If you thought you felt the earth shift a bit during the middle of April, it wasn't your imagination: That's when U.S. vehicle buyers began a startling move toward four-cylinder vehicles and away from V-8s.
A combination of high fuel prices and a flood of new four-cylinder vehicles has moved the needle toward smaller engines in recent weeks.
Although it's too early to know whether the change is a revolution or a blip, the short-term numbers are dramatic:
- Sales of vehicles equipped with four-bangers grew from 30.1 percent of the market in the first week of January to 35.4 percent in the week ending May 14, according to the Power Information Network, which collects data from thousands of dealer transaction records each week.
- Sales of eight-cylinder vehicles slipped from 25.6 percent to 21.6 percent during the same period.
Six-cylinder sales remained stable at just over 40 percent.
The shift comes as gasoline prices dominate the headlines. The national average price of a gallon of regular peaked at $2.93 during the one-week period that ended Tuesday, May 16, according to AAA.
"Mpg is the message," said Fritz Hitchcock, owner of Puente Hills Ford, Puente Hills Toyota and three other Toyota dealerships in the Los Angeles area. "I would think this summer we would see even more trend toward people going toward four cylinders.
"The Yaris is just red-hot, and so is the four-cylinder Camry. We're seeing a lot of V-8 trade-ins at the Ford store."
In mid-April, sales of vehicles with four-cylinder engines started to accelerate, according to the Power data. The percent of four-cylinders in the mix was running about even with last year until the week of April 17. That's when sales of four-cylinder vehicles began to increase.
During the week ending May 15, 2005, four-cylinder engines accounted for 30.8 percent of all vehicle sales. That compares with 35.4 for the week ending May 14 this year.
The move toward four-cylinder engines was reflected in the sales mix of both domestic and import brands.
For Honda/Acura, 65.7 percent of vehicles sold the week ending May 14 were equipped with four-cylinder engines. That was up from 56.1 percent in the first week of January.
Four-cylinders made up 54 percent of Hyundai-Kia sales and 51.6 percent of Toyota/Lexus/Scion sales in the week ending May 14. That was up from 45.1 percent for Hyundai Kia and 47.6 percent for Toyota/Lexus/Scion in the first week of January.
The four-cylinder mix also rose at General Motors and Ford Motor Co., although their fleets still are powered overwhelmingly by six- and eight-cylinder engines. From early January until mid-May, Ford sales of four-cylinder models nearly doubled - from 11.4 percent to 20.6 percent.
At General Motors, four-cylinder penetration inched up from 17.7 percent to 19.8 percent from the first week of January through the week ending May 14. The four-cylinder Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR have added sales this year.
Four-cylinders accounted for 14.6 percent of DaimlerChrysler sales, including Mercedes-Benz, in the week ending May 14. That was up from 10.4 percent during the first week of January.
The upward spike is being driven in part by a flood of new four-cylinder vehicle offerings, including the Honda Fit, Dodge Caliber, Chevrolet HHR, Toyota Yaris, Mazda5 and Saturn Sky.
V-8 isn't dead
Tom Libby, an analyst for the Power Information Network, said it's way too early to write the obituary of the V-8.
"Truck-based SUV segments will not go away by any means," he said. "What we're seeing is a shift away from customers who don't need that extra utility to cars or car-based SUVs.
"It doesn't appear that there's a shift within models" offering a choice of a six- or four-cylinder engine such as Honda Accord of Toyota Camry," he said. "It appears the shift is due to new models being introduced."
In addition, replacements of existing models, such as the new Honda Civic, are selling better than the models they replaced, Libby said.
George Pipas, head of sales analysis and reporting for Ford, said sales of Ford's four-cylinder models are increasing. That includes the Fusion, Focus and Escape.
"Sales for Focus over the past two to three months have consistently bettered the objective we set," he said.
The Fusion has a four-cylinder option - which wasn't available on its predecessor, the Taurus. Pipas has noted that the four-cylinder wasn't available at the Fusion's launch.
"The mix has been heavy toward four-cylinder Fusions," said Dennis Hirsch, general manager and owner of Hirsch Ford Lincoln-Mercury in Michigan City, Ind.
But Hirsch said price could be as much a factor as fuel efficiency.
Manufacturers are preparing to churn out more four-cylinder engines. Last week Honda announced it will add 200,000 units of four-cylinder engine capacity when it builds a new engine plant in Alliston, Ontario (see story, Page 1).
Just a blip?
Libby said it's too early to call this a seismic industry shift - something on the order of the oil crisis of 1981, when fleets and engine displacements were shrunk dramatically.
"For there to be a major shift like we saw in the early 1980s, gas prices would have to go substantially above where they are now - say, $4 a gallon - and they would have to stay there for a year," he said.
Chrysler hasn't noticed a big shift in consumer preferences, said Kevin McCormick, manager of global sales and dealer communications for the Chrysler group.
"We have not seen a significant vehicle class jump from eight down to six or six to four," McCormick said.
But others have. Rosario Criscuolo, owner of Spartan Toyota in Lansing, Mich., says those kinds of jumps are taking place every day at his dealership.
"Day by day we're seeing more people going to four cylinders," said Criscuolo. "There's a 60-day wait for the new Yaris small car. I never thought the Yaris would be taking off like this. I thought it would be incremental business, not a core car."
Greg Migliore contributed to this report
You may e-mail Bradford Wernle at [email protected]