CAUGHT FLAT-FOOTED

As car buyers flee bigger engines, dealers scream for 4-bangers

June's horrible U.S. sales numbers would have been better if automakers had enough four-cylinder engines to meet demand.

Rising gasoline prices have pushed new-vehicle buyers back to four-bangers to a degree not seen since the last energy crisis in the early 1980s.

More than half of all new cars and trucks purchased in June had four-cylinder engines, reports the Power Information Network. A year ago, barely a third of new-vehicle buyers chose four-cylinders.

Last month, General Motors lost 10,000 sales — and the auto industry lost a cumulative 40,000 — because of shortages of four-cylinder engines, says GM sales chief Mark LaNeve.

For consumers, the availability of a four-cylinder engine is at least as important as the size of the vehicle, says Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president of marketing and communications.

Says Farley: "You have dealers screaming for any type of four-cylinder product from us. We have adjusted our plants to do everything we can to supply them."

A wild swing

All the major automakers are shifting production away from sixes and to fours. GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai all confirmed they are scrambling to produce more four-cylinder engines.

You'd have to go back to the early 1980s — when gasoline prices also were at a record high — to find such strong demand for four-cylinder engines.

"I have been in the car business for 38 years. It is as wild a swing toward four-cylinders as I have ever seen," says Kent Ritchey, a big multifranchise dealer in Memphis, Tenn. "It is more dramatic than in the gas crunch of the early '80s."

His Ford-Lincoln-Mercury store has a 10-day supply of the Focus and four-cylinder Fusion. "I could take all the Focuses and four-cylinder Fusions they could send," Ritchey says.

Meanwhile, Ritchey's Nissan dealership has experienced strong demand for four-cylinder versions of the Nissan Altima, Versa and Sentra. Concludes Ritchey: "Thirty miles per gallon seems to be the magic number."

Ritchey's experience is common to Ford dealers across the country, Ford's Farley says.

For example, 70 percent of Ford Fusion buyers are choosing a four-cylinder engine, Farley says, up from 57 percent a year earlier.

Toyota has experienced a similar shift. Many more buyers of the Toyota Tacoma compact pickup are choosing four-cylinder engines, says Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. The company is shifting production to accommodate that preference, he says.

Toyota purchasers also have developed a clear preference for the four-cylinder version of the Camry. Sales of the compact Corolla sedan and Matrix five-door hatchback, which are available only in four-cylinder models, are at record levels.

"We have asked for more supply and are working to meet demand," Lentz says. "We could have sold a lot more Yaris and Corolla."

But it's not clear how easily Toyota can meet surging demand for more fuel-efficient powertrains.

The company builds four- and six-cylinder engines for the Corolla and its hatchback variant, the Matrix, at its factory in Buffalo, W.Va. The engine plant already is running at full capacity, says Toyota spokesman Victor Vanov. "We're doing whatever we can to meet that demand," he says.

Global constraints

Japanese automakers can import engines from Japan. Nissan North America has asked its Japanese parent for more four-cylinder engines.

A shortage of four-cylinders is hampering U.S. sales of the Nissan Sentra and Versa, says Al Castignetti, Nissan Division's general manager. But global production constraints may limit Nissan's options, he says.

Even Honda — one of a handful of automakers that had higher U.S. sales in June — is struggling to meet demand for four-cylinder engines. Later this year, Honda will open a factory in Alliston, Ontario, with an annual production capacity of 200,000 four-cylinder engines.

Meanwhile, Honda's engine plant in Anna, Ohio, is building more four-cylinder engines and fewer sixes, says Ron Lietzke, spokesman for Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.

Like Honda, Hyundai Motor Co. boasts a sales increase in June. And Hyundai is expanding production of four-cylinder engines.

This week Hyundai begins production of 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines at a new factory in Montgomery, Ala. The plant will produce 200,000 engines a year for the Sonata, with plans to expand production by 100,000 units.

Like Toyota, Hyundai has discovered that shoppers want four-cylinder engines in their mid-sized sedans. In June, 64 percent of all Sonatas sold at retail had four-cylinders. Eighteen months ago, only a third of all Sonatas had four-cylinder engines.

"We've got a really strong demand for four-cylinders right now," says Hyundai spokesman Robert Burns. "It's good that we have been able to meet that."

Lindsay Chappell, Mark Rechtin, Amy Wilson and April Wortham contributed to this report

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