Four Cylinders Take Largest Share of US Market

By Chris Haak

It’s not the sixties anymore, kids.  Though certainly there are still high-horsepower holdouts, the days of the V8 and even V6 (or inline six)-powered family sedan are numbered.

The latest data from auto industry research firm IHS Automotive shows that four cylinder engines made up 43 percent of all new-vehicle registrations during the first half of 2011.

According to Automotive News, V8s now are under the hood of just one in six new vehicles sold in the US, or about 17 percent.  That leaves about 40 percent for six cylinders, three cylinders (of which there are very few) and outliers like inline fives, V10s, and V12s.

Of course, there are a number of reasons that fours have proven more popular than sixes since 2005, when IHS found that 43 percent of buyers were opting for six cylinder vehicles.

  • Today, there are new cars available with only four cylinder engines (such as the Hyundai Sonata), where a V6 was once an option. 
  • Four cylinders are now as powerful as V6s were just a few years ago.  When equipped with a turbocharger, a modern four cylinder engine tops its V6 ancestor in power, torque, and fuel economy.
  • There is enormous regulatory pressure to rachet up fuel economy numbers (or ratchet down fuel consumption, depending on which side of the pond you’re from, or whether your glass is half full or half empty).  CAFE, CO2 limits/taxes, and the like.
  • Volatile fuel prices have made consumers gun-shy about purchasing gas-guzzling vehicles, even in moments when prices dip.  Who in their right mind would buy a (now discontinued) Ram SRT10 pickup even if gas prices were $1.50/gallon unless they really had a lot of money to feed such a thirsty beast?

If fleets were excluded from the statistics, more than half of the vehicles sold at retail through the first six months of 2011 were equipped with four cylinders.  In 2006, only a third of retail sales were four bangers.  V8s, of course, still hold the majority of share in the commercial market, with pickups and full-size vans too big for a four cylinder (though Ford is successfully challenging the notion that these vehicles need V8s, with more than half of F-150 sales some months having only six cylinders, between the 3.7 liter NA engine and the 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6).

What is the natural conclusion of this trend?  The further marginalization of large engines, the shrinking  and lightening of cars (and their engines) and cars becoming more expensive to purchase and repair – but cheaper to operate – as hybrids, electric assist, turbos, eight-speed (or more) automatics, high-tech lightweight materials, and aerodynamics take greater prominence in vehicle engineering and design.

Are you happy with this trend?  Will you miss big engines?  Expect the next generation full-size trucks from GM and Ford to be much smaller and more efficient than the current generation, and once automakers adjust their product plans to 35.5 MPG-plus CAFE standards in the US, expect cars to finally downsize, similar to what they did in the early 1980s (and then reversed in the subsequent three decades).

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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8 Comments

  1. I frankly don’t care where the power comes from (four-cylinder, a battery, etc) as long as it’s smooth and there’s a lot of it.

  2. I think its time we put limits on all the fast moves they are doing at the EPA!!!

    Sure I would like better fuel mileage, but not at the expense of less relaibity, and high cost of the new tecnology!

    I have seen the paying more for less senerio in the 70s! It didnt work then,let see Mustang 11, Fairmont,Chrysler lean burn,Small Chevy Monte Carlo, Olds Cutlass, while paying more for these smaller models and getting less!

    Its not like the 70s in the sense we have a variety of small cars on the market right now! The reseach and tech needs to be in supply fuels and alternative energy! Let us chose what we drive!

  3. I’m with Peterson on this … plus, if you’re putting those four-cylinder engines in lighter cars, you don’t need as much power to have as much fun.

  4. Repeat realibiy will take a hit the way its going!

    You have a choice now, plenty of 4 bangers to go around! I just want choices not be forced!

    I own a 2004 Jetta TDI Diesel,auto, it gets 40 mph! Also have a 2005 Ford Taurus get in mid 20 mph!

    Had to replace the timing belt on Jetta at 90,000 miles cost $1,200 bucks!

    Taurus has no timing belt to replace! So when looking at big picture that $1,200 soaked up the saving in fuel, asked Volkwagen Dealer if 2011 models had to have timng belt replace, and he said yes!

    Yes I do care whats under the hood!!!

  5. It could had been interesting to see also, some smaller V6 (anyone who remember the 1.8L V6 of the Mazda MX-3 Precedia?) as well as some smaller V8 like the former 215 V8 Buick/Rover aluminium engine.

  6. @Stephane –

    I agree with you; I’d love to see some very small, highly efficient V6 and V8 engines in the cars on the market in the future. After all, the inherent design benefits of those engines are always present, no matter what the displacement.

  7. what about an idea to slow everybody down, all cars not to exceed say 90 mph. This might help mpg and stop the big engines. There really is no reason for cars to go faster then this legally anyway.

  8. The mx3’s 1.8L V6 was the same size and weight as the mx6’s 2.5L V6. It was crammed into the engine bay and threw off the weight balance of the car. The 1.8L I4 in the miata and escort GT makes a nice replacement for the 1.6L I4 in the mx3 and produces the same power as the V6 without the extra cylinder head.

    The only passenger-car six cylinder I’m fond of these days is VW’s VR6, which keeps the angles nice and tight so it doesn’t need a separate head for each bank.

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