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Why this tiny Ford engine is a very big deal in the automotive world

UK-Designed Ford 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine was named 'International Engine of the Year.’


Canadians who want to drive the car with the best engine in the world won't need to twiddle their thumbs much longer – fall at the latest. Sorry for the wait. At least you'll be able to afford it.

The price tag fits Canadian budgets for a simple reason: the 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine captivating gearheads worldwide will first be sold here in the Ford Fiesta subcompact. Price: much less than $20,000.

Futurists keep telling us that small is the new big and Ford's ultra-fuel efficient engine is proof. It was just named the International Engine of The Year for the second straight year. This little three-banger – yes, it's a three-cylinder engine – is as modern as an engine can be, pint-sized or otherwise: direct fuel injection, turbocharging and variable valve timing. All conspire to slash fuel consumption, yet the power story remains impressive – 123 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of twist. No wonder the 1.0-litre scored the highest rating in the history of the awards.

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Forgive Ford for gloating.

"With a technology as mature as the internal combustion engine, it's very rare to achieve a true breakthrough, but that is exactly what the team accomplished with this engine," said Joe Bakaj, Ford's global powertrain boss. "You have to drive it to believe a small three-cylinder engine can deliver such performance and fuel economy."

The 87 automotive journalists from 35 countries who judged this win certainly are believers. So is the jury of the International Paul Pietsch Award 2013 for Technical Innovation, which gave Ford's 1.0-litre the nod. Popular Mechanics gave the engine a Breakthrough Award and it also won the Dewar Trophy from the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain.

"Who'd have believed it? A 1.0-litre engine that has it all, powerful, fuel-efficient, clean and lightweight," said Peter Lyon, U.K. juror and freelance journalist. "This is a masterpiece."

Ford's competition has taken notice.

"It's a very interesting and impressive engine," engine development director Roland Kemmler of Daimler subsidiary Mercedes-Benz told Automotive News Europe. "We have had some discussions with Ford engineers about this engine."

Ford sells the 1.0-litre EcoBoost gas engine all over the world. The Fiesta gets it, the Focus and C-Max compacts and the B-Max subcompact, too. For now, Canadians and American are only going to get this little gem in the Fiesta. But the 1.0-litre EcoBoost is a harbinger of things to come.

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Daimler is interested in Ford's technology because it's developing a new three-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine with alliance partner Renault-Nissan. We likely will see a version of it in the Nissan Versa here in North America. Nothing is confirmed, but if it's going in the next-generation Renault Twingo minicar, then why not the Versa? And certainly we'll see it in the next-generation Smart fortwo minicar in Canada.

And this new generation of small, fuel-thrifty and powerful engines is sure to find a home in larger models. Ford says the Mondeo (the Fusion in North America) will get the three-banger, as will the Transit Connect and Transit Courier commercial vehicles, to name two more. Think about it. Here is an engine Ford says is small enough to fit in the overhead luggage compartment of an airplane, yet powerful enough to move you along in traffic while behind the wheel of a five-passenger van like the C-Max. Too bad Ford of Canada has no plans to sell a 1.0-litre C-Max.

We'd certainly buy it here. Ford worldwide already is selling 300,000 1.0-litre-equipped vehicles a year now. In Europe, the 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine accounts for 42 per cent of B-Max sales, 30 per cent of the Focus and 24 per cent of Fiesta sales. This is what happens to the winner of what Top Gear calls the "Engine Oscars."

Ford is forcing the competition to raise their various engine games. New internal combustion engines that perform on all fronts – power, efficiency, low CO2 emissions, reliability, smoothness – are racing into showrooms. Volkswagen's new 1.4-litre TSI engine won an "Oscar" for Best New Engine, for instance. Yes, there is a replacement for displacement. These engines and others prove it.

General Motors, for instance, plans to spend $225-million developing world-class three- and four-cylinder engines. The current Ecotec design is the foundation of a planned family of GM engines. The first three-banger Ecotec will likely show up in the 2015 Chevrolet Volt and 2016 Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrids. More conventional models will see the three-cylinder Ecotec mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission.

BMW, meanwhile, has 1.0- and 1.5-litre twin-turbo three-cylinder engines in its portfolio now, and the best of them puts out 200 horsepower. Will we see a 1.0-litre three-banger in Canada? No plans yet from BMW, but tucking a three-banger into a Mini might make sense.

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As Dan Neill, in The Wall Street Journal, says, "gasoline engines in cars aren't going away, but they are going to get smaller." Indeed, before car companies move quickly to electrify their offerings in ways from hybrids to full battery power, there is much to be exploited and explored with gas and diesel engines.

The EcoBoost three-cylinder, for example, has direct injection and advanced turbocharging. Bigger engines, like the latest crop of six- and eight-cylinder engines in General Motors 2014 full-size pickups (Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra) have cylinder deactivation and throttle mapping to squeeze out fuel economy. The latest Porsche 911 and Panamera and others have a stop-start function that shuts things down when you're at a red light and such, again saving fuel.

Which is why for at least the next few decades, gasoline and diesel engines will dominate the landscape of new cars and light trucks. As Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn said last year, "There will be, for a long time to come, no alternative to the internal combustion engine."

Indeed, as notes, "Studies by organizations as varied as ExxonMobil and the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy estimate that by 2040, about 90 per cent of new cars sold will still have an internal combustion engine. And the reason the internal combustion engine will continue to cast a long shadow is simple: gasoline."

Gas is efficient, relatively inexpensive and is available worldwide through a vast distribution network. More importantly, as this new generation of internal combustion engines (ICE) shows, there is plenty of work yet to be done to refine and advance the power and efficiency of the ICE.

As we all can see, the car business has become reinvigorated by the demands of strict and demanding fuel economy regulations, which will start to hit home in 2016 and will only get tougher thereafter. We're already seeing the effect. That is, reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the fuel efficiency of the average car is up 16 per cent over the last five years.

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As has been shown time and again, it is possible to regulate technological innovation. If that weren't the case, we would still be driving cars with leaded gasoline and without catalytic converters. Ford's EcoBoost three-banger, what the judges call "the best engine the world," wouldn't exist, either. And Ford's rivals wouldn't be racing to do the same with their small engines.

So it's not just that the ICE isn't going away. The truth is, the best of the ICE is yet to come.

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