Return of the Triples!

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

You may have noticed the general downsizing trend that’s going on under the hood. V-8s gave way to sixxes — and sixxes, to fours.

Now, it’s down to three.

For the first time since the ’90s, you can buy several new cars with three cylinder engines. These include the 2014 Ford Fiesta (reviewed here) as well as the just-updated BMW Mini Cooper.

More are on deck, too.

This “displacement downsizing” is trending for the same reasons now as then: Less engine equals less weight equals fewer parts equals lower cost. And of course, the big one. Fuel economy. A three-cylinder engine has one less piston pumping — and sucking — than a four cylinder engine.

It burns less gas.

But, it also makes less power … all else being equal.

Which is a problem.

A circa early ’90s-era Geo Metro’s 1 liter, three-cylinder engine delivered exceptionally high fuel economy: 38 MPG city — better than many current economy cars manage on the highway. And on the highway, the little Metro rated 45 MPG — a figure that has yet to be surpassed by any new car that’s not a hybrid or a diesel.

Very impressive — especially in view of the fact that the Metro did not have the technological advantages — such as CVT transmissions and direct/port fuel-injection — that are now commonly available.

However, the Metro was also almost unimaginably slow by modern standards. It took 3-4 seconds longer to reach 60 MPH in a Metro than it does in the very slowest new car you can buy (which would be a Toyota Prius C hybrid; it takes about 12 seconds).

And while the Metro was capable of reaching highway speeds, it often struggled to maintain them. At 70 MPH, the poor thing was very close to the edge of its performance envelope — and letting you know it with ever-increasing urgency. Dismal sounds of struggle emanated from under the hood. Flooring the accelerator did not result in acceleration. Just more cacophony of mechanical agony.

This was inevitable given the Metro’s 49 hp, 1.0 liter engine. (For some perspective, most current motorcycles have engines that are larger — and produce a lot more than than 49 hp.)

It’s also unacceptable today.

Back in the early ’90s, the highway speed limit was still 55 MPH. It’s now routinely 65-70. And traffic flows closer to 80.

To make a modern three cylinder engine viable in today’s driving environment — where a car must be capable of getting to 60 in under 15 seconds and be able to maintain 70-75 MPH on the highway without threatening to spit parts out of the oil pan — turbochargers have been fitted to provide an on-demand displacement (and so, power) increase without the “always-on” fuel-inefficiency of a physically larger engine.

A turbo pressurizes the incoming air/fuel charge — stuffing each cylinder with more air/fuel than would otherwise be in there — temporarily (while under boost) increasing the effective displacement (and thus, power output) of the engine. This is why the current Ford Fiesta’s 1.0 liter engine produces 123 hp — more than twice as much power as the same-size Geo Metro’s 1 liter engine. But the take-home point is that the Fiesta’s power is on-demand. It only comes online when you ask for it — by pressing down on the accelerator. Which spools up the turbo, which — temporarily — increases the engine’s effective displacement.

If you’re not depressing the accelerator, on the other hand, the displacement remains small — and so does your gas bill.

It’s a win-win. Power — when you need it. High fuel efficiency the rest of the time.

The only downsides are these — one actual, the other possible:

* Cost to buy –

Unlike the ’90s-era Geo, the new “triples” are fairly pricey. A new (2014) Ford Fiesta’s base price is $14,100 — with the standard four-cylinder engine. To get the more fuel-efficient “EcoBoost” three-cylinder engine, you have to go up one trim (to the SE, base price $15,585) and then buy the $995 “Ecoboost” package.

So, the base price of the Fiesta triple is $16,580.

This is inexpensive by current standards, relative to the cost of the typical new car. But it’s pricey compared to what an early ’90s Geo Metro cost.

The base price of a ’91 Metro was $6,750. Adjusted for inflation (see here) that’s just under $12k in today’s (2014) dollars.

* Potential cost down the road –

Adding a turbo and its related hardware (including a specialized exhaust system) adds an additional system to the car’s powertrain — which means the potential for more to go wrong, simply by dint of their being more things that could go wrong. It doesn’t mean they will. But it absolutely means they could.

