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Ford Countdown: Eight-Cylinder, Six, Four -- Now Brace Yourself for Three

Ford (F) has taken the lead in getting American drivers to switch from gas-guzzling eight-cylinder engines to six-cylinders, and from sixes to fours. But Americans had now better get used to the idea of an even smaller frontier: the three-cylinder engine.

It's practically inevitable, given that the car companies have to meet much tougher gas mileage standards over the next several years, plus the likelihood that $4 per gallon gasoline will make a comeback sooner or later.

Ford's newest engines combine gasoline direct injection and turbocharging. Ford calls the combination EcoBoost. Besides Ford, most of the world's automakers, including General Motors, Porsche, Toyota (TM) and others, are developing similar technology.

So far in the United States, however, the emphasis has been on the "Boost" part of EcoBoost -- that is, getting more power out of a smaller engine with fewer cylinders. Customers aren't being asked to sacrifice in terms of horsepower -- yet -- but ultimately we'll all have to in order get better mileage and lower air pollution.

As time goes by, Ford is starting to put more emphasis on the "Eco" part of EcoBoost. That is, Ford will offer much smaller, more fuel-efficient engines in much smaller, much lighter cars.

That might be more fun than it sounds, even if the smallest cars of the future don't go from zero to 60 mph as fast as Americans have come to expect. The fun part is they should offer a sporty ride and handling. They will also represent a much bigger advance in gas mileage than we've seen so far, without having to switch to gasoline-electric hybrids or battery power alone.

The next logical step is a three-cylinder. Ford unveiled one at last month's Beijing auto show. It's truly tiny by typical U.S. standards, with only 1.0-liter displacement, but with Ford's EcoBoost system it makes as much power as a decent-sized, 1.6-liter four.

The only three-cylinder currently on the U.S. market is the 70-hp engine in the little Smart fortwo model, which can be turbocharged up to 98 hp. The non-turbo takes its sweet time getting the Smart up to highway speeds, even though it's by far the smallest car on the U.S. market.

An engine like the three-cylinder Ford EcoBoost would be a big improvement in a small, light package. Ford wouldn't say exactly how much power the EcoBoost three-cylinder generates, but Ford's 1.6-liter four-cylinder in the 2011 Ford Fiesta generates 120 hp, so that's a good guess.

Ford unveiled the three-cylinder in the Ford Start concept car. By 2013, Ford says it will offer an EcoBoost engine in as much as 90 percent of its North American lineup. By then, Ford expects to sell about 1.5 million EcoBoost vehicles annually.

Direct injection shoots computer-controlled spritzes of gasoline directly into each cylinder's combustion chamber at much higher pressures than a conventional gasoline engine. That allows the engine to use a leaner fuel-air mixture. At the same time, turbocharging has a similar effect.

The combination of the two technologies gets either more power out of the same size engine, with no gas-mileage penalty, or the same amount of power out of a smaller engine, with improved mileage.

So far Ford has used EcoBoost exclusively to get power like a V-8 out of a six. Later this year, Ford expects to start introducing four-cylinder EcoBoost engines for the U.S. market, as an option for the next-generation Ford Explorer SUV and Ford Edge crossover. The idea is to get power like a V-6 out of a four. A three-cylinder for the United States is probably at least a couple of years away.

Ford says customers are ordering EcoBoost engines at a higher rate than the company expected. So far this year, Ford said Lincoln MKT sales are running at 50 percent EcoBoost engines, higher than a forecast of 40 percent. About 11 percent of Ford Flex crossovers are being ordered with Ecoboost, also slightly higher than expected, the company said.

Those are both sizable, expensive vehicles. Customers probably don't buy them expecting terrific gas mileage, except maybe in comparison with a giant SUV. In my opinion, the Ford Flex and the Lincoln MKT perform a little sluggishly without EcoBoost and that's probably why most people order EcoBoost -- for the "Boost," not the "Eco."

It would be logical to assume that future small-car buyers will be more highly motivated by better gas mileage and - relatively speaking - sportier performance than you can get without EcoBoost. As EcoBoost moves downscale, those are good reasons for Ford to expect continued higher order rates on EcoBoost going forward.

Photo: Ford