When it came time for Ray Hancart to choose the engine he wanted in a new Honda Accord, he decided there was no need for the bigger V-6. He picked one with four cylinders.
The marketing and public relations executive from Columbus, Ohio, joined a growing trend in U.S. auto sales toward smaller engines. The trend is starting to erase what once was conventional wisdom: that a four is too small to power a midsize car, especially when it's carrying a family. Fours, boosted by turbochargers, are starting to show up even in larger vehicles such as the new Ford Explorer SUV.
"For what I do on a normal basis, the Accord four-cylinder has got more than enough get-up-and-go for me," says Hancart.
Auto executives and analysts expect the growth in smaller engines to continue as the industry scrambles to meet government rules that raise the average new-car gas mileage to 35.5 mpg by 2016, nearly 10 mpg more than now.
- The number of four-cylinder engines sold has jumped dramatically in recent years, from 28 percent of all cars in 2005 to 43 percent last year. Percentage of four-cylinder sales of select models:
- Hyundai Sonata:
29 in 2005, 95 in 2010
- Nissan Altima:
82 in 2005, 95 in 2010
- Chevrolet Malibu:
36 in 2005, 88 in 2010
- Toyota Camry:
78 in 2005, 86 in 2010
- Ford Fusion:
49 in 2005, 75 in 2010
- Honda Accord:
75 in 2005, 75 in 2010
- Chrysler Sebring:
38 in 2005, 65 in 2010
- Sources: Automakers, Ward's AutoInfoBank
Even as recently as 2005, buying a midsize car with a four-cylinder engine was making a compromise. The fours didn't have the power of a V-6, and they were noisy. Anyone who bought one got fuel economy but traded it for a quieter ride and perhaps the ability to tow a small trailer.
As gas prices started to rise, and with stricter government requirements looming, automakers moved to improve their fours. They refined the smaller engines and added insulation to make them quieter. They changed the fuel-injection systems to boost horsepower. As a result, newer four-cylinder engines have as much power as older V-6 engines.
A version of Hyundai's 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Sonata has 200 horsepower, as much or more than six-cylinder engines from just a few years ago.
"They don't whine. You don't feel like you're in an eggbeater," Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates, says of the newer fours.
Bob McInerney, who runs a Toyota dealership in the Detroit area, says he tells his customers to drive Camrys with both sizes of engines. Then he tells them the four-cylinder costs substantially less than the six, often thousands less depending on how the cars are equipped.
"When you drive them both, you can hardly tell the difference," he says. "It's basically a no-brainer."
Hyundai decided it wouldn't even offer a six in new versions of the Sonata sedan, saving about 50 pounds of steel structure that was needed to support the engine. Because of the weight loss and a new engine, the Sonata moved to the top of its class for gas mileage at 35 mpg on the highway.
Within the company, some feared that Hyundai would give up l0 percent to 15 percent of Sonata's sales by deleting the six. Instead, the automaker can't build enough Sonatas, and it is shifting its factory lineup so it can make more of them at a plant in Montgomery, Ala.
John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Hyundai Motor America, says he expects other automakers to join Hyundai in eliminating sixes in midsize cars. "It has worked out so well," he says, "much better than we thought."