Engines' new sweet spot: 4 cylinders
Researchers: 3-bangers are expected to gain a toehold in U.S.
The North American auto industry's migration to four-cylinder engines is picking up speed.
Over the next five years, automakers in North America are expected to produce 8.8 million vehicles powered by four-cylinder engines, up from an estimated 6.5 million in 2012, according to research firm LMC Automotive.
If that happens, 52 percent of all light vehicles produced in North America in 2017 will be powered by four-cylinder engines, up from 46 percent this year.
Eight-cylinder engines will be flat, while three-cylinder engines will become a small - but growing - niche, LMC predicts.
"Most of the growth is going to be four-cylinder engines," said Mike Omotoso, LMC's senior manager of powertrain forecasting.
To maintain performance, automakers are adding turbochargers and direct injection to four-cylinder engines. Consumers appear to be embracing the trend.
For example, the redesigned Ford Explorer debuted last year with an optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine. About 10 percent of Explorer buyers choose the engine, a Ford spokeswoman said.
Perhaps the biggest shift to four-cylinder engines is occurring in the mid-sized sedan segment. In 2010, Hyundai introduced a redesigned Sonata sedan without an optional V-6. This year the 2013 Ford Fusion is scheduled to start arriving in dealerships in September without a V-6, and the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu will be available only with a four-cylinder engine.
Despite the trend to four-cylinder engines, V-6 production is expected to rise slightly from 5.0 million units this year to 5.2 million units in 2017. That's because consumers are buying more full-sized pickups and SUVs with six-cylinder engines instead of V-8s.
Now automakers are starting to tinker with three-cylinder engines. In Europe, Ford has introduced a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine for the Focus.
And Ford has confirmed that it will sell its 1.0-liter engine in the United States, though it has not said which model will get it.
Likewise, Mercedes-Benz sells the Smart - with a three-cylinder engine - in the United States.
But only Nissan produces three-cylinder engines in North America. This year Nissan is expected to build about 100,000 three-cylinder engines in Mexico for the Micra, which is sold in Latin America.
By 2017, LMC Automotive predicts North American production of three-cylinder engines will rise to 200,000 units - still a relatively small niche.
Omotoso says he thinks the three-cylinder engine has a future in North America, "but it won't dominate the market by any means. Most of the growth [in North American production] will still be four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines."
You can reach David Sedgwick at email@example.com.