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BMW Announces Return of Four-Cylinder to the USA - 2011 DC Auto Show

January 2011 author photo


January 28, 2011

BMW's contribution to the Washington Auto Show's green theme was to announce the return of fuel-saving four-cylinder engines to the company's product line after a lengthy absence.

A pinnacle decision for BMW, because even the new compact 1-Series car is available in the U.S. only in six-cylinder configuration. This is because BMW executives concluded that Americans weren't interested in four-cylinder cars from the premium brand. This was based on the paucity of sales of the company's 318ti model in the mid-‘90s, but that car suffered from price and styling challenges that also hurt its chance for American popularity.

But now BMW has concluded that the time is right for the return of thriftier powerplants, possibly in part because of looming government requirements for better fuel economy. "For the first time in more than a decade, BMW will once again offer a four-cylinder engine in the United States," announced BMW of North America president Jim O'Donnell.

O'Donnell declined to provide specifics about the engine or the cars in which it will be offered, though the 1-Series and 3-Series are obvious recipients, along with the Z4 potentially. BMW did reveal that the engine produces 240 horsepower, like the four-cylinder engine that propelled Honda's S2000 roadster. But unlike that engine, this one is turbocharged and produces 260 lb.-ft of torque, so we can expect that it will not need to be driven at redline like the torque-impaired Honda did.

BMW is applying the full power of its technical capability to this new engine, using a twin-scroll turbo to minimize turbo lag, plus direct fuel injection and the company's Valvetronic intake control system. The resulting engine "provides the classic BMW combination of power, refinement and pure driving pleasure," O'Donnell promised.

Look for the company to announce which models get the engine, and more details such as displacement and fuel economy at the Geneva and New York auto shows. The cars using the engine will be in U.S. dealerships by the end of the year.

BMW achieved its first popular success in the U.S. with the four-cylinder 2002 model, which was also offered in turbocharged form as the 2002tii. So BMW's history with turbocharged four-cylinder models in the U.S. runs deep.

The company ultimately developed a turbocharged 1.5-liter Formula One racing engine based on its production four-cylinder design, winning the world championship in 1983 with Brazilian Nelson Piquet at the wheel of a Brabham race car.

Show-goers anxious to know what the new engine would do in one of the models currently in the BMW exhibit can consider that O'Donnell cited an 11 percent improvement in fuel economy for the new smaller-displacement turbo V8 engine. A similar improvement for the four-cylinder turbo over the normally aspired six-cylinder in the 128i would yield 31 mpg in highway driving from an engine with 10 hp and 60 lb.-ft. more power. That should deliver the "classic BMW combination" O'Donnell promised.

DAN CARNEY is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, DC.

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BMW Announces Return of Four-Cylinder to the USA - 2011 DC Auto Show - Autotrader