Getting Small, But Avoiding Econoboxes

Conventional wisdom for American automobiles is being turned on its head by the combination of high fuel prices, concern about greenhouse gas emissions, and a looming recession. The auto industry is responding by taking a page out of Europe’s playbook—where smaller cars and smaller engines rule, but driving fun has not been banished from the equation. Smaller yet powerful engines are possible due to advances in supercharging, turbocharging, and direct injection.

Supercharging and turbocharging are related technologies—both are concerned with compressing more air into the combustion chamber of the engine. This increases the power when air and fuel combine with a spark, but also increases efficiency of the combustion process. What’s the difference between the two? Supercharging uses a belt to compress the air while a turbocharger uses exhaust gases from the engine to power the compression.

Supercharging has been around for decades. A decade ago, Buick offered supercharged models to deliver V-8 like performance in its V-6-powered flagship models. Supercharging in the current Jaguar XF V-8 boosts the car’s performance to the level of a V-10 or V12 engines, while maintaining a modicum of fuel economy. European automakers are now looking at adding giving the supercharging treatment to small displacement engines in the 1.2 to 1.5-liter range.

Turbocharging is finding a much broader application as durability concerns have been addressed and new variable-vane turbochargers deliver smoother power for the driver—ending the complaints of the past about “turbo lag”. Volkswagen and Renault are leading the way, but Ford, General Motors and FIAT are not far behind.


  • Skeptic

    You watch. GM will re-launch the Chevette to prove to another generation of Americans that small cars suck.

    Buick actually had turbosuperchargers (“turbos”), not belt-driven units. Oldsmobile had lots of Diesels. Cadillac tried their V-8-6-4 engine that had a propensity to catch fire.

    Odd how GM at least /tried/ in the late 1970s-early 1980s.

  • Nicole O’Driscoll

    What about those that cannot afford such an expensive car…this seems unfair to those who have less money $ than those who have very little again it seems that those with more money are being favored over those that do not!

  • steved28

    Nicole, what (expensive) car are you talking about? New technology can only be introduced in new cars. If someone can’t afford a new car, they buy the best used they can afford.

  • Need2Change

    Actually, supercharging was used almost 100 years ago in a lot of cars.

    Yes, several GM and Chrysler used turbocharging in the 1970′s, but most had overheating and reliability problems.

    I believe that paying $1K extra for a direct injection engine may make sense. Ford is developing a 3.5 litre 350 hp direct injected, turbo charged engine to replace the 4.6 litre 300 hp engine. The engine costs about $1K more, but gets better gas mileage while delivering 50 extra hp. The new engine weighs about 100 lbs less as well.

    Ford first plans to place the engine in Lincolns, trucks, and SUVs in 2009.

    I’d love to see them replace the 4.6 in the Mustang GT with this engine.

    Yes, mileage doesn’t compare to a Prius, but it’s still a significant improvement at reasonable cost.

  • fenolftalein86

    how much the prices that car?

  • Grant

    I GET QUITE A KICK OUT OF THE EUROPEAN AND JAPANESE BIAS DISPLAYED BY ANY NUMBER OF AUTOMOTIVE JOURNALISTS THESE DAYS.
    TAKE THE EXAMPLE HERE, WHERE THE WRITER MENTIONS THE “INCREDIBLE” 200 HORSEPOWER DEVELOPED BY THE “SPECIAL EDITION” AUDI A4 OUT OF A 2.0 LITRE DIRECT INJECTION 4 CYLINDER ENGINE.
    NO PRAISE AT ALL FOR THE 2.0 LITRE ECOTECH INLINE 4 CYLINDER DIRECT INJECTED ENGINE CURRENTLY POWERING THE CHEVY HHR SS, WHICH PRODUCES 260 HORSEPOWER, AND GETS BETTER COMBINED MILEAGE THAN THE AUDI!
    THIS ENGINE WILL BE IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED COBALT SS AS WELL. IF THE AUDI A4 ENGINE IS “INCREDIBLE” I GUESS CHEVY’S MUST BE DOWNRIGHT “PHENOMENAL”!