Four is the new six.
Four cylinders have replaced sixes as America's most popular engine choice, powering 43 percent of U.S. light vehicles sold in the first half of this year, according to IHS Automotive.
In 2005, V-6s were in an identical 43 percent of vehicles sold. But over six years, four-cylinder engines rose while six-bangers fell, with fours overtaking sixes in 2009. That American icon, the V-8, has lost favor even faster. It now is under one of every six hoods vs. almost one of three in 2005.
The reduction in cylinders is even starker if you exclude fleet sales, which include batches of contractor pickups and vans for rug-cleaning franchisees. So far this year, more than half the vehicles sold to retail consumers had four cylinders, up sharply from a third in 2006, says J.D. Power and Associates.
Two factors are driving the shift. Buyers beset by high fuel prices are downsizing vehicles or opting for the smaller of two engine choices. And manufacturers are shrinking vehicles and engines to meet tougher 2016 federal fuel economy rules.
The automaker push and consumer pull are reshaping the American automotive market. Sales of smaller vehicles are growing: Small and mid-sized vehicles account for 44 percent of sales this year vs. 36 percent in 2005. And the changes are remaking engines, as technology-laden powertrains provide more punch per piston.
"We're offering a continuous rollout of technologies," said Greg Johnson, Lincoln powertrain integration manager, in part because consumers now expect fuel prices to keep rising over time and "are going to continue to vote with their pocketbooks."
Ford Motor Co. is introducing downsized and turbocharged EcoBoost engines in several vehicles and six-speed transmissions across its entire U.S. lineup.
The added technologies mean consumers aren't giving up power. Ford's current naturally aspirated engines typically deliver 80 hp per liter, while its EcoBoost engines deliver 120 hp per liter. And, Johnson adds, "Ours are not a trade-off on the road. You have the torque for 0-to-60, passing, merging onto freeways."
Or consider the Chevrolet Cruze. The Eco version of the compact is rated at 42 mpg on the highway. But even the standard version includes a variable-displacement oil pump that pumps only what's needed as a way to improve engine efficiency.
For consumers, the obvious upside of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles is in the lower operating costs, especially at the fuel pump. The downside: The cost of all that technology used to tweak engines and reduce weight adds up.