Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Will Americans buy cars with engines smaller than 1.5 liters?

Toyota 1NR-FE 1.0-liter engineA few of us Yaris owners were speculating on the next generation Toyota Yaris, and which powerplant it will have. It was noted that the current 1.5-liter, 16-valve DOHC 1NZ-FE engine (offered in the Toyota Yaris, Echo, Prius [1NZ-FXE]; Scion xA, first-generation xB) looks like its being phased out of the company. The new Prius is using a 1.8-liter engine. The Toyota iQ in Asia and Europe has an engine displacing 1.0 liter, and will soon get a 1.3-liter (the 1NR-FE above).

General Motors has said they will be introducing 1.4-liter engines to the U.S. in the near future, too, including in their Aveo replacement, and in the upcoming Cruze compact. GM hasn't offered an engine that small since the Chevrolet Metro's 1.3-liter mill.

However, will Americans buy a vehicle with a 1.3- or 1.4-liter engine? There haven't been many cars sold in the U.S. with engines under 1.5-liters in size. A few models dared do go small. These cars had the last of the 1.5-and-under engine displacements:

Make/ModelEngine sizeProduced until
Honda Civic1.3 liter1987
Renault Alliance1.4 liter1987
Chevrolet Sprint1.0 liter1992
Daihatsu Charade1.0 liter1992
Subaru Justy1.2 liter1994
Geo/Chevrolet Metro1.0 liter2000
Geo/Chevrolet Metro1.3 liter2001
Honda Insight1.3 liter*Current
Smart ForTwo1.0 literCurrent

*Honda Insight is a gas/electric hybrid

As you can see, the last straight-up gasoline-engine-equipped car to be sold in the U.S. with a displacement under 1.5 liters (other than the current Smart ForTwo) was the 2001 Chevrolet Metro that had 1.3 liters. This excludes Mazda's 1.3-liter rotary engines, and the 1.3-liter engine in the Honda Insight hybrid.

The 1980s
In the early 1980s, there were more cars with smaller displacements. The Datsun 210, and the Toyota Starlet and a few others, for example. In fact, the Starlet, produced until 1984, had an EPA fuel economy rating of 38/54! Granted, it only made 58 hp and twisted out 74 ft./lbs. of torque. In addition, cars were lighter due to less creature comforts and fewer safety requirements. A bit later, there were the Chevrolet Sprint, the Subaru Justy, the Renault Alliance, and others. It's no secret that many of these cars were painfully slow, though. However, not everyone was looking for a lot of power—just lots of fuel economy.

It's not size that matters. Is it power?
Honda L13AMaybe Americans aren't so much worried about engine size as engine output. If Toyota can produce a 1.3-liter engine that makes usable power, maybe people would buy it. Or is there a magic horsepower number?

The recent crop of subcompacts all have over 100 hp, even though nearly every United States domestic market (USDM) subcompact has a Euro/Asian counterpart with a smaller engine option (the Honda Fit's optional 1.3-liter L13A at right), not to mention diesel engines that still aren't making their way to our shores even though we now have low-sulfur diesel.

One thing is for sure: If more cars end up with smaller displacement engines, even with usable power, American consumers are going to have to be sold on the idea. This means different marketing and different in-dealer sales tactics.

I know there are some people that would love the smaller, less-powerful, more fuel-efficient engine option. Not everyone is looking for scads of power. Hey, we did OK with the Starlet and the 210 in the early '80s. Could we do it again? Or would these small-displacement-equipped vehicles be stillborn on dealer lots because they don't generate the power and have the size that American consumers seem to want?


Unknown said...

I think that buyers really don't care nothin' 'bout no displacement. Well, the buyers who do care about displacement aren't about to buy anything under 3 liters anyway. Most buyers don't have a real good idea of how engines work or what those numbers mean, anyway. It's a power deal, for sure. My first car, a Ford Aspire, had a 1.3 liter engine - that was fine, the 63 HP it put out was a little wimpy though (and barely kept the car driving past 65 MPH).

Gas prices will rise again, I don't doubt, and it'll behoove the automakers to have some very efficient cars at the ready. <1.5 liter engines are certainly going to be under consideration from US buyers in the future, so long as they put out at least, idunno, 105+ HP and decent torque (95+?). That right there is an engineering challenge, methinks.

Anonymous said...

Gas prices now are cheap but as Jake sed not for long. Some one who dosnt care and has money to throw out buys a SUV with a 3l+ engine, but those ones complain the most about fuel prices.
I drive a car that has a 1.3l and gets avarage 52mpg which is more for the time we live in. Gas hogs are not a way to go anymore.