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U.S. Gas Prices Vindicate "Mr. Turbo": Four Cylinders are Enough

BMW_M5Four-dollar gasoline has blown up the U.S. auto industry notion that more cylinders are "better" than fewer cylinders. According to the automakers, customers are lining up to buy cars with four-cylinder engines, because they're thrifty on gas.

I got to thinking about this when I read Chrysler is conducting a dreaded "strategic review" of the Dodge Viper. I also thought about "Mr. Turbo," a high-ranking engineer at Saab named Per Gillbrand, since retired. Gillbrand had a well-earned reputation for preaching the virtues of a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine as the best possible compromise between performance and fuel efficiency. Saab had pursued that engine strategy since the late-1970s. Now Ford is also pursuing turbocharging, combined with direct-injection gasoline engines.

Back in the mid-1990s, that was a relatively brave thing for Gillbrand to say, at least as emphatically as Mr. Turbo said it, because General Motors had bought 50 percent of Saab in 1990, and a decade later it would buy the other half. After buying the first 50 percent, parent GM crammed six-cylinder engines into Saab's traditionally four-cylinder cars, and by extension down Mr. Turbo's throat.

Gillbrand stubbornly continued to insist that any number of cylinders greater than four was wasteful.

Mr. Turbo notwithstanding, it was a given until recently that in the United States, a six-cylinder engine was an easier sell than a four-cylinder; a V-8 was better than a six; a V-12 trumped everything. Since the last U.S. recession in the early 1990s, the industry even came up with a few V-10s, like the Viper, and more recently the high-performance BMW M5 and M6.

Incidentally, in this week's Automotive News Europe, (subscription required) the head of BMW's union had the chutzpah to say BMW is producing too many big-displacement engines. Twenty years ago, when I started covering the auto industry full-time, Mercedes-Benz offered only a few V-8s in the U.S. market, and BMW offered none. That seems like a quaint idea now. Then again, maybe Mr. Turbo had it right.