January 11, 2013

Car Talk

Smaller engines are getting more powerful

Syndicated columnists

Dear Tom and Ray:
I am thinking of buying a new car, and I need to know if a four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine would be the wisest choice. I live on a hilltop, 2,400 feet above the valley, and the road to my home is about five miles up the long, steep hill. I have always driven a car with six or more cylinders, and I fear that a four-cylinder would not last long climbing the hill each day. What do you advise? — Mary

There's not an absolute answer to this, Mary. It would be like asking you if my brother should buy a shirt in XXL or XXXL. You'd be hard-pressed to give him a good answer without seeing the specific shirt and the size of my brother's spare tire.

Ray: It was a 195/65 R16 as of yesterday.

Tom: In general, engines are getting smaller and more powerful. So lots of people who used to buy V-8s are now buying sixes. And people who bought sixes are buying fours. And soon, people who've always bought fours will be buying three-cylinder engines!

Ray: And because of advanced technologies, like direct injection and turbo charging, people aren't giving up any power when they're moving down in size and weight.

Tom: So there's no general rule anymore. There are underpowered sixes and overpowered fours. What you get depends on the technologies in the engine and the car the engine is paired with.

Sometimes the manufacturer will lay out a choice of engines for you. Pickup trucks are a great example of that. Some people use their pickup trucks as suburban commuter vehicles. So a six-cylinder engine may be all they need. Others may haul heavy equipment with their pickup, and they need the additional towing capacity of a V-8.

But we've also seen cases where a manufacturer will offer a lower-powered, older-technology "base" engine just to be able to advertise a low starting price. In that case, almost no one wants the base engine.

Ray: And then there are cases in which the base engine is really all anybody needs. The manufacturer just offers a more powerful engine to satisfy the egos of folks who want to overdo it and pay more. The Honda Accord comes to mind, with its great 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and its unnecessary 278-hp six.

Tom: In general, you'll pay more not only to buy a six-cylinder engine, but also to repair and maintain it over the life of the car.

We just test-drove the brand-new Ford Escape. It's a small SUV that used to come with four- and six-cylinder engine options. Interestingly, it has three different engine options now, but they're all four-cylinder engines. We drove the middle one; a turbocharged, 1.6-liter four, which is tiny by SUV standards. But we were surprised to find that it had as much power as anyone might need in normal driving.

So I wouldn't necessarily recommend a six-cylinder for you, Mary. What I would recommend is that you avoid something whose reviews use the word "underpowered" a lot (unless those reviews are in enthusiast magazines like Car and Driver, which consider everything underpowered).

Ray: Once you narrow down your car choices, feel free to write back to us, and we'll give you any specific thoughts we have on those particular car-engine combinations. But don't be afraid of modern four-cylinder engines as a class. There are more of them than ever that provide plenty of power.

(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)


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