Engineers have solved the technical problems that dogged the three-cylinder engine in the 1980s and early '90s. But even with turbochargers, it may take a while for the triple to outrun its historical baggage.
Six automakers that sell vehicles in the United States have three-cylinder engines on the road or on the way. These new three-bangers are nothing like the wheezing, shaking triples available in economy cars such as the Geo Metro, Subaru Justy and Daihatsu Charade sold here 25 years ago.
The engines in those budget cars were strictly low-tech. They lacked power and refinement, and they delivered painfully low performance.
For example, the 1.0-liter engine in the Charade, sold here from 1988 to 1992, generated just 53 hp and needed an agonizing 15 seconds to propel the 2,000-pound compact hatchback to 60 mph. Perhaps its only saving grace: a respectable 38 mpg highway EPA fuel economy rating.
The 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE, by comparison, shows how technology has transformed the three-cylinder. The Fiesta SFE has the same size engine as the Charade had, 1.0-liter, but it is rated at 123 hp, carries an EPA rating of 45 mpg on the highway and can move the Fiesta -- which weighs 800 pounds more than the Charade -- to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds.
BMW's 2014 Mini Cooper comes standard with a 1.5-liter turbo three-cylinder that generates more power than the outgoing 1.6-liter four-cylinder, chops 2.3 seconds off the 0 to 60 mph time and propels the Mini's miles per gallon into the 40s for the first time.
Ford, BMW and other automakers are not drawing attention to the number of cylinders. That's due in part to the reputation of three-cylinder engines. Instead, their message focuses on performance and fuel economy.
"We haven't discussed it that much," says Patrick McKenna, Mini's product planning manager. "It's not something to tout, but at the same time, it's not anything to be avoiding.
"We put it in the specs, and we are definitely training our motoring advisers at dealerships to talk about all the merits. We really haven't put any special attention to it."
Ford, Mitsubishi and Smart also downplay engine configuration on their consumer Web sites.
Wade Jackson, Fiesta brand manager at Ford, says no ads are planned to point out that the Fiesta SFE has a three-cylinder engine. The car launched in January and is off to a good start. The SFE accounts for between 5 and 8 percent of sales, depending on the region.
"Customers may not see an ad," he said. "The 45 mpg message is being delivered through the dealer network."