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Leaving the V-6 behind

U.S. drivers are shifting down to four cylinders

May 28, 2011|Jerry Hirsch

When it comes to cars, four is the new six.

Stung by high gas prices, more Americans are seeking cars that can get 30 to 40 miles a gallon. And automakers, facing tougher federal fuel economy standards, are eager to meet that demand.

Four-cylinder engines now account for about 65% of all cars built in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, up from 48% five years ago. Six-cylinder vehicle production slipped to 25% from nearly 40%.

The shift marks one of the biggest transitions since the 1980s, when domestic car buyers traded in their big V-8s for smaller six-cylinder power plants.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 01, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Smaller auto engines: An article in the May 28 Section A about Americans shifting to cars with smaller engines said that BMW would still offer the Z4 sports car with a V-6 option. It will be offered with an inline six-cylinder engine, not a V-6.

More than a third of the cars U.S. consumers are buying from Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. so far this year are powered by four-cylinder engines. That's almost double what people bought from GM in 2008, and more than a 70% gain among Ford customers.

Within five years, about half the vehicles sold in the United States will be powered by four-cylinder engines, said Joe Bakaj, Ford's global powertrain chief.

Japanese automakers are seeing a similar trend. These companies, which pushed bigger engines in recent years, are finding that more customers want the fuel efficiency of four-cylinder motors.

The Honda Accord was once an exclusively four-cylinder-engine car, but by 2000 about a third of all Honda Accords sold in the U.S. were equipped with a V-6. Now V-6 engines account for just 18% of Accord sales.

Similarly, sales of V-6 Toyota Camrys have plunged to less than 9% this year from around 20% for much of the last decade.

BMW stopped selling four-cylinder engines in the U.S. more than a decade ago, thinking they didn't fit the profile of its luxury buyers. Now it will offer a four in the new Z4 sports car that goes on sale this year.

"The world today is very different from the world of the 1990s," said BMW spokesman Tom Kowaleski.

Jessica Bennett of Los Angeles is an example of that change.

Bennett grew up driving gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs in her native Nashville. But this month the 24-year-old professional stuntwoman traded in her Jeep Liberty SUV with a 3.7-liter V-6 engine for a puny 1.6-liter Ford Fiesta sedan.

"I was skeptical about whether I would like the car. I am a stunt girl. I like to go fast. I like things with power," Bennett said.

But the Fiesta's miserly fuel consumption -- it can go more than 30 miles on a gallon of gas -- plus a design that allows her to pack swords and other stunt equipment in the back prompted her to make the move.

"We were getting just 12 miles to the gallon in the Jeep. We have had the Fiesta for two weeks and we filled it up just once," Bennett said.

The new generation of four-cylinder engines also packs more punch. BMW's new 2.0-liter engine, for example, will develop more horsepower than the 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine it replaces.

For decades, auto companies have pushed bigger as better with the motto "There is no replacement for displacement."

Baby boomers and older generations most likely had their first encounter with the four-cylinder engine when the Volkswagen Beetle made its way to the U.S. in the 1960s. It was so underpowered that the car felt as if it was braking when the driver took the foot off the gas pedal.

Later, a flood of Japanese-built Toyota, Honda and Datsun (now Nissan) cars and trucks entered the U.S. market. Although often criticized for their lack of power, the vehicles caught on because they offered low prices, reliability and fuel efficiency.

Now automakers are encouraging the move to smaller engines, in part because federal fuel economy standards will require the combined industrywide fleet to average 34.1 mpg by the 2016 model year. They are packing the smaller vehicles with the types of options -- navigation, sophisticated sound systems, leather seating -- once reserved for fancier autos as a way to raise transaction prices and preserve profits.

Even so, they are butting heads with some consumers whom the industry had previously convinced that cars equipped with small engines were weak and not much fun to drive.

So although BMW will make four cylinders standard for its new Z4, it will still offer a V-6 as an option.

"We would be lying if we said there wasn't a concern," Kowaleski said.

Scott Leitner recently purchased the six-cylinder version of the Chevrolet Equinox SUV, paying an almost $2,000 premium for the extra power.

Leitner also test drove the same SUV powered by four cylinders but decided the bigger engine made it easier "to merge onto the freeway." The substitute teacher from Rossmoor said he thinks the extra power works better for driving in the mountains and for long trips. And besides, Leitner said he was already making a concession by trading in a Chevrolet Tahoe with an eight-cylinder engine.

To capture such shoppers, automakers are changing their marketing message, talking more about horsepower and fuel economy and less about the number of cylinders the engine in a vehicle contains.

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