- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

For a while in the late 1990s and well into this century, it seemed that there was almost no limit to the horsepower escalation in the U.S. car market. Engines kept getting bigger and brawnier as gasoline prices stayed near historic lows.

But engine-sizing one-upmanship is swiftly coming to an end, beaten down partly by consumers’ bad memories of last summer’s meteoric rise in gasoline prices, but more by the nation’s new sense of urgency about the environment and breaking our addiction to foreign oil.

Automakers are quickly downsizing their engines to match the more sensible and less-extravagant tastes consumers (not to mention lawmakers who hold bailout-money purse strings) are signaling they want. At the 2009 Detroit auto show in January, the first major international auto show of the year, the signs were everywhere: big engines just aren’t going to cut it anymore.

General Motors, for example, highlighted a new, smaller 3.0-liter version of the 3.6-liter V-6 that has become a mainstay of its model lines. The smaller 3.0-liter uses several advances, including direct fuel injection, to generate more power than the larger engine it replaces in the all-new Cadillac SRX crossover, yet GM promises will get 10 percent to 15 percent better fuel economy.

GM’s cross-town rival Ford also is cutting back on beefy engines. Ford this year will launch the first of an all-new line of “Ecoboost” engines that are smaller and more efficient, but give up no power, because of a combination of direct injection and turbocharging. Ford says a 4-cylinder Ecoboost engine can replace a V-6, and a V-6 using Ecoboost technology can mimic the power of a V-8 - but with two cylinders fewer.

Dropping cylinders can deliver big fuel-economy gains, and in the case of Ecoboost, Ford says losing the cylinders can help generate as much as 20 percent better fuel economy. The first Ecoboost engine - a 3.5-liter V-6 - is coming on the Lincoln MKS this year, but Ford says by 2012 it will be fitting 500,000 vehicles each year with Ecoboost engines.

It’s not only the Detroit automakers that are doing the downsizing thing. Even the German manufacturers, whose cars have to survive the crucible of the Autobahn and thus play the engine-power game, are scaling back in the face of increasing global sustainability concerns.

Reports from Germany say Mercedes has canceled a replacement for its majestic V-12, an engine layout that long has been considered the symbol of automotive-engine supremacy. Mercedes, like every other Europe-based automaker, is staring down a future promising strict new European Union carbon-dioxide emissions regulations that will make it ever more difficult to continue with hulking-big engines, including low-volume models.

Mercedes’ chief rival, BMW, reportedly also will pull the trigger on an engine-downsizing strategy. BMW recently said it is likely to move to smaller turbocharged engines to eventually replace the sledgehammer V-8s and V-10s that are the signatures of its high-performance “M” models, such as the M3 and M5 sport sedans. And the company already said it no longer sees the need for V-8 variants of its powerful diesel engines, saying 6-cylinder diesels will suffice.

German and other European automakers are cutting engine size because they are facing their own brand of environmental pressure: the distinct possibility of an European Union standard for carbon-dioxide emissions of 130 grams per kilometer by 2012. This target looks particularly tough to attain when, even after several years of concerted CO2-reduction efforts. The CO2 output for the average vehicle in the European Union currently is around 158 grams per kilometer.

In the U.S., Congress passed a new CAFE standard in 2007 that dictates every automaker’s fleet must average 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Nobody’s going to get there with most of the power plants (and vehicles) we’re using today.

So if you want that big engine, buy one while you still can. Beasts like V-8s, V-10s and V-12s - hey, maybe V-6s, for heaven’s sake - all might be museum pieces by 2020.

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