As higher gas prices drive people towards more fuel efficient vehicles, manufacturers are spending huge quantities of time, money, and other resources to squeeze the greatest amount of efficiency from the smallest possible source. Ten and 12-cylinder engines are becoming few and far between, and eight-cylinders are rapidly being phased out by more potent forced-induction sixers.
The trend is unlikely to slow down soon either, as Ford (NYSE:F) is projecting that four-cylinder engines will make up 66 percent of U.S. auto sales by 2020. While higher gas prices are pushing consumers towards smaller displacement engines, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (or CAFE) standards are requiring manufacturers to have a fleet average MPG rating of 54.5 by the same year.
As a result, hybrid technologies are becoming increasingly permeated throughout the industry, and larger displacement engines are being let go to help bring the CAFE ratings up. While some purists and performance enthusiasts may mourn the downfall of the double-digit-cylinder power plants, the race for efficiency has had at least one significant upside: smaller engines are now far more potent than ever before, and manufacturers are now able to get better performance from a V6 than a V8 several years ago, but in general, without the detriment to fuel consumption.
In 2008, four cylinder engines made up 40 percent of all auto sales in the United States. Now, that number falls at 53 percent, and if the trend continues at the same rate, Ford’s estimate of a 66 percent will fall under the industry sales figure. However, some analysts — like Edmunds.com’s senior editor Bill Visnic — find Ford’s numbers to be on the high side.
“I think it’s maybe a stretch, but I don’t find it implausible,” said Visnic. “If you look at where things have been going segment by segment, except pick-ups, you could say that’s been the trend.” Pickups have consistently maintained the use of larger engines, and although some smaller models like Ford’s Ranger came equipped with a base four-cylinder engine, the Ranger line was discontinued. (Notably, the Toyota Tacoma is still available with a four cylinder option, showing that the trend is not completely dead).
Primarily, trucks and SUVs — which make up about 13 percent of U.S. auto sales — are equipped with six or eight cylinder engines, while most small to midsize cars come with the four cylinder as their base trim. However, the trending towards the four won’t necessarily equal a cheaper option, as many of these engines have more technology and engineering packed into them to make them more competitive with their larger siblings.
“While a typical naturally aspirated four-cylinder is likely cheaper to produce, the turbocharged engines featuring advanced tech like direct injection likely aren’t that much more affordable than a traditional six- or eight-cylinder engine,” said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
As for General Motors (NYSE:GM), while the company has acknowledged that four-cylinder penetration will “remain very significant,” it was reluctant to offer up its own projections about where the industry is headed.
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