Is Ford’s Three-Cylinder Engine Hotter Than a V8?

By Jonathan Welsh


I don’t think an announcement in which Ford Motor Co. touted its new three-cylinder, one-liter engine was supposed to make me think of the company’s nemesis, General Motors. But it did.

Any time I hear about a three-cylinder engine in a car, especially when it is about the size of a typical motorcycle power plant, I think about an Army buddy who owned a Chevrolet Sprint, a subcompact that was barely roadworthy but a lot better than walking.

“You know, the engine has only three cylinders,” he told me once when nobody else was within earshot. We were in officer training at Fort Knox, Ky., at the time and a lot of our classmates drove V8-powered cars and trucks. I didn’t own a car, so he knew I wouldn’t tell our friends about his terrible secret unless I wanted to find another ride to class.

The year was 1988, and who would have thought that 20-odd years later car companies would be crowing about their downsized engines. But with gasoline still over $4 per gallon in many places and uncertainty among many consumers about the economy, it is no surprise that small engines may finally be finding a bigger audience. Indeed, when was the last time you heard anyone bragging about a big V8 engine’s horsepower? Even muscle-cars like the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro are pitching smaller motors and fuel economy.

The new Ford engine is part of a trend that is spreading across the auto industry. Many car makers including Chevrolet, Hyundai and BMW have been pushing development of smaller-displacement engines that give high fuel economy but also use turbo-charging to generate more power when it is needed. The broad move is in part the result of tightening federal fuel-economy standards. To meet them, car companies will have to increase fuel economy across their range of vehicles, not simply build a few hybrid or electric models to make up for the gas-guzzling majority.

The coming one-liter engine made its debut in the Ford Start concept car at the 2010 Beijing auto show and appeared in the Ford B-MAX at the 2011 Geneva show. Ford says it will release more technical and application details about the engine in September at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

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