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Ford is among automakers touting small engines

Marking an industry turnaround, Ford's strategy of making powerful but smaller engines is part of the automaker's goal to 'increase the fuel efficiency every year forever,' CEO Alan Mulally says.

April 21, 2012|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Ford's shift to smaller engines include the 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engines going into the new Escape crossover and Fusion family car and a 3.5-liter V-6 it is placing in the F-150 pickup truck. Above, at the Formula Ford dealership in Montpelier, Vt.
Ford's shift to smaller engines include the 1.6-liter four-cylinder… (Toby Talbot, Associated…)

In a turnabout once unthinkable, Ford Motor Co. is bragging about how it now makes some of the smallest car engines in the industry. This is coming from a company whose trademark was selling big, powerful trucks, SUVs and the Mustang muscle car.

Ford's race to smaller engines actually represents an industry shift as all automakers are wooing fuel-conscious consumers and working to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at TrueCar.com, an auto price information company.

"We believe that we are going to pay more for energy going forward and that fuel efficiency is the top reason to buy," Alan Mulally, Ford's chief executive, said in an interview with The Times this week. "That is going on all around the world now."

Mulally said Ford's strategy of making powerful but smaller engines is part of the automaker's goal to "increase the fuel efficiency every year forever."

Ford has focused on small turbocharged engines — which it calls its EcoBoost line. Although Ford vehicles with these engines carry a premium over standard models, they have among the quickest paybacks in terms of gas savings in the industry, Toprak said.

A recent TrueCar analysis of the latest industry offerings of small but powerful engines — with and without turbochargers — found that the Mazda3 with the SkyActiv engine and transmission was the best economic proposition. The Mazda engine features a high compression ratio and avoids the added expense of a turbocharger.

Chevrolet's tiny Sonic with the Ecotec engine had the second-quickest payback.

Ford's Edge sport-utility vehicle with the EcoBoost four-cylinder engine was third, and its big F-150 pickup truck with a six-cylinder EcoBoost engine was fifth.

The small Kia Forte sedan was fourth in the TrueCar analysis.

Ford, which is marketing its small-engine focus with new introductions later this year, will have seven vehicles with the smallest engines in their respective segments.

They are the 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engines going into the new Escape crossover and Fusion family car, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder that's already in the Edge SUV, its bigger Explorer sibling and the Taurus large sedan and a 3.5-liter V-6 it is placing in police Interceptors and the F-150 pickup truck.

Ford and other automakers say the downsized engines have equal or greater power than the engines they replace.

Ford, for example, said the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that will go into the new-generation Fusion, which comes out this year, is smaller than the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the current base model of the Fusion yet will have slightly more horsepower and a double-digit percentage increase in fuel economy.

Toprak said Ford's strategy is paying off particularly well in truck sales.

"The fact that V-6 engines now make up over 50% of F-150 sales would have been simply unthinkable five years ago," Toprak said.

Executives within the automaker debated the wisdom of putting smaller engines in the truck, which has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades, Mulally said.

"Maybe the truck owners wouldn't be as interested in fuel economy," he said. But when an earlier version of the F-Series fell behind a competitor's offering by one to two miles per gallon, "I've never seen so many comments from our truck owners … whether it's a Fiesta, or whether it's an F-150, they want absolutely the best fuel economy."

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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