Imagine a car that gets more than 40 mpg in everyday traffic and 50 on the highway — and it isn't an expensive hybrid, and it doesn't require special fuel.
Get ready for a new generation of cars equipped with surprisingly powerful three-cylinder engines that, according to early reviews out of Europe, have the zip and zoom Americans expect in the four-cylinder compact sedans they buy today.
"This engine is a game-changer," Steve Cropley of Autocar magazine, a British publication, says of the three-cylinder Ford Focus that just went on sale in Europe. "You barely hear the thing start, and it idles so smoothly you'd swear it had stalled."
Better yet for power enthusiasts, "This lean upstart makes some bigger engines look puny," wrote Phil McNamara of Car, another British magazine.
Automakers are starting to test the waters for how such vehicles would sell in the U.S. market. Ford says it will have a three-cylinder Focus or Fiesta for sale here by the middle of next year. Mitsubishi plans to launch a compact car with a three-cylinder engine sometime in 2013.
BMW, known for its full-throttle, throaty engines, is developing a three-cylinder powerplant that could show up in its U.S. offerings in three to five years. Volkswagen and Nissan also are working with three-cylinder engines, but there's no word on whether or when they will hit the U.S. market.
Automakers are proceeding cautiously because previous efforts to pack tiny engines in cars for the U.S. market mostly sputtered.
In the 1990s, Suzuki sold the Swift, and General Motors sold its version of the same vehicle under the Chevrolet Metro and Geo Metro names. While the cars' fuel economy was among the best in the industry, drivers complained that they were noisy and struggled going uphill.
The Smart Fortwo, a tiny two-seater without much power, is the only three-cylinder car still being sold in the U.S.
To be attractive to today's drivers, any vehicles with such small engines must be sure "not to compromise performance or fuel economy," says Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive.
That's why automakers are packing more power — as measured by horsepower and torque — into these new engines.
The car companies are encouraged by how quickly Americans have downsized from larger engines to four-cylinder power plants. Almost half of the cars sold last year had four cylinders, according to Edmunds.com. That's up from 34 percent in 2007. Many small SUVs, and even some larger ones such as the Ford Explorer, also come in four-cylinder models.
"Three cylinders shouldn't be much of a stretch," says Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for automotive consulting firm AutoPacific Inc.
Downsizing engines is part of an auto industry strategy to meet federal fuel economy standards that require the combined industrywide fleet to average 34.1 mpg by the 2016 model year, and a proposed 54.5 mpg by 2025.
"Everything is on the table right now with the new fuel economy standards," says Monty Roberts, a BMW spokesman.
The new 1.0-liter Ford EcoBoost three-cylinder — the smallest engine Ford has ever built — is turbocharged and patterned on the same technology used in much bigger vehicles. The engine will pack 100 to 125 horsepower, depending on the configuration. British drivers will pay about $400 extra for the engine over the base five-door Focus.
Its horsepower and torque outputs are equivalent to or better than many 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engines now on the market, says Derrick Kuzak, Ford group vice president of global product development.
Both Ford and BMW are said to be developing even more powerful three-cylinders — engines that could pack upward of 150 ponies, making them stronger than many of the four-cylinders that come in cars today.