American automakers got caught with their pants down during the 1970s oil crisis when consumers flocked to a new wave of cars with small-displacement engines that were introduced by the Japanese.
Eventually, the Detroit Three launched competing products, but it was too little, too late. Lessons were learned, however, and automakers such as Ford are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
When Ford announced it was launching its 1.0L direct-injected turbocharged EcoBoost 3-cyl. engine in the Fiesta B-car, many scoffed, arguing Americans would never accept such a tiny mill.
While it’s too early to tell whether the 1.0L EcoBoost will be a hit (sales just began in December), Ford is confident U.S. consumers will embrace the diminutive engine expected to achieve 45 mpg (5.2 L/100 km) on the highway.
“If you come up with a solution that offers performance, drivability and fuel economy, the customer doesn’t care about the number of cylinders,” Joe Bakaj, former vice president- Powertrain Engineering, told WardsAuto last year.
Bakaj pointed to the success of the 3.5L EcoBoost V-6 in the F-150 pickup, with volumes increasing nearly every month. Before its launch, the same critics of the 1.0L engine were crying pickup buyers never would pay a premium for a V-6. The critics clearly were wrong.
Still, Ford is taking a bit of a chance with the 1.0L, recently named to the 2014 Ward’s 10 Best Engines list, by navigating waters for the first time since the 1990s, when automakers such as General Motors and then-partner Suzuki launched the ill-fated Geo Metro and Suzuki Swift, two 3-cyl. cars with the NVH attributes of a rock grinder.
But unlike previous efforts, Ford has invested heavily in the 1.0L EcoBoost to diminish the inherent coarseness of 3-cyl. engines.
As Bakaj points out, size doesn’t matter to today’s customer base.
“We don’t think in terms of price, but value and payback,” he says. “Yes, you pay a little more, but you get the money back in fuel bills.”