American car buyers certainly believe the old adage that "less is more" when it comes to engine choices. According to research giant, J.D. Power and Associates, the sale of four-cylinder engines grew to a surprising 49% of all new vehicles sold in the United States in April, a high-water mark for the already rising statistic.
The momentum for the rising popularity of four-bangers seems to be the result of a "perfect storm" of consumer and manufacturer behaviors. One factor is that Americans continue to feel squeezed at the gas pump. Though gasoline prices have stabilized over the last year, there have been volatile changes in gas prices – often in an upward trajectory, and rarely with warning.
Another reason is the continued increase in annual miles driven. In 1960, Americans drove less than 7,000 miles per year on average. By 1990, that number had risen to just over 10,300; and it was above 12,000 by 2005. Thus, Americans buy more efficient cars to maximize annual driving without splurging on fuel costs.
Manufacturers have also built more four-cylinder cars, which contributes to the growing penchant for smaller engines among American drivers. Cars that once had larger engines have been replaced with four-cylinders. Toyota's 4Runner, dropped its V8 to offer a four-cylinder for the first time in more than a decade, Hyundai's midsize Sonata sedan, offering only four-cylinder engines for the first time since 1995, and Volkswagen's sporty GTI dropped a V6 version in 2006 after twelve years on the market.
Interestingly, despite losing their larger engines, each of these vehicles – and many others following in the same path – are larger than their predecessors. Both the Sonata and GTI replace V6s by using turbocharged four-cylinders, which offer much of a V6's power while saving four-cylinder fuel economy. Such technology is being used by many automakers. Ford's EcoBoost engine, used in the Flex crossover and Taurus SHO sedan, uses turbocharging and direct fuel injection to harness as much power as possible while still maximizing efficiency.
Other automakers, such as Toyota, are not focusing on more powerful four-cylinder engines but on increasing overall mileage. The ever-popular Camry sedan V6 model was recently outsold by the miserly four-cylinder Camry Hybrid, which in turn is outsold three-to-one by the regular gasoline four-cylinder model.
Once relegated only to tiny imported cars, four-cylinder engines are now utilized by nearly every automaker in product lines from small hatchbacks to midsize SUVs. With advances in technology giving many four-cylinders V6 power while still retaining strong fuel economy, it's likely that four-cylinder cars will only get more popular in the coming years.