January 7, 2010 at 11:32 am

Scott Burgess: Today's Focus

V-6 engines begin long fade into history

In recent figures, four out of five Malibu buyers opted for a four-cylinder engine, rather than the beefier V-6. (GM)

Little engines will be the big stars at next week's North American International Auto Show.

Of the 40 North American and worldwide vehicle introductions scheduled during press preview days Monday and Tuesday, most will be fuel-efficient, stylish vehicles with four-cylinder engines under the hood.

The days of the V-8 in passenger cars are over and things are starting to look bleak for the venerable V-6, as the four-cylinder engine starts to replace it in bigger cars and crossovers. It's a sign of the times: Small engines offer more power than ever before and consumers want a fallback vehicle in case gas prices jump again.

Yes, there will be a couple of mega-powerful V-8 asphalt eaters at the Detroit show, including the 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe and the 2011 Ford Mustang GT 5.0, but, it turns out, destiny has determined that the meek four-banger will inherit the earth.

When it comes to cars and crossovers, fewer consumers are considering V-6s and carmakers are beginning to exclude them from some lineups. The midsize Hyundai Sonata will no longer offer a V-6, and the future classic 2011 Buick Regal will collect its power from a turbocharged 2-liter engine -- there's no V-6 in its future.

Big engines are going the way of trans fats. Consumers and elected officials have determined they're just not a healthy choice, despite their delicious flavor.

"People appreciate power; in some ways, it will always put a smile on people's faces," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports test division. "But they also appreciate good gas mileage. The memories of $4.50 a gallon gas in 2008 are still very near."

300 horses, just add turbo

Technological advancements have made smaller engines much more efficient and powerful -- a 200-horsepower I-4 doesn't turn many heads today.

And it shouldn't, says Sam Winegarden, GM's powertrain director. Bolt on a big enough turbo and a little 2-liter four-cylinder engine can easily hit 300 horses.

"We've improved the combustion, added direct injection, variable valve timing and lift, turbocharging to these engines, and power and efficiency has improved," Winegarden said.

The reality is carmakers can now create four-cylinder engines that outperform V-6 engines in almost every conceivable way, Champion and other experts told me. Smaller engines allow cars to have lighter suspensions, lighter bodies, lighter brakes and an overall lighter curb weight. Less weight leads to better fuel economy and also creates a vehicle that might get an even smaller engine in the future.

Think I'm overstating things? This plan is exactly what Ford Motor Co.'s EcoBoost engines aim to do. The Lincoln MKS is a luxury flagship that comes with more power than the 2010 Mustang GT and two fewer cylinders.

"It's always an engineering goal to create more powerful and more efficient engines that will replace larger ones," said Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president of global product development.

Kuzak won't say when, or even if, the midsize Fusion will stop offering a V-6, but consumers have made their decision clear.

Of all the 2006 Ford Fusions sold, 43 percent were four-cylinder models. Three years later, 73 percent of Ford Fusions sold were four-cylinder models, Ford reported.

And now that consumers no longer have to buy the biggest engine to have the highest trim level for some cars, there's even less of an incentive to buy a V-6.

About power, not cylinders

According to Ward's, during the first half of the 2009 model year the following midsize nameplates had a much higher percentage of four-cylinder models sold than V-6s: Chevrolet Malibu, 81 percent; Honda Accord, 76 percent; Nissan Altima, 93 percent; Toyota Camry, 90 percent.

More than 62 percent of the cars sold in the U.S. were four-cylinder models and only 28 percent were V-6 models -- though that number is slightly skewed by compact and subcompact cars, which do not offer V-6 power. It's going to skew even more in the future.

"There are lots of factors that will play into future engine choices, but when you look at what consumers want, how companies have to deal with increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, it's easy to see that four-cylinder engines will grow in certain segments," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with AutoPacific.

Brinley said about half of all consumers still say they would like a V-6.

But consumers say lots of things, and many have no idea what they're talking about. I don't mean to insult my readers, but I've taken phone calls from people talking about the base model 2010 Chevy Camaro's V-8 and their V-6 Ford Focus. (For those not in the know, those cars don't exist.)

"Cylinder count, in the end, may be less important than providing the same or better levels of drivable power and refinement as whatever the customer experienced in the vehicle they are replacing," Brinley said.

Even bigger sedans, once fertile ground for big blocks, now offer four-cylinder engines. The 2010 Buick LaCrosse has a four-cylinder offering and the new Mercedes Benz E-Class includes a four-cylinder option.

So enjoy that V-6 while you can. You may feel it in the future, but it's coming from a four-cylinder engine.

There's still going to be room under the hood for big engines. Trucks, which need power to haul, will still have V-8s, but cars have already started to shun them, leaving big engines rumbling only in specialty vehicles. The V-6's death is going to be long and drawn out. It will undergo an incremental disappearance until one day carmakers just stop offering it. It may take 10 years or even more, but clip this out and put on your fridge: It's going to happen.

It's going to happen because intelligent design has evolved past that engine. Though its future may live in completely replacing the V-8.

sburgess@detnews.com">sburgess@detnews.com (313) 223-3217

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