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Today's small cars have nothing in common with the Geo Metro Add to ...

Almost 20 years ago, in late 1996, I tested an $11,495 Geo Metro powered by a very sorry engine. Its three-cylinders churned up a wheezy 55 horsepower and 58 pounds-feet of torque. Usain Bolt does the 100 faster than that three-door hatchback ever could.

Its handling was clumsy and it was ugly. I remember a friend pointing at the Metro and laughing. Embarrassing, he said. “Put a bag over your head. You don’t want to be seen in that.”

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The year before, I tested a 1995 Subaru Justy with an overmatched and wickedly raw three-banger. That turtle had a wretched continuously variable transmission (CVT). Bag-worthy.

Oh, the world has changed. Ford’s three-cylinder, 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine has just been named International Engine of the Year for a third straight year. Not a big surprise.

The 1.0-litre EcoBoost is rated at 123 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of overboosted torque. The car itself is quick off the line, strong in passing mode, nimble, technologically advanced and pretty in either body style, sedan or hatchback.

In Ford’s EcoBoost three-cylinder we have the poster child for what’s evolving in the auto industry. Doubters and nay-sayers will argue that the 2014 Fiesta EcoBoost is no bargain, that it starts at nearly $17,000, minus discounts. Yes, but in inflation-adjusted dollars, it’s cheaper than that miserable Metro. And the EcoBoost Fiesta sips regular fuel like a car with a hate for wastefulness and global warming: 6.2 litres/100 km in the city, 4.3 on the highway.

The sophisticated Fiesta EcoBoost is in the vanguard of a new wave of three-cylinder mills. BMW's 2014 Mini Cooper ($20,990 base) is a good example. It comes with a 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder and while not an award winner like Ford’s EcoBoost, it does churn up a quite decent 134 hp and 162 lbs-ft of torque. Mini says its new three-cylinder will zip from 0-100 km/hour in 7.9 seconds and gets 6.7 city/7.0 highway, though it wants premium gas.

Mitsubishi’s three-cylinder Mirage ($12,498 base) is not quite as leading-edge as either the Ford or the Mini, but it is highly fuel efficient (5.6 litres per 100 km city/4.6 highway) and sips regular. What’s missing from the Mirage is turbo boost. Thus, its 1.2-litre three is rated at a limp 74 hp/74 lb-ft of torque.

I’ve yet to test the Mirage, but The New York Times says the engine “slogs to its peak torque of 4,000 rpm” and “seems reluctant to wake up and eager to go back to sleep.” Car and Driver says it does 0-60 mph in 10.9 seconds. For comparison, Mini says the base Cooper will do 0-100 km/hour in 7.9 seconds with the manual gearbox, which means it’s more than two seconds faster.

Point is, the Mirage and the Smart fortwo (1.0-litre, 70-hp three-cylinder) seem the least impressive of a growing list of new and coming three-bangers, and both are in danger of being left far behind. In fairness, Mitsubishi told Automotive News that the three-cylinder is all about affordability, first, then fuel economy. To help the latter, Mitsu successfully focused on reducing the overall weight of the car – to a svelte 895 kg.

Still, Mitsu and smart and the rest need to take note of how competitive the world of three-bangers is becoming. Automotive News says General Motors is launching a three-cylinder in Europe and it could come to North America. Toyota announced in April that a new 1.0-litre three-cylinder will be part of 14 new engine variations coming by 2015. It will be developed with Daihatsu Motor Co.

This new age of the three-banger is sure to grow. Car companies, ever-anxious to cut costs, meet regulatory demands and please customers see lightweight, compact and efficient three-cylinder engines with fewer parts and less mass as important parts of their engine portfolios.

The bad old three-bangers I tested in the mid-1990s are long gone. In 2014, the engineering is here to match all the many needs of a variety of players – from auto makers to consumers to government types.

That’s why small is becoming the new big in engines.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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