I am happy to report that we can finally bury the age-old argument over dimension and performance, at least in the automotive world. Under the hood, size doesn’t matter much anymore.
In fact, if there’s one trend I am going to put my money on for the coming year, it’s the ongoing adoption of smaller engines among automakers. In vehicle cylinder-speak, six is the new eight, four is the new six, and, if Volkswagen gets its way with the new Up! subcompact in the U.S., three will be the new four.
To be fair, engine downsizing has been in the works over the last few years. The Germans, particularly Audi, Volkswagen and BMW, made the first move around 2010, convincing performance snobs that engine displacement had little to do with dominating the Autobahn. It was quickly followed by Hyundai, who offered only a four-cylinder Sonata in 2011 without a V6 variant — a bold, and surprising, decision for the mid-sized segment.
Now, the Detroit Three have entered the game as well. Currently, Ford is making the most noise with a new 1.0-litre engine for its 2013 Fiesta subcompact and its success will to a large extent determine the future of the mini-engine in North America. Ford is also expanding its turbocharged EcoBoost engine family to most of its models. The EcoBoost variants are expected to go a long way in weaning away its pickups from traditional V8s.
General Motors has brought four-cylinder power to its 2013 Malibu and the engine option will go head-to-head with the conventional V6 across most trims. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne also announced recently that the company is actively ramping up production of smaller engines and will bring “downsizing across the fleet.”
The latest downsizing trend is not restricted to mass-market vehicles. Even luxury brands and uber-performance cars are ditching cylinder count for their latest models. The auto industry has been abuzz with the rumour that Aston Martin might be bringing back its much-derided six-cylinder variant. A 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder Chevy Camaro is expected to debut in 2013 or 2014 and may just the change the course for power-hogging muscle cars.
Automakers may be downsizing because of government fuel economy obligations as well as increasing consumer preference for cars with better mileage, going small wouldn’t be possible without sophisticated technologies such as advanced turbochargers, superchargers, direct injection and variable valve timing. These advancements enable bigger cars to achieve the mileage advantage of small cars, without sacrificing the vroom.
Leading suppliers of these technologies, such as Honeywell and BorgWarner, are benefiting the most from downsizing. Honeywell, which specializes in turbochargers, had forecasted that 3.2 million cars in North America will be equipped with the technology by the end of 2012, compared to 2.2 million in 2011. The company expects this growth curve to remain strong till 2016.
According to an Automotive News report, Cleveland-based Eaton Corporation is betting big on superchargers, which has so far been used in high-end performance cars, and has seen solid revenue growth through supply contracts with Audi and Porsche. The company is now aggressively working on taking superchargers to mass-market models.
For automakers, immediate financial gains are limited. The cost of reducing engine size and adding turbochargers, while keeping prices competitive, don’t leave much room for attractive margins. But these strategies at least allow them to meet tightening mileage regulations in a cost-efficient way and deliver products that the consumer can embrace. Once downsized engines catch on and the volumes kick in, carmakers can expect to see lower production costs and higher profits.
Tinier engine packages will also pose a serious threat to hybrids and EVs. Even though turbocharged options are typically priced higher than regular engine offerings, they can still beat alternative vehicle sticker prices hands down. When you combine the cost savings with the near-hybrid-level fuel economy that some cars are now capable of, the road looks pretty tough for the Prius and Volt, at least in the short term.
History has not been too kind to automakers’ previous “small is better” strategies. BMW was probably the only one who found some success in North America with powertrain reduction in the 1970s, but even they ditched those efforts by the end of the ’90s. Of course, one doesn’t need to be reminded of General Motors’ three-cylinder snooze-cruise Geo Metro.
But this time around, I think it will be different. Better technology, fuel economy imperatives, tighter consumer wallets, rapid urbanization — all these factors have created the perfect launch pad for the small revolution. Here’s hoping 2013 will be its big year.
Kumar Saha is a Toronto-based automotive analyst with the global research firm Frost & Sullivan
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