Asian automakers including Honda maintain V-6 engines in their midsize cars. Smaller turbocharged engines have yet to prove more efficient. (Honda)
To judge by the displays of wretched excess at the Geneva auto show, you would think European consumers were rolling in disposable income. But apart from the Euro "one-percenters," they are not, and so car sales have been tanking across the continent, just as they did in America a few years ago.
The spectacle of multi-million dollar new Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren models at the Swiss auto show did raise an interesting question, however. Are these cars, and much more modest but still upmarket Geneva debuts such as GM's new Opel Cascada convertible and the Corvette soft-top, a sign that the car industry is seeing light at the end of the tunnel and counting on the return of more buyers, not just the ultra-rich?
Translate that scenario to the U.S., where the auto market has bounced back from the recession, and it could mean car buyers' interest level in compact vehicles and larger models with smaller, supposedly more fuel-efficient engines, is on the wane.
So is downsizing dead or dying? Wealthy Americans have already lost their recession blues and are flocking to Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche dealerships to snap up the latest, fastest and most powerful offerings.
At the same time, middle-income buyers could start shunning the smaller vehicles and smaller displacement engines that automakers are pushing. With more confidence in their financial status, U.S. consumers are likely to move up at least one body size and may opt for a V-6 engine or large four-cylinder rather than the current wave of turbocharged, smaller four-cylinder engines.
Such a movement might be reinforced as buyers realize that smaller engines don't necessarily translate into better fuel economy. A recent investigation by Consumer Reports magazine suggested that, contrary to automakers' claims, many of the smaller turbocharged motors do not perform any better or return better fuel mileage than the larger displacement V-6 engines they are intended to replace.
Ford and General Motors, in particular, took issue with Consumer Reports' findings, but the fact is that the fuel consumption characteristics of a turbocharged small engine are very much dependent on the driving style of the owner. Driven hard, a small turbo four-cylinder engine will consume fuel at least as fast as a larger V-6. And the powerful, torque-laden characteristics of a bigger displacement engine are hard for a turbo to match at all speed ranges.
In any case, it appears that Americans are already voting with their checkbooks at dealerships, where last month sales of midsize sedans were accelerating at the expense of smaller models. At Ford showrooms for instance, buyers are opting for the Fusion sedan over the Focus and Fiesta compacts. Neither the Fusion nor its Chevrolet rival, the Malibu, offers V-6 engines, but one wonders if that might change in time.
Full-size truck sales are also improving, a sure sign of a recovering economy.
Interestingly, Ford's F-150 pickup has experienced strong demand for its twin-turbo V-6 model, which outsells the V-8 engine versions. This, despite Consumer Reports' study, which found the F-150 turbo V-6 to be no more fuel-efficient than the V-8 models. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues for Ford as the economy improves, and how well GM and Dodge do with V-6 engine versions of their new full-size pickups.
Among the Asian automakers, the big Japanese players, Honda, Nissan and Toyota all maintain V-6 engines in their midsize car lineups, while Hyundai is notable for offering only four-cylinder motors, one being turbocharged, in its popular Sonata midsize sedan. The same is true for Kia's Optima sedan.
It's too early to discern any solid trend in this cycling between larger and smaller vehicles and engines, but it's also true that historically, Americans have been quick to forget past financial troubles.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.