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.