They say new technologies such as improved turbochargers, direct fuel injection, advanced transmissions with six speeds and electric-power-assisted steering are producing four-cylinder vehicles with the type of zip Americans demand in their autos.
Later this year, Ford will sell a version of its new-generation Explorer SUV with the automaker's two-liter, four-cylinder "EcoBoost" engine.
It is the first time Ford has ever offered the iconic Explorer with a four-cylinder engine. The previous smallest engine was a 4.0-liter V-6 that produced 210 horsepower. But this new engine will be almost 20% stronger and will get about 26% better fuel economy, putting it in the high-20-mpg range for highway driving.
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.
Hyundai has almost abandoned anything bigger than a four-cylinder, which will account for nearly 90% of its U.S. sales this year.
"We are not counting cylinders. What we are doing is trying to be the world's most fuel-efficient automaker," said John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America. "A well-optimized four-cylinder engine happens to be the best way to do it, and that is why we are employing it in larger cars than we would have in the past."
Shrinking the size of the engine pays important dividends in car design that engineers call a "virtuous circle."
A lighter engine lets designers reduce the thickness of the steel in the engine compartment and then lighten the suspension and other systems. This lowers the weight of the vehicle, gives it more pep and saves on gas.
"It snowballs in a good way," said Jim Federico, GM's chief engineer.
It won't be long before four-cylinder engines start to see competition from even smaller engines, especially as federal fuel economy standards become more stringent and gas prices stay high.
Ford is already working on a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine.