|The Toyota 1NZ-FE under the hood of a 2016 Toyota Yaris|
With its 16-valves, dual-overhead cams, VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence), and an output of 106 hp and 103 lb/ft of torque (give or take a couple depending on the year and application), the venerable Toyota 1NZ-FE engine made its debut in the 2000 Echo in the U.S. At the time, there weren't a whole lot of engines under 1.6 liters, with the exception of the Chevrolet Metro, Ford Aspire, Honda Insight hybrid, Hyundai Accent, and Kia Rio. But let's face it: That was nearly 16 years ago. Yet it's still for sale with few changes. Why does Toyota still use it? Cost. Reliability. Efficiency. But this stoic little engine is more than just that. Let's look at some more history, shall we?
The 1NZ-FE-powered Echo was built from 2000 to 2005 and used in a host of other vehicles in Japan and Asia. In 2004, two other 1NZ-FE-powered cars sprung up: the boxy Scion xB and wedge-shaped Scion xA. While not powerhouses, they didn't require much momentum to get moving, and the 1NZ-FE was a fine engine choice. Plus, these cars had relatively short gearing to compensate for the lower power, courtesy of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. These cars were discontinued after MY2006, but that wasn't the end of this engine.
In 2006, the 1NZ-FE appeared under the hood of the Toyota Yaris in Canada and 2007 in the U.S. And yes, it has resided there ever since—and still soldiers on in the 2016 Yaris.
This mill has received only a few tweaks since its introduction in 2000, such as a revised fly-by-wire throttle. But really, the engine is quite simple, it's extremely reliable, durable, and still delivers fuel economy on par with newer engines. Plus, since Toyota has generally kept vehicles, such as the Yaris/Vitz, fairly light weight, there hasn't been much of a need to bump up to something like the 1.8-liter 2ZR-FE that's found in the Scion xD and Corolla. (Toyota did offer a 2ZR-FE-powered Yaris in other parts of the world as the Yaris T-Sport.) There's no fancy valve lift, there's no modern direct injection. No turbocharging. It's an honest, simple engine. But it's also being used by some unlikely people: Racers.
|Tag Rally Sport Toyota Yaris rally car from the 2015 Oregon Trail rally.|
|Jason Isley's 1NZ-FE-powered Toyota Yaris race car|
Jason remarks that the car is tuned very conservatively from the factory, but with just a piggyback ECU, you can unlock more power than most bolt-on mods combined. He reassured me that there's a lot of room left in the fuel and ignition programming, and the car can take a good bit more than the stock rev limit allows for. In fact, they've been running their 1NZ-FE up to 7,500 RPM for years without issue. He also mentioned they'ed been working with Jesse Prather Motorsports, who helped to build an engine for the 2015 Runoffs at Daytona.
"We weren't specifically looking for more power ... but needed the engine to take 8,500–9,000 RPM due to gearing limitations," he said.
Jason had custom pistons made and upgraded the valve springs to take the extra revs. They did find the OE intake system (which they are required to use for H Production class vehicles) wouldn't build power over 7,800 RPM. It'd still spin 9,000 RPM on the dyno and held up at a sustained 8,600 RPM blasts at Daytona.
"Without class specific rules, the 1NZ-FE has some real potential."
And don't just take Jason's word for it.
This little mill has also been tuned to crazy levels by former Micro Image owner, Garm Beall, who squeezed 357 horsepower out of his little 1.5-liter mill and made sub 13-second quarter-mile passes. See for yourself:
But with increasingly efficient and tech-heavy small engines featuring more power and fuel economy, how long can the 1NZ-FE survive in the competitive subcompact market? If I had to guess, probably not too much longer. I'd say the engine will bow out of the lineup when the next generation Yaris debuts (2017?). But who knows? Maybe it'll keep going and going and going. If not in North America, perhaps in other markets.
Maybe the 1NZ-FE gets a bad rap because of its age, its dated five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions, and because it doesn't have a turbocharger, direct injection, variable lift, or other modern engine accouterments. But has anyone ever thought that maybe it doesn't need them? If the engine is serving its purpose and its niche, then why change it?
Toyota generally runs its engine families for quite a long time, and the 1NZ-FE exemplifies that. Thankfully, it's a good little mill that's up to a number of tasks.They're cheap to maintain, run forever, are fairly responsive, and as we've seen, can be heavily modified. Maybe this engine is destined to be a classic Toyota powerplant like the 4AG-E or the 3-TC. Regardless, it's here, it's reliable, and it's thrifty—a perfect powerplant for small Toyotas.