Four Cylinders: The New Six?


American cars are all about power. Enormous SUVs trundling down the road. Massive muscle cars chewing up highway and blasting miles out their exhaust pipes. Four-cylinder cars slowly rolling to the mall.

Wait, what?

While the car that gets incredible power and speed is a long-standing American tradition, unfortunately that just has to change. Here are two reasons why: emissions standards and the ever-rising pain at the pump. Call it the revenge of the Europeans: after years of mocking them for their dinky little Fiats and other cheap little cars, we’re suddenly gravitating towards underpowered cars in droves.

Sure, muscle cars have always been the province of young men (and older men who wish they had the hair of young men), but the economics really say it all: 65% of cars built in the US today have four cylinders, and only a quarter of new cars built have six cylinders. In fact, the big rush is actually to bring out smaller engines: Ford is looking to debut a three-cylinder engine for its cars in the near future.

Why? The smaller the engine, the less gas it burns, and as gas prices rise ever higher, that becomes more appealing to consumers. Gas prices are hovering at around $4/gallon – and are only projected to go up, especially as Middle Eastern politics make everybody just a little bit more nervous and likely to pay a bit more for crude oil. That’s the rough side of globalization, we guess.

Similarly, government emissions standards are becoming stricter over time. In fact, the last time Americans downgraded their engines, from a standard eight cylinders to the lower-powered six cylinders, was during the 1980s, when emissions standards got tighter and carmakers found it easier to just tweak the engine rather than to try and get even more efficiency out of a V8.

We are, perhaps, being a little unkind to our less-powerful friends. Engine technology has made amazing leaps since the 1980s, in both fuel efficiency and in wringing more power out of tinier engines. Similarly, other advances in car design mean that even a less powerful engine can still haul down the road. Part of the reason those gas-guzzling V8s were so popular is that thirty years ago, car bodies were made out of sheet metal: not exactly the best material for getting the most out of your gasoline dollar.

There’s also the small matter of the rise of the hybrid: using batteries to power low-speed vehicles not only saves gas, but it also allows the car to dedicate all of the engine’s power to actually moving the car, instead of powering everything in the car.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean that the street dragsters or gigantic tanks of yesteryear are really going anywhere; not as long as there are teenagers and midlife crises. Just like the rise of the six-cylinder engine didn’t herald the extinction of the powerful V8, the rise of a four-cylinder doesn’t mean a V6 is fading into oblivion.

It’s just that, when it comes to daily driving, we prefer a car that saves us money, not one that kills us every time we hit the pump.

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