With automakers serving North America trying to wrest every conceivable fuel economy advantage out of the internal-combustion engine, it was only a matter of time until three-cylinder cars popped back on the radar. This little-engine-that-could had a brief moment in the spotlight a decade ago with the Geo Metro and the Suzuki Swift, but hasn't been seen in recent years -- at least in the U.S. The clear goal: 50 mpg on the highway.
This is the next logical step in Ford's (F) EcoBoost engine strategy -- that is, downsizing the power plant but then using technological tricks to push performance back up -- and it's likely that GM and Chrysler will follow suit. Even two-cylinder car engines are now a distinct possibility. Nearly all of Ford's U.S. vehicles will soon have an EcoBoost option, and with high fuel prices the choice is proving popular. And why not -- there's little performance trade-off, but big fuel-economy benefits.
The news here isn't that Ford is introducing a three-cylinder engine -- they're commonplace around the world -- but that it's doing it in the U.S., where the V-8 long ruled the roost, and until recently a V-6 was seen as the major economy move. The new engine will undoubtedly be sold in India and China, and Europe, too --but it's also headed for Main Street, USA.
Technology tricks add power
Ford's forthcoming three-cylinder will take advantage of all the latest technology -- turbocharging, direct injection, a six-speed transmission -- to ensure that consumers don't notice much difference between their mini motor and a four-cylinder. The new engine, which should be on the market around 2013, is a tiny one-liter, the company's smallest ever in the U.S., and it's designed to offer a 10 to 20 percent fuel economy gain over a four-cylinder motor with similar horsepower.
Not a smooth operator
There's a major reason not to do three-cylinder engines, which is that it's really hard to achieve smooth operation. No one remembers the one-liter Geo Metro XFi (53 city/58 highway mpg) of the late 80s and early 90s fondly, and one reason was the noisy, vibration-prone engine. But modern tech is overcoming that problem. Bob Fascetti, Ford's director of global engine engineering, told me:
Smoothness is something you have to deal with. We address that problem by managing the torque pulses with an offset crankshaft, putting our engine mounts in the right place, and using balance shafts when it makes sense.Consumers aren't going to care about all that -- they'll just notice that the little engine performs like the bigger one, and gets great gas mileage.
Coaxing that same performance out of a two-cylinder engine will be a challenge, but Ford powertrain executive Barb Samardzich said in 2009 that the company is working on the problem.
Fiesta and Focus likely hosts
Achieving 50 mpg, or at least getting near it, will give Ford some valuable bragging rights. That's why they're announcing the technology now, well ahead of saying which actual cars will host it. The Fiesta, which already gets more than 40 mpg on the highway, is the logical candidate, and it's likely to be in the Focus, too.
If you want a U.S.-spec three-banger now, you'll have to buy a Smart ForTwo. Smooth, it ain't. Minuscule motors are regulars on the European and Japanese markets, which is undoubtedly why the three-cylinder engine is being developed in England. If anyone wanted a V-8 these days, they'd look to Detroit's expertise in that area.
According to global product vice president Derrick Kuzak, the one-liter engine is part of a strategy that will offer turbo EcoBoost engines as options in 90 percent of Ford's U.S. product by 2013. The move will bring the American powertrains more in line with Ford's offerings globally, which is logical as the whole world is feeling the pain of high gas prices. These power plants are appropriately sized: the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 is for vehicles like the Taurus, F-150 truck and Flex and, later this year, there will be a two-liter four for the Edge and Explorer.
EcoBoost selling well
You don't have to go with EcoBoost, but a lot of people do -- Ford has sold 180,000 of the engines since 2009, and the 3.5-liter is in 41 percent of the F-150s sold.
Ford also announced that it will introduce an eight-speed transmission, following the lead of General Motors and Chrysler. Alas, Fascetti told me the eight-speed box won't easily mate up to the three-cylinder engine for the ultimate fuel economy solution. It did get reported that way, though.
There are tons of two-cylinder motorcycles out there, and one-cylinder cars were actually common in the early days of motoring. Getting consumers to accept modern one-cylinder cars -- that I'd like to see.
Ford first showed off its three-cylinder engine in the Start mini concept, shown off at the 2010 Beijing Auto Show. Here's a video look: