|Once upon a time, General Motors was intent on making the biggest, most powerful cars humankind had ever seen. But times have changed since the era of cheap gasoline, and today’s car buyers tend to be more interested in miles per gallon than miles per hour. Accordingly, automakers appear to be thinking small these days.
America has gone from “there’s no replacement for displacement,” to “fewer cylinders, more gears.”
The world has seen dramatic growth in hybrid- and electric-model offerings over the last several years, but highly efficient gasoline engines based on conventional technology seem to hold quite a bit of promise. G.M. has pledged that it will spend $332 million developing engine-efficiency upgrades, with $225 million of that money going into development of 3- and 4-cylinder engines.
Remember when Subaru offered the Justy and G.M. the Geo Metro back in the late 1980s and early 1990s? You may or may not have had a good chuckle about those minuscule 3-cylinder cars, which were derided by some as motorcycles with doors and roofs.
Honda also got into the mini-engine game a few years later, putting a 67-horsepower 3-cylinder in the Insight hybrid in 1999. But the triple-pot mill is nothing even that new. Motorcycle companies undoubtedly had a hand in working out the balance issues inherent in a 3-cylinder design, with BMW, Yamaha, Triumph and Suzuki among manufacturers that have produced 3-cylinder bikes for decades.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Metro was a version of the Suzuki Swift; Suzuki was known for its water-cooled 3-cylinders. Other automakers that have used 3-cylinder engines in passenger cars include Saab, VM Motori (for Alfa Romeo), Volkswagen and Daihatsu – albeit mostly overseas. Americans haven’t seen much of the 3-cylinder concept at all since the Metro faded from existence in 2001, but General Motors builds a 1-liter 3-cylinder turbodiesel at its factory in India. The technology is there, there just haven’t been many prominent – or better yet, popular – examples of it in the States.
Now, tiny mills are cranking out enough power to propel the larger vehicles more suitable for the American market. One version of BMW’s 3-cylinder engine will crank out more than 200 horsepower. Triumph’s Rocket III Roadster motorcycle engine makes more than 140 horsepower, and Ford says its new EcoBoost 3-cylinder will produce up to 123 horsepower. Considering the displacement, those aren’t bad numbers.
Three-bangers finally seem to be all the rage in the States as manufacturers work to meet both customer demand for less thirsty vehicles and the federal government’s tightening fuel economy standards.
Using a variety of technologies – including direct injection, turbocharging and variable valve timing – automotive engineers have been able to extract surprising amounts of power from engines that would have been thought too small for service in American cars a decade ago. A few interesting contenders have emerged in the diminutive engine arms race, including Ford’s 1-liter EcoBoost – which gained international attention when Ford stuffed an engine block into a carry-on suitcase and brought it through airport security – and BMW’s 1- and 1.5-liter twin-turbo 3-cylinder engines.
General Motors said in a statement that the Ecotec layout would be the basis of a family of engines marketed worldwide, and that production could top two million engines a year by 2020. The company has already produced three million 4-cylinder Ecotecs.
Coupled with an 8-speed automatic transmission, G.M. expects its 3-cylinder’s fuel economy to be impressive. Keep in mind, too, that 9- and 10-speed automatics are going to be available in Ford and G.M. cars soon. That means manufacturers will be able to squeeze every possible drop of power and efficiency out of very small engines.
The Ecotec 3-cylinder could appear in the refreshed 2015 Chevrolet Volt and the 2016 Cadillac ELR, both plug-in hybrids. What we don’t have yet is a set of hard numbers about how much weight the new 3-cylinder would save, and how much fuel economy would improve.
In short, it’s a new day; undoubtedly an exciting time in the lives of people who like doing more with less. It seems as if the Big Three have gone from trying to build the beefiest muscle car to seeing who can do the most with the smallest muscles. Who knows, perhaps the Big Three will become known for little threes.