Are you ready for a car with a three-cylinder engine? I am.
I recently roared up and down the hills north of Los Angeles in a Ford Fiesta with a tiny one-litre, three-cylinder motor. The entire engine will fit in a large suitcase. It’s smaller than many motorcycle engines, but it propelled the subcompact Fiesta with ease. It even sounded good.
The last three-cylinder car I drove before the Fiesta was the early Smart car that had a horrible three-cylinder diesel engine that was quickly swapped for a four-cylinder gas engine. Prior to that was a three-cylinder Suzuki Swift/Geo Metro from about 20 years ago. It vibrated like mad, accelerated like a tortoise, made lots of noise, but delivered good fuel economy on the highway. The little Ford three-banger advances the technology light years to become a refined and powerful engine.
The problem with three cylinders is that it’s an engine inherently out of balance. Instead of building in a power-draining, counter-rotating balancing shaft, Ford engineers offset the crankshaft and unbalanced the flywheel. To keep engine noise down, they ran the bottom of the timing chain through an oil bath. They bolted on a turbo-charger, gave it direct gas injection and variable valve timing and came up with an engine that produces 126 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. Not bad for an engine with a cylinder displacement only slightly greater than three beer cans. A Lamborghini “only” gets 108 horsepower out of a litre of displacement.
Government fuel economy requirements are forcing three-cylinder engines on auto makers; technology like this should also make them favourites of consumers. This engine is so smooth, powerful and quiet you wouldn’t suspect it’s a three-banger. Ford says it has “rethought” the whole concept of three cylinders.
Turbocharging is key to the success. Turbos used to be restricted to hot-rodders as they were expensive and could be unreliable. Now computer-aided engineering has made them a standard item in the parts bin – using exhaust gas to spin a turbine that compresses air coming into the engine. Its little blades are spinning at an unbelievable 248,000 rpm, producing quite a boost.
Ford calls this EcoBoost, as Eco has to be worked into every marketing handle, and in the little three-banger it is most noticeable. It comes on quickly and can make acceleration twitchy until you catch on to it.
In Europe, Ford has been selling the larger Focus with the three-banger, but it’s coming to North America next year only in the subcompact Fiesta. This is an agile and comfortable car. It’s quiet, functional and fun to drive. Expect to pay about $1,000 extra for the three-banger over the stock four-cylinder when they reach the showroom, but official pricing has not been announced.
I’ve made the move down the displacement ladder myself, descending from a five-litre V-8 to a three-litre V-6 to a 1.9-litre four and I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in a three-holer next. Whether it will be gas or diesel is unknown.
Governments are determined that we will all be reducing our fuel requirements by more than half in the foreseeable future. We take another step in 2016 and the big one by 2025. Whether you like it or not, a three-cylinder car could be parked in your driveway, too.
Ford hasn’t provided its “official” fuel economy numbers for the Fiesta one-litre yet, but promises they’ll be in the order of 40 mpg city/50 mpg highway. These are U.S. numbers, which convert to 5.8 and 4.7 litres/100 km.
And nobody is stopping there; even smaller cars are coming and 3 litres/100 km is the goal. This is a great engine and I hope we see more like it.
The three-cylinder era is upon us.
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