Saving Fuel with Three Cylinders

2014 Ford Fiesta.

2014 Ford Fiesta.

In recent years, auto makers have been slowly putting smaller engines into all sorts of vehicles. Two examples in the mid-size segment are the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata; each is only available with a 4-cylinder engine. Previous generations of both cars had V6’s as options.

But times have changed. First, car companies are under mandate to improve the fuel economy of every vehicle in their fleets. And secondly, four cylinder engines have evolved in recent years to be nearly as smooth and powerful as a V6 used to be.

Now, get ready for downsized engines in the small car segments as well. While a 4-cylinder engine used to be considered “small” in compacts and subcompacts, several companies have introduced 3-cylinder engines in the American market for the 2014 model year. The last “three banger” you could even buy in the U.S. was the base model Geo Metro from the 1990s.

But technology has evolved, so it’s actually not a bad thing to have only three cylinders under the hood of a car. Well, in some cases anyway. My first try-out of one of these engines was in the new Mitsubishi Mirage. A 1.2 liter engine runs three cylinders, and, well, it’s not the smoothest engine in the world. Nor is it especially powerful or quiet. But it does offer up impressive fuel economy numbers.

A much better take on the 3-cylinder comes from Ford, which is now offering a 1.0 liter three as an “EcoBoost” option in the Fiesta subcompact. Unlike Mitsubishi, Ford’s engineers did a commendable job of smoothing out the 3-cylinder’s inherent imbalance by using a carefully weighted flywheel.

Other tricks are employed to make this a very civilized engine – one that’s already been available in Europe for some time. Direct fuel injection and turbo-charging combine to help the tiny motor produce 123 horsepower, and 125 lbs-ft of torque. Essentially, it makes the same power as a basic 4-cylinder but with a higher fuel economy rating.

I got to take a brief drive in the new Fiesta SFE (a dedicated sub-model within the Fiesta line), which is only available with a 5-speed manual transmission, at least for now. I was quite impressed with the engine’s power and smoothness. Maybe not its power straight off the line, but once I got the car rolling a bit, the turbo spooled up and the odd number of cylinders even emit a fun growl when pushed hard.

In other words, it wasn’t a horrible car that had me wishing there was a bigger engine under its hood. As a commuter car for the frugal driver, it would work very well. Just as Ford did its media drive for the new Fiesta, gas stations all over Southern California were raising their prices on an almost daily basis.

EPA estimates for the car are 32 city and 45 highway, the latter of which is right up there in hybrid territory. Unfortunately I don’t think that city estimate will hold up in real-word urban driving, as you do have to stick your foot in it pretty deeply to get the car to keep up with traffic on city streets.

Real-world use notwithstanding, the 1.0 liter engine will find another home next year in the Ford Focus, a larger car than the Fiesta. (And, presumably, with the option of an automatic transmission. I can’t see Ford trying to sell a lot of these in America where the vast majority of drivers prefer an automatic.) Again, it’s all about the fuel economy numbers for the government.

And it’s not just Ford and Mitsubishi going to smaller 3-cylinder engines. The new, slightly larger Mini Cooper hatchback and convertible also get a turbo three this year in their base models. And that means there’s likelihood that parent brand BMW may also be using that engine, though perhaps not right away in North America.

Smaller engines aren’t such a bad thing, really. If done right, they can move our cars along just fine, and use less fuel in the process.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz

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