Four Is Enough

As if more evidence were needed of the recent tectonic shifts in the automotive marketplace, American car buyers have begun opting for vehicles with smaller engines in hopes of increasing fuel economy. In May, four-cylinder engines became the powertrain of choice for almost half of new car buyers, marking a near doubling of their popularity over the last four years.

The hard numbers are impossible to ignore. According to J.D. Power and Associates’ Power Information Network, 45.6 percent of retail buyers in May 2008 chose four-cylinder engines for their new car or truck. That number was only 38 percent in February 2008, and was at a low of 28.2 percent in May 2004. Today, less than 20 percent of newly purchased autos run on eight-cylinder engines, with six-cylinder engines also declining—both were passed in popularity by fours last month. J.D. Power says that May’s numbers represent the highest percentage of four-cylinder engines sold since it began keeping track.

The change in engine choice mirrors a strong market shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, many of which only come with four-cylinder engines. Subcompact and compact car sales as well as compact SUVs are the only bright spots in a market already battered by a weak economy and high gas prices. This shift comes as the quality and selection of smaller engines has been getting better. Automakers are introducing direction injection, turbocharging and variable value timing to simultaneously boost power and fuel economy.

Given the lifespan of vehicles and challenging economic conditions, smaller engines are likely to continue becoming a greater percentage of U.S. vehicles in use. The market for hybrid gas-electric vehicles is steadily climbing, although only by around one percentage point a year. Meanwhile, the move to four-cylinder vehicles is viewed as a mainstream low-cost high-mpg option—ultimately with a greater reduction on national oil use and environmental impact.

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  • Indigo

    As a culture, America should have been going for smaller vehicles a decade ago. Additionally, it’s not the raw horsepower that counts. It’s the horsepower to weight ratio. You can have a very zippy 4-cyl vehicle if you know how to optimize.

  • Slappy

    Couldn’t agree more. I have a 2004 Mini Cooper S with a 6 speed. That thing has more zip and a higher fun factor than my friends 1998 Camero SS. I’m not going to say I will ever smoke him in a 1/4 of a mile but I will say I’d rather pay my gas bill than his.

  • lindey

    Americans are not buying small cars out of choice and it is hurting American car company’s profit. What we need is cars that Americans want with the fuel economy that Americans demand.

  • Dom

    lindey – what cars are those?? A Toyota 4Runner that magically gets 50mpg?? Sorry, the laws of physics kind’a make that hard to pull off. So smaller cars it is. You can do a lot with a good wagon, but they’re not in style…

  • H22

    It’d be nice if someone with a modicum of automotive knowlege wrote these articles: “DIRECTION injection” and “variable VALUE” timing.” I’d chaulk one mistake up as a typo but these two back to back make me suspect a severe lack of technical understanding.

  • JJspawn

    Derfinitely noticed those mistakes… thought i would need to research a new lexicon in engines.

    I do have to agree w/ lindey.. ppl are buying out of need…. I am still talking to ppl who dream of one day having an m3 or v8 engine.

    If people really would’ve wanted them.. they would’ve been on the market years ago b/c ppl would’ve demanded them…

  • lindey

    I don’t think we have to have 50 mpg. If the f150 got even 30mpg I think it would once again be the number one seller. I also know of pending designs for hybrids that will get even better mpg then anything Toyota has now because hydraulic technology that is 3 time more effect than batteries and needs large vehicles to take a vantage of it. I also have degree in physics and know of even better things to come.

    Ford to build 60-mpg F150
    There is buzz emerging in the automotive world that Ford will launch a new hybrid version of the F150 in 2008 that will have a 400% improvement in fuel economy over the standard gasoline F150. Based on a joint research and technology development agreement between Ford and the EPA, dating back to 2001, the Hydraulic Hybrid Techology is poised to overtake the current gas-electric technology used in vehicles like Toyota’s Prius.


  • Lucien

    Coincidentally I did a comparison between Europe and US for available base engines and you would get 10-20% better fuel economy if we would be offered the same small Euro engines in the US. See table here:!A4AE3FB12A26635!899.entry

    Hopefully now we will be able to get more engine choices…

  • reginab

    With the gas prices everyone is looking towards fuel economy when buying a car. I’m not surprised. The SUV crowd who flock toward the Chevrolet truck blog are now looking elsewhere.

  • SukhdeepS

    I would much rather have a four cylinder car with gas prices being as crazy as they are now. Do you think it would make my auto insurance go down too?