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).