2 small? Not anymore
2-liter engines go in luxury, family vehicles -- even Explorer
BMW put a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine in its U.S. 5 series for the first time last year. But the staff at New Country BMW in Hartford, Conn., doesn't like to spread that fact around -- at least not before a shopper takes the car for a drive.
"People are getting out and thinking it's the six-cylinder," says Tim Parker, general manager of the dealership. "They're pleasantly surprised afterward when we tell them it's a four-cylinder turbo. They can't believe that."
BMW and other automakers are trying to break through the long-held notion that small engines are only for wimpy econoboxes and drivers who find comfort in the far right lane of the freeway. Four-cylinder powertrains are showing up under the hoods of a growing number of mid-sized cars, SUVs and premium sedans where nothing less than a brawny V-6 or V-8 would do in the past.
But the number of cylinders and displacement size, figures that consumers have relied on to gauge performance, can now be misleading. Technology such as turbocharging, direct fuel injection and variable valve timing means 2-liter or smaller engines can pack more horsepower than ever while reducing weight and fuel consumption.
2-liter in a Taurus
That ability to go down in size without sacrificing power or performance wins over consumers, automakers and analysts say.
"People are seeing engines that would not have been appropriate in terms of size for those vehicles even one generation of vehicle ago," says Eric Fedewa, director of global powertrain and components forecasting at IHS Automotive. "Technology has really enabled engines to get a lot smaller, because they're just as powerful but they're much more fuel efficient."
Today, even vehicles as large as the Ford Taurus and Explorer have modest sounding but high powered 2-liter engines. In most cases, a smaller turbo is priced as an upgrade from a larger, weaker engine, though some manufacturers put it in the base model.
Ford charges about $1,000 for an EcoBoost, the name Ford uses for smaller, turbocharged engines.
The Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu will get 2-liter, four-cylinder versions this year, and Audi introduced a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine in its A6 last year. The Fusion engine weighs 45 pounds less than its 3-liter predecessor but produces the same 240 hp and 47 more pounds-feet of torque.
In addition to the 5 series, BMW has dropped its 2-liter N20 engine into the Z4 sports car, the X3 SUV and the 3 series, which has not had a four-cylinder option since 1999.
Cadillac's new 3-series challenger, the ATS, will have a 270-hp, 2-liter turbo similar to one already in the Buick Regal GS. But while the 2-liter is the base engine for the 3 series, Cadillac will offer the ATS with a 2.5-liter, 200-hp engine as standard and charge about $1,800 more to get the more powerful 2-liter.
Ford has been particularly aggressive in reducing the size of its engines. After more models with EcoBoost engines arrive this year, Ford says seven of its nameplates will offer the smallest engines in their segments, more than any other company. Not long ago, such a distinction would have been an embarrassment rather than a reason to brag.
Ford is going even smaller with a 1-liter, three-cylinder EcoBoost engine that it is rolling out this year in overseas markets. It is doubling the number of European models with EcoBoost, and this month announced plans to triple production of EcoBoost-equipped vehicles in Europe, to 480,000 a year by 2015. It said the new 1-liter engine would account for more than 60 percent of that volume.
Ford is bringing the 1-liter engine to North America next year. With 125 hp, it will be one of the company's highest output-per-liter production engines ever, Ford says.
"Customers are being really smart and good shoppers when it comes to fuel economy," says Eric Peterson, Ford's crossover marketing manager. "They don't want to compromise. They don't want to feel it when they have to pull into traffic."
Peterson says the term EcoBoost, which Ford introduced in 2009, has helped Ford overcome consumer skepticism about smaller engines. About 20 percent of Edge buyers select the EcoBoost version, as do roughly one in 10 Explorer and Taurus buyers. But Ford says it expects 90 percent of people who buy the 2013 Escape crossover will get it with a 1.6-liter or 2-liter EcoBoost engine.
"It's not necessarily about engine size per se; it's about efficiency and performance," Peterson says. "It talks less about cylinders and more about mpg and horsepower."
'2-liter took over'
The proliferation of smaller engines is being driven by stricter government fuel-economy standards as well as consumer demand for fuel savings. Fedewa said automakers eventually will use turbocharging and direct injection on a majority of gasoline-powered engines.
"You're going to see many, many more vehicles with smaller-than-typical-size turbo engines," Fedewa says. "Consumers now are really focused on fuel economy as a quality metric of a vehicle brand."
Luke Muncy, general sales manager at Audi Mission Viejo near Los Angeles, said availability of the 2-liter A6 has been limited, but he expects demand to take off as availability increases. Muncy says he wasn't sure at first how well the 2-liter A5 would go over with customers two years ago. But he says his apprehension disappeared quickly.
"The 2-liter took over. Everyone just wanted a 2-liter," he says. "All it takes is for someone to get behind the wheel, and people are sold on it."
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