For a moment, I hesitated. The on-ramp to the highway was short, traffic was charging up the right lane, and I was driving a sedan with a four-cylinder engine. The Hyundai Sonata SE did not hesitate. When I squeezed the accelerator, it woofed onto the highway powerfully, without that "I think I can" whine of so many four-cylinder econoboxes of the past. "Twenty years ago, a four-cylinder car was one you thought you'd have to stick a leg out to push," says Cars.com editor Patrick Olsen. Not this one the $27,000 Sonata SE model has a turbocharged, 2.0-L, direct-injection engine that generates a frothy 274 h.p. Not Chevrolet's recently unveiled 2013 Malibu, which will house a 2.5-L, 190-h.p., 35-plus-m.p.g. Ecotec engine. Compare that with the laughable 106-h.p. margarita blender on the low-end Toyota Yaris.
In a year of $4-per-gal. gasoline, a new generation of little engines with steroid-like output and 30-plus-m.p.g. fuel efficiency is making its mark. It represents a downshift in engine size that confounds those of us with muscle-engine memories. V-8s were once the standard power plants on American cars and the standard of American automotive power. The reason was simple: power was proportional to displacement, or engine size. For many Americans, even considering a smaller engine would have been out of the question. That changed in the post-gas-crisis years. As fuel prices rose, drivers had to trade power for efficiency. They were never very happy about it.
This year there's an acceleration of drivers shifting out of V-8-powered SUVs into V-6-powered crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse and from V-6-powered cars and crossovers into fuel-efficient four-cylinder models. The new Malibu four-cylinder replaces a V-6. Ford has replaced some 5.7-L V-8s with 3.5-L V-6s, giving drivers 10% to 20% better fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance. Downsized engines are a powerful theme at Chevrolet. In 2007 four-cylinder models represented 23% of Chevy's U.S. sales, lower than either V-6- or V-8-equipped models. This year the smaller engine claims 46% of sales, making four-cylinders the top power plant in the Chevrolet lineup. Last year Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche told a group of American journalists to get over their eight-cylinder fixation expect more fours in the future.
The downsizing of engines and upsizing of power land right in Detroit's wheelhouse. Japanese enginemakers have traditionally been good at fuel efficiency at the expense of power, which isn't as much in demand in Japan's dense cities. The Germans were never going to give up power, natch, but their strength is diesel-fueled or higher-priced vehicles like Audi's. When Ford's head of product development, Derrick Kuzak, ran that company's European operations, he became fixated on combining the best of both: an efficient gasoline-powered engine with diesel-like performance. "The auto press said I was crazy," he says. But the engineers eventually delivered for Ford and GM. "We're not asking the customers to make any concessions," says Kuzak.
Nobody is, and that's a vital difference today. The key to the improved performance of four-cylinders has been the migration of technology once available only in race cars and sports cars. Turbochargers, which force more air into the combustion chamber, producing more output, are now cheap enough for everything short of your lawn mower. Add to that computerized fuel injection and variable valve timing and you've got engines that optimize internal combustion and fuel burn. More important is what Kuzak calls a "flat torque curve" at 1,200 to 5,600 r.p.m. In other words, the engine is able to pull the weight of the car along at lower speeds in addition to when you floor it.
For those of us with fuel-drenched memories of 7.5-L, 370-h.p. Pontiac GTOs and 7.0-L, 390-h.p. Dodge Challengers, this resizing doesn't seem possible. There's a saying among gearheads that "there's no replacement for displacement." Bigger is better. That, too, has gone the way of the muscle cars.