This is the intangible — the unknowable. We won’t know until these modern turbo triples have been in circulation for several years. They may be bulletproof.

But, they might not be.

As always in life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But today’s triples are as close to having your cake — and eating it, too — as you’re likely to find.

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2 Responses to “Return of the Triples!”

  1. seenmuch says:

    That is a interesting way to look at this, but 0-60 times are meaningless in real world driving. While it is true an Automatic transmissions in these things struggles a little performance wise, having one in one of these with a automatic trans is a little stupid to me since you are defeating the purpose of going with such a small engine, maximum fuel economy!

    In the 1990's I drove cars equipped with a 5 spd manual trans coupled to ~90-110+ hp 1.0 to 1.6 L gasoline engines down under. These cars were more than powerful enough to cruise from ~80-135 km/hr(~50-85 mph) over varied terrain. That terrain included the blue mountains west of Sydney Australia and some unrestricted limit roads across the NT. Also on roads on the Island Nation of NZ. Consistently these cars returned 40-45 mpgUS…

    These things make so much more economic sense than any of the current hybrids if fuel savings for a reasonable price are the goal. I really do not see the point of the current hybrids compared price wise and consumption wise to these when you compare what you can see for half to a third of the cost or less with one of these……Now if the hybrids selling point is performance for the price, that makes at least a little sense….

    Even the automatic versions of these can today with their power output handle any real world driving situation you will face….

    Bottom line, Those same small engines with a manual transmission, any of the current small displacement 3's or 4's (cyl) are more than adequate performance wise in every day driving anywhere in the US. And they can give maximum mpgs for a reasonable price, far more reasonable than any of the currently offered overpriced hybrids or over regulated emissions wise diesels…….

  2. seenmuch says:

    In New Zealand during the mid 1990s I drove several Toyota Corolla wagons with the 1.3 L 2E inline-four (petrol), 72 hp coupled to a 5 spd manual trans in rental cars. Over several trips I clocked ~8,000 kms(5,000 miles), over varied terrain @ speeds from 80-125km/hr(~50-78 mph). It easily maneuvered and handled all traffic and terrain I faced.

    According to Toyota this car was able to go 0-100km/hr in 11.7 secs, more than sufficient for everyday real world driving in any situation you might face. No turbo to go bad, just a simple small displacement engine that sips fuel(mid 40s mpgUS) for a reasonable price!

    I have owned many 1.6L NA VW diesels over the years, 52hp/71.5Lb-Ft @ sea level. The last one of these I sold only 4 years ago in Colorado. Up there it was more like 42-45Hp/62-65Lb-Ft. It is still being driven around Colorado by the person who bought it……..It was capable of 0-60 mph 13-15 secs in higher altitude Colorado and could easily over most terrain cruise @ 70-80 mph all day long while returning mid 40s mpgUS.

    Today VW, and every other manufacturer sells lower power output fuel sipping smaller displacement gasoline and diesel engine'd offerings all around the world. The Current widely available around the world but not here VWAG BluemotionTDI 1.6L offerings are the easiest example to look up to see what we are not offered here because this current mindset that Americans are too stupid to get that if you give-up a little power you can sip fuel at such low levels most can't fathom or conceive of!…

    But because of the 0-60 marketing here, always & only pushing more and more power over fuel sipping they are afraid to offer them here. Because of the push here for power not maximum fuel efficiency we are cut off from the most fuel efficient things ever conceived of or made. Things that make the current hybrids look like the bad overpriced jokes they all really are in comparison……

    If attitudes were to change allowing these lower power fuel sippers to be offered here in the US today we could get a little lower power offerings that are more reliable non turbo powered. These lower power offerings are mush less complex so cost less to build and they sip even less fuel than any of the currently offered small displacement fancy turbocharged offerings.

    These small lower power NA gasoline powered offering could get similar or better mpgs and be sold for far cheaper than any of the current overpowered over emissions diesels and a lot cheaper than the current extremely expensive in comparison hybrids. Giving buyers a real alternative at a reasonable price to save money at the pump…