There is something to be said for cruising slowly around town with a big V-8 rumbling under the hood, ready to fly when you put your foot down. But those were the good old days when gas was cheap, GM was the world's largest automaker, and climate change was something that happened when you drove south. These days, your ride is increasingly likely to be powered by a V-6 or four-cylinder engine. And, surprise: You don't suffer a crippling loss in power. Plus, you get a big boost in gas mileage and you save money at the dealership.
To satisfy a combination of consumer demand and tough new federal fuel standards that must be met by 2016, auto makers increasingly are using smaller engines with when-needed power boosts like turbochargers. While hybrids and plug-in electrics get much of the attention in the high-mileage derby, improvements in the gasoline engine will drive most of the car companies' average gain in mileage.
"We are seeing not only turbocharging but also cylinder deactivation and gas direct injection," says Michael Omotoso, senior manager for power train forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates. Deactivation increases mileage by shutting off engine cylinders when they're not needed. Direct injection controls the timing and amount of fuel injected into the cylinders, boosting power and mileage.
Omotoso points out that both the Hyundai Sonata and the AudiA4 now offer only four-cylinder engines, eliminating the V-6 option that has been common for such sedans. The Audi comes with a standard turbocharger, and the Hyundai offers a turbo option. Cadillac's SRX small SUV gained 20% in its city mileage rating (to 17 mpg) by offering a turbo V-6 as its premium engine option instead of a V-8.
The smaller engines also save weight and development and manufacturing costs. In some cases, that savings is passed on to the car buyer. Here is a look at three 2011 models currently or soon-to-be available where smaller engines can save you money.
Honda Accord Honda's popular mid-size sedan long has had a four-cylinder as well as a V-6 option. Without making any radical engine change for 2011, Honda has improved mileage for its four-cylinder power plant by 2 mpg to 23 in city driving and by 3 mpg to 34 on the highway. Reviewers praised the 2.4-liter, 177 horsepower four-cylinder as willing to run when you pushed the pedal down. The V-6 engine in the Accord is rated at 23 mpg city, 30 highway. So this is where your savings come in. The four cylinder SE version with automatic transmission lists for $23,730. The EX automatic version -- the lowest-priced model with an available V-6 -- lists for $27,080. That would give you a savings of $3,350. And the difference in gas mileage would save about $200 a year for if you put 15,000 miles a year on your Accord at current gas prices.
Buick Regal The Regal is the latest move by GM to try to change Buick's image from making stodgy land yachts for oldsters to attracting younger buyers. And Buick has opted for all four-cylinder engines in the Regal -- developed from GM's well-reviewed Opel Insignia in Europe. The plan to put a sports sedan on the road seems to have worked. Some reviewers even say this Buick's sporty handling challenges luxury sport sedans such as the Acura TSX. Detroit companies, of course, loved being compared to foreign-based luxury brands. (See Ford Taurus: Luxury Car? Better Believe It). The Regal CXL -- the only trim level this year -- lists for $26,995 with its standard four-cylinder, 182-horsepower engine rated at 19 mpg in city driving, 30 on the highway. If you want the turbocharged four (18 mpg city, 30 highway) -- available later this year -- the price will be $29,184. Either way, it still costs less than the 2011 Acura TSX at $30,730.
Ford F-150 When it comes to pickups, engines are a tricky matter. Between the brawny image promoted by those commercials with gravelly-voiced announcers and the reality of needing to carry or tow heavy loads, many pickups are sold with V-8 engines. But even brawny guys have to buy gas, and companies have to meet mileage requirements. So Ford, in addition to a standard V-6 engine in the 2011 F-150 available late this year, will offer a version of its turbo V-6 EcoBoost engine for the F-150. Ford has not yet released mileage details, but says the Ecoboost version -- available early next year -- will provide a 20% gain over the mileage for this year's V-8. That would translate to about 17 mpg city, 24 highway. Ford says the EcoBoost F150 will tow 11,300 pounds, the same as the V-8 version. The savings with the smaller turbo engine, though, will be all at the gas pump. Prices have not yet been announced, but Ford plans to charge a premium for this engine. The marketplace will have to weigh that muscular pricing strategy.
More from MoneyWatch
Green Cars: Five Surprising, Affordable Choices
Minivans: New 2011 Honda Odyssey Test Drive
Best Car Deals: Some New Cars are Cheaper than Used
New Cars 2011: What to Look for in Hybrid and Electric Cars
Avoid These 5 Used Cars (Plus 5 to Buy)