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Downsizing: Same big truck, just a smaller engine

With fuel prices nudging $4 a gallon in some parts of Michigan, Quinn Felter started thinking about downsizing when it came time to trade in his big F-Series pickup earlier this year. But he didn’t like the idea of having to give up the cargo carrying capacity – or the macho appearance of the full-size truck.

Then he realized he didn’t have to. Instead of downsizing the truck itself, he decided to skip the big V-8 he’s been used to, opting instead for Ford’s smaller, more fuel-efficient EcoBoost V-6.

“It gets me a lot better mileage,” explains the suburban Detroit contractor, “but it still has the same pulling power of the biggest V-8” Ford offers in the F-150 pickup.

Felter isn’t alone. Traditionally, the majority of full-size pickup buyers have opted for V-8s but over the past year, more than half of F-Series customers have chosen the EcoBoost or another V-6. And the number two automaker isn’t the only one seeing this trend.

There’s no question Americans are downsizing. Compact and subcompact vehicles have gained several points of market share over the last couple years. But the pace is slower than some analysts had anticipated – in large part because manufacturers are offering smaller engines that often deliver the power and performance of the larger ones buyers might have chosen in the past.

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“You don’t have to give up on the size of the vehicle you want,” says George Peterson, chief analyst with the consulting firm AutoPacfic, Inc., “because these new, smaller engines are more powerful and more fuel-efficient because of the new powertrain technologies coming to market.”

That includes such breakthroughs as direct injection, variable valve and cam timing and turbocharging. A recent study by Honeywell Transportation Systems, a major supplier of “boosting” systems, forecast that turbochargers will be used on 36 million vehicles a year worldwide in 2017, a 40% jump from 2011.

A Turbo, at its simplest, is little more than an air pump. There are two key components, one a fan blade that is powered by exhaust gases spewing out of the engine. In turn, that spins another fan that compresses fresh air and forces it into the engine. This allows a smaller engine to replace a bigger one. Under low power demands, it will get better fuel economy, but when a motorist is carrying a heavy load or stomps on the throttle, the turbo kicks in.

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Consider the new twin-turbo V-6 in the 2014 Cadillac CTS sedan. It’s a modest 3.0-liters in displacement but can generate about 420 horsepower – as much as a high-performance 5.0-liter V-8 of years past.

Even without turbocharging, today’s most advanced V-6s can outperform many V-8s, while four-cylinder engines are routinely matching the power of traditional sixes, notes John McElroy, a long-time industry analyst and host of the TV show Autoline:Detroit.

State-of-the-art transmissions also help, McElroy says, pointing to a new joint venture between General Motors and Ford aimed at developing a new 10-speed automatic.

“With more gears,” he notes, “you can make a smaller engine work a lot better.”

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Breakthroughs in engine technology have led a number of makers to reduce the number of options they offer buyers. You can’t even buy a V-6 for the latest-generation Hyundai Sonata, the Korean maker offering a mix of naturally aspirated and turbocharged fours, and a hybrid.

Meanwhile, makers are looking to go to even smaller powertrain options. Mitsubishi, General Motors and BMW are among the latest to confirm plans to adopt three-cylinder powertrains. The German luxury maker will offer one in its upcoming i3 plug-in hybrid and may later add it as an option on the next-generation 1-Series.

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Another factor allowing makers to downsize engines is to push to reduce vehicle weight – every 100 pounds of mass helping boost fuel economy by as much as 1 mile per gallon, even more if the engine is downsized, as well.

Going forward, makers are looking at alternative powertrains that could get even smaller – and more fuel efficient. A small, Detroit-based start-up, EcoMotors, this month inked a deal with a Chinese firm to launch production of the OPOC engine. Short for opposed piston/opposed cylinder, a version small enough to fit in a briefcase could power a compact car.

The initial application by China’s Zhongding Power will be for stationary generators, but EcoMotors CEO Don Runkle says truck and passenger car applications may follow.

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It won’t be easy to convince the auto industry to switch from the existing internal combustion engine, a move that could cost billions of dollars. But with a 54.5 mpg fuel economy mandate looming in the U.S. and equal tough standards in place for Europe and other parts of the world, manufacturers are struggling to find new alternatives, whether it means downsizing traditional powertrains or adopting even more radical alternatives.