-8 engines are a dominant factor in Chevy’s sales, the doubling of 4-cylinder penetration in its overall sales mix is a powerful sign that downsizing is the order of the day for many buyers of everyday vehicles.
Chevy’s sales data also indicates installation rates for 6-cylinder and 8-cylinder engines have been declining. In 2007, V-8s powered 47 percent of all Chevrolets sold at retail. At the end of 2010, the ratio had dropped to 40 percent — and through mid-March stood at 32 percent as U.S. buyers shift away from large vehicles and large engines.
In terms of average displacement, Chevrolet’s aggregate engine displacement in 2007 was 4.27 liters; by the end of last year, average displacement dropped to 3.88 liters and was 3.5 liters through mid-March this year, according to Chevrolet.
Meanwhile, Ford’s F-Series pickup line has been the nation’s top-selling model for two decades. Early this year, Ford introduced two V-6 engine options for the 2011 F-150 – until now, the current-generation F-150 was a pickup line that exclusively used V-8s.
The F-150’s two new V-6s — a normally aspirated 3.7-liter and a 3.5-liter using Ford’s EcoBoost technology — have struck a definitive chord with customers who want a pickup but also are stipulating better fuel economy. In April, more than one in three F-150s was sold with the EcoBoost V-6.
Ford, though, claims customers don’t have to sacrifice anything in opting for a smaller engine. The EcoBoost V-6, which generates a V-8 mimicking 365 horsepower, also can improve fuel economy by as much as 20 percent compared with a V-8. The 2011 F-150 with the EcoBoost V-6 earned an Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway; that compares with 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway for the same pickup with a V-8.
Meanwhile, although V-8s and V-6s still will play a role in many segments of the market, improving technology and design is permitting smaller-displacement engines (and those with fewer cylinders) to mimic the power and performance of larger powerplants. Even performance-oriented brands, such as BMW and Porsche, have openly admitted to future powertrain initiatives to embrace smaller engines or fewer cylinders to address mounting regulatory and customer pressures for greater efficiency. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
Manufacturer photo: With the price of gasoline above $4 a gallon in many parts of the United States, more customers are choosing Chevrolet’s fuel efficient cars and crossovers. Nationally, Chevrolet sold a record 25,160 Cruze compact cars in April — the most compact cars Chevrolet has sold since May of 2008. The four-cylinder Cruze offers hybrid-like fuel economy – up to 42 mpg highway — without the hybrid price.
Copyright, AutoWriters Associates Inc., 2011