Engine Downsizing Gets Real For Ford And Chevy

By Bill Visnic April 6, 2011

Engine Downsizing.jpg

We'd been told engine downsizing was the irresistible force ready to hit the market, but like previous predictions of all-encompassing trends set to sweep over the U.S. automotive landscape, most adopted a “I’ll believe it when I see it” posture. Believe it. There’s gathering evidence the engine downsizing initiative is well and truly underway. It’s been coming thanks to looming fuel-economy regulations mandating most automakers’ lineups average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, another steady climb in fuel prices this year and what appears to be increasing consumer intent to make an environmental and economic difference by opting for economy over power.

The shift to smaller engines is evident in two examples that both symbolize the core of the U.S. market: General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet division and the nation’s longstanding best-selling nameplate, Ford Motor Co.’s F-Series pickup truck. At Chevrolet, the number of retail customers for all Chevy models opting for 4-cylinder engines climbed from 23 percent in 2007 to 46 percent so far this year. Considering the outsized presence of fullsize pickups in the brand’s sales mix, the doubling of 4-cylinder penetration in Chevrolet’s total mix is a meaningful indicator that downsizing is a new rule to mainstream buyers.

110406 chevrolet engine sales mix as a percent of retail sales.jpgHeartbeat Of Change
More evidence from Chevy’s sales data: installation rates for 6-cylinder and 8-cylinder engines have been dropping in conjunction with the growth of 4-cylinder engines. In 2007, V8s powered 47 percent of all Chevrolets sold at retail. By the end of last year, the ratio had dropped to 40 percent – and through mid-March stood at 32 percent in a first quarter that has seen the U.S. buyers vector away distinctly from large vehicles and large engines. In terms of average displacement, Chevrolet’s aggregate engine displacement in 2007 was 4.27 liters (that’s liters, not cubic inches, hot-rodders); by the end of last year, average displacement dropped to 3.88 liters and was 3.5 liters through mid-March this year, according to Chevrolet.

Meanwhile, Ford’s F-Series pickup line has been the nation’s No. 1 nameplate for two decades. Early this year, Ford introduced two V6 engine options for the light-duty 2011 F-150 – previously, the lineup was exclusively V8. The F-150’s two new V6s – a normally aspirated 3.7-liter and a 3.5-liter using Ford’s EcoBoost direct injection/turbocharging technology –accounted for 37 percent of all F-150 retail sales last month.

“The No. 1 unmet need for full-size pickup truck owners has been fuel economy,” said Doug Scott, Truck Group marketing manager, in a Ford statement last week. Ford gave buyers, including V6 truck intenders, a nudge with March incentives, especially zero percent financing. Edmunds.com’s analysis shows 10.4 percent of all Ford buyers used the automaker’s zero percent financing offer in March, compared with 7.4 percent in February.

Future With Fewer
The reduction in engine size and cylinder count also is assured for new and coming models. Hyundai Motor America’s all-new 2011 Sonata, one of last year’s strongest sales performers, launched with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder as the sole engine choice, eliminating the V6 option of the previous-generation Sonata. The company since has added turbocharged and hybrid variants of the base powertrain.

And for its next-generation Malibu, a concept version of which will be unveiled at the Shanghai auto show later this month, GM has already confirmed it will be 4-cylinder-only power for the 2013 midsize sedan, cutting out the 3.6-liter V6 available for the current Malibu.

Industry sources for some time have insinuated that while V8s and V6s still will have a role in many model lines, improving technology and design is permitting smaller-displacement engines – and those with fewer cylinders – to mimic the power and performance of multi-cylinder powerplants. Even enthusiast-leaning brands such as BMW have openly admitted to powertrain strategies that increasingly will embrace smaller engines with fewer cylinders to address mounting regulatory and customer pressures for greater efficiency.

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festus67 says: 10:33 PM, 04.07.11

"“The No. 1 unmet need for full-size pickup truck owners has been fuel economy,” said Doug Scott, Truck Group marketing manager, in a Ford statement last week."

Really, ya think? Every buddy i have that works construction and owns a half ton pickup has been wanting economy for years! Why no small displacement diesel? Now THAT would provide real fuel economy gains. I beg to differ with Mr Scott that this desire has been fully met. I should know, I have a 3.5L Ecoboost in my new Flex. She's fast, but still a thirsty beast.

460bbf says: 8:46 AM, 04.28.11

What we really need are smaller, high-compression multi-valve V8s with charged-cooled turbocharging, cylinder deactivation, on-demand direct alcohol injection**, and mild hybridization (start-stop plus regenerative braking). That way the engines will still have huge torque during the 2-3% of the time when full-throttle is necessary (or desired) but meet REASONABLE future CAFE requirements (50+ m.p.g. CAFE is NOT reasonable). A 2-3 liter V8 with the aformentioned technologies would be a much better and more flexible engine than a big, boring four.

A future packed with low-torque, buzzy fours is no future at all. We're Americans . . . we deserve V8 power! Hopefully, the bureaucrats, bean-counters, and hyper-environmentalists won't win the battle to save our right to V8s.

**On-demand direct alcohol injection is a much better idea than running 100% of the time on corn-based E85. And it effectively makes fuel octane and spark knock limits a non-issue. (200+ horsepower per liter is easy and reliable)

mxypltz1 says: 8:39 AM, 05.25.11

Everybody reiterates it time and time again, but the auto manufacturers continue to think in truly American ways when it comes to fuel efficiency. Sure engines displacements are on the decrease but as usual American manufacturers keep hitting around the bullseye. Why do think they got in trouble a while back till they started tapping tried and true European practices to bring them back from the dead? Won't even go into GM's releasing Saturn debacle. Penske could have had a jewel if the Saturn acquisition went through and they returned the company to it's unique and economic vehicle glory.
First, small displacements diesels and plug-in hybrids (Yeah GM for the Volt!) and/or strictly electric vehicles are the key. Combo engine/battery (non-plugin) hybrids have run their course. You get more bang for the buck, less maintenance and less cost from a small displacement diesel. Certainly no costly battery pack changeout at regular intervals. Plus you don't have to take a buzzy four or less buzzy six cylinder and make a race engine out of it to try to get to the HP and torque requirements of the larger outgoing engines.


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