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Big Cars, Small Engines


The laws of nature in the automotive ecosystem used to hold that the bigger the car, the bigger the engine. Small cars got the four-bangers, big cars got V8s, and 6-cylinders fell in between. And, if you wanted to make a premium or performance version of a particular model, just shoehorn in a bigger engine. Simple as that: Bigger is better. There was no problem that couldn’t be cured with cubic inches.

The appearance of $4-a-gallon gas and government mandated CAFE standards changed that storyline. Even though car buyers can be instantly fickle about their buying choices based on what gas costs on any given day, manufacturers know that the overarching path is to improved fuel efficiency. And that has resulted in some very interesting trends in engine choices.  

For example, in the bread-and-butter midsize segment, standard practice was a 4-cylinder in the entry level, V6 as you moved up the trim ladder. Indeed you’ll still find that with class leaders like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. But go shopping for a Hyundai Sonata or Kia Optima and you’ll find that the upstarts have only 4-cylinders to offer. Not only that, as you move up from the base model, the engine doesn’t get larger, it gets smaller; from 2.4 liters to 2.0 liters. Okay, it’s turbocharged, and the horsepower bumps from 198 to 274. But that was unthinkable in past generations; you needed a bigger engine to get bigger performance.

Hyundai and Kia are not alone. Shopping for a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu? No V6 to be found; all Malibus will have 4-cylinder engines. Likewise for the 2013 Ford Fusion. Ford is going all-in on the 4-cylinder mills. You can even get the fullsize Taurus and the big crossover Explorer outfitted with the 2.0 liter EcoBoost. Again, turbocharging makes up for the lack of cubic inches.

The premium brands are getting in on the act as well. Jaguar currently features only V8s, hasn’t offered a V6 for several years, and have not had a 4-cylinder in their lineup since 1948, according to Automotive News. Both flavors will be available starting this fall, with a supercharged 3.0 liter V6 available in the XF and XJ, and a turbo 2.0 liter four, lifted from the Range Rover Evoque, available in the XF.

The key to this trend has been getting consumers to think a bit differently; it’s not size that matters, it’s horsepower and torque. Improvements and refinements in turbocharging have allowed carmakers to offer the power of bigger engines in smaller, more fuel efficient powerplants. This helps both the consumer searching for better MPG, and the manufacturer looking forward to meeting increasingly tough CAFE standards.

Start your car search with AutoBuying101.com’s Research section, which includes a filter for MPG.