Four Cylinder Engines Go Mainstream

Photo courtesy of General Motors

2013 Chevrolet Malibu.

I recently spent some time in a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, a fully-loaded example with pretty much every nicety you’d want in a modern car. Decent looks (though Chevy is about to give it a mild design makeover), a comfortable interior, and of course the amenities that make both heavy traffic and highway travel a lot more pleasant.

With all that, many people (including my own father) are surprised to learn that under the Malibu’s hood is a four cylinder engine. Oh, it’s not a weakling by any means. Turbocharged to produce 259 horsepower and mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic transmission, the little jewel of an engine moves the large-ish sedan along quite smartly.

Ten years ago, most anyone who knows anything about cars would have laughed at the idea of an engine with fewer than six cylinders in a sedan weighing over 3,500 pounds. But times have changed, for many reasons.

First up, every maker of mainstream automobiles has to improve fuel economy across the line in the coming years. And, technology has allowed smaller engines to do the job that used to require a larger one. From Hyundai to Mercedes-Benz, car companies are putting “four-bangers” (as they used to be known) in a wider variety of their models.

Let’s take a trip back through the decades, shall we? In the 1960s, compact economy cars from the Big Three in Detroit came with inline six cylinder engines. The only cars you’d find with four cylinders doing the job were “foreign” sports cars and sedans, notably the VW Beetle.

With the 1970s came new concerns about fuel economy and ecology, so new compacts arrived on the scene. Whereas a Ford Falcon from the 1960s had six cylinders under the hood, the new-for-1971 Ford Pinto had a fuel-sipping four. Likewise Chevrolet’s Vega, also born just a couple of years prior to the first OPEC oil embargo.

In the 1980s, a trend toward “downsizing” continued, and General Motors, for example, developed a new line of mid-size sedans aimed at better fuel efficiency. The Chevrolet Celebrity and its cousins had four cylinders under their hoods, though a V6 was optional. The smaller engines – at the time – weren’t very powerful nor very smooth.

As the 1990s arrived, gasoline was inexpensive and plentiful, so V6’s and V8’s once again began to rule. It was hard to find a mid-size car with a four cylinder engine. Ford’s redesign of its Taurus even left a four cylinder example off the order sheet, as hardly anyone really wanted it.

But in the early 2000s, gasoline price spikes became rather commonplace, so once again car companies went back to refining four cylinder engines for better fuel efficiency in mainstream models. Electronic engine controls, variable valve timing, turbocharging, and transmissions with more gear ratios all help in that regard.

Even the German sedans have gotten on the four cylinder bandwagon. BMW’s 3-Series and 5-Series both have a wonderful turbo four as their base engines. Same goes for the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A6. It wasn’t all that long ago that each of these models only came with sixes as the smallest offerings.

In the medium-price family sedan arena, fours are ruling the roost. Chevy Malibu: Four cylinders only. Ford Fusion: Four cylinders only. Hyundai Sonata: Four cylinders only. Kia Optima: Four cylinders only. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry are the holdouts in the segment, each offering a V6 as optional. But the percentages of them sold with the bigger engines are small.

And finally, the two newest American luxury sedans on the market, the Cadillac ATS and the Lincoln MKZ, both have four cylinder engines. (Though both also offer a V6 as well.)

The “four banger” really doesn’t “bang” anymore, as it’s often quiet and smooth. And increasingly, it’s making a huge impact on the automotive market, as well as the fuel efficiency of the cars it powers.

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: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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