Automakers Hit Bottom in Engine Displacement, May Be Forced to Upsize

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
automakers hit bottom in engine displacement may be forced to upsize

If you think engine displacements have become a little too European over here, you’d hate to see the motorcycle-worthy powerplants motivating econoboxes on the other side of the pond.

Paired with the magic of modern technology, inline threes and parallel twins can now make enough grunt to move respectably sized vehicles. However, those days could soon be over, all thanks to ambitious regulators and the downsized engines’ tendency to spew man-sized amounts of pollution.

And if you think this isn’t America’s problem, think again.

European emissions regulators received a black eye last year after realizing their collective noses weren’t up to the task of sniffing out a skunk in their midst.

It took a small independent European team working with a group of West Virginians to reveal Volkswagen’s years-long deception. Burned and angry, regulators fired back with laws mandating much more stringent real-world testing. With those new laws on the horizon, it seems that big is the new small.

Reuters reports that General Motors, Renault and Volkswagen plan to scrap their smallest engines, with other automakers expected to follow suit. While small, boosted motors can deliver excellent fuel economy, the nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide output is often out of all proportion to the diminutive displacement. That goes for both gasoline and diesel powerplants.

At the Paris Auto Show last week, Renault-Nissan alliance powertrain head Alain Raposo told Reuters, “We’re reaching the limits of downsizing.” GM reportedly plans to drop its 1.2-liter diesel after the current generation, and Volkswagen will shortly ditch its 1.4-liter three-cylinder diesel.

The current testing regime gives the tiny motors a thumbs-up, but only because the tests run the engines at moderate temperatures and light loads. Make them work, and emissions soar. Larger displacements give automakers a chance of passing a real-world test.

Starting next year, new European models must meet on-the-road testing for NOx, with all cars required to comply by 2019. A new global test standard for fuel consumption and CO2 emissions arrives in 2021.

What does this all mean for America? Well, thanks to a rise in global product offerings, some of those suspect small-displacement engines are sold on this side of the Atlantic. After the Volkswagen debacle, the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to add on-road testing to its battery, so the clock is ticking.

Ford’s much-touted 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder, found in the Fiesta and Focus, earns low marks in real-world emissions testing (making TTAC’s managing editor a monster). An independent fuel economy and emissions testing company, Emissions Analytics, has begun on-road testing of new vehicles, and the results aren’t good for the Blue Oval.

The company’s Equa Air Quality Index rates the 1.0-liter Focus an “E” on its “A” to “H” air quality scale. That places the model in compliance with a testing standard that ended in 2014. Ford’s Fiesta doesn’t fare much better, rating a “D”, which still doesn’t reach current Euro 6 emissions requirements.

BMW’s 1.5-liter three-cylinder, found in the Mini lineup, rates a “C” on the air quality index, making it compliant with Euro 6. However, Euro 6’s days are numbered.

Will the rise of the high-output three-cylinder be a short-lived one? Will Ford be forced to scrap an award-winning engine that fits in a suitcase? You can bet there’s furrowed brows in Dearborn and beads of sweat forming in Cologne.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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4 of 129 comments
  • Heavy handle Heavy handle on Oct 16, 2016

    I'm not sure how the author read the Emissions Analytics web site and came to the conclusions that he did. Almost every car that got an A grade for Air Quality has a turbocharged gasoline engine between 1.2l and 2.0l. Sure, you can pick and choose a few cars that seem out of place in the rankings (as he did with the two Fords and one Mini), but the overall trend is very clear.

    • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Oct 16, 2016

      And the Fords that got that low rating are 2012 and 2013 models being judged against Euro 6 which didn't take effect until 2014.

  • 05lgt 05lgt on Oct 19, 2016

    Exactly none of my complaints after a 4 day rental of an Ecoboosted Expedition are power train related. That motor/transmission was flawless and exceeded my expectations for power delivery, responsiveness, modulation and economy. The seats, ride, HVAC, infotainment, visibility, ingress/egress, and road noise ... This vehicle is not my thing.

  • MrIcky It's always nice to see a car guy put in charge of cars instead of an accountant. I wish him well and look forward to some entertaining reveals. I think he and Gilles may be the only industry people that I actually enjoy listening to.
  • Master Baiter It doesn't matter whether autonomous vehicles are better or worse drivers than humans. Companies with deep pockets will find themselves sued over incidents like this. Enough lawsuits and the whole business plan collapses. Cheaper to just put a human behind the wheel.
  • MaintenanceCosts How many dogs are wiped out by human drivers annually?Which type of driver wipes out more dogs per mile? Per trip?Without some context there's not much information here.
  • SCE to AUX I hope the higher altitude doesn't harm his zeal or his career.
  • SCE to AUX Probably a fair price. This is a car I can't own, since it's not made for 6'6" people.