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Four, Six or Eight: How Many Cylinders Do Today's Families Need?

Consumers with long memories (those who started driving in the 1960s) fondly remember the powerful V-8-powered cars of the day. Sure, you could get a V-6, but who wanted to?  

Then, in the energy crises of the 1970s, the push toward four-cylinder engines came in earnest. No one really wanted them, of course, since they were underpowered, whined, and were considered a serious compromise. But they were more fuel efficient.

That was then. This is now. Enter the new phase of more powerful four-cylinder engines. They don’t whine, gas mileage is mostly stellar, and they have enough get-up-and-go to satisfy an increasing percentage of U.S. car buyers, particularly those shopping for a mid-size family vehicle.

Some of the new product offerings will only come with four-cylinder engines.

The mid-size 2011 Hyundai Sonata, all new this year, is one. The Korean automaker says its new 2.4-liter gasoline direct injection (GDI) engine delivers 200 horsepower and achieves an EPA-estimated 22 mpg city/35 mpg highway – “the perfect combination of high power output and fuel efficiency.” Three models are available: GLS, SE, and Limited, with manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (MSRPs) ranging from $19,195 to $25,295. Only GLS is standard with a five-speed manual transmission. Optional in GLS and standard in SE and Limited is a six-speed automatic transmission with shiftronic.

General Motors’ Buick division introduces the all-new 2011 Regal, another mid-size sedan initially available with a single powerplant: a 182-hp 2.4-liter Ecotec SIDI variable valve timing (VVT) four-cylinder engine. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, the combo achieves a GM-estimated 20 mpg city/30 mpg highway. Six Preferred Equipment groups are available for Regal CXL (RL1 to RL6), with base MSRPs ranging from $26,245 to $31,030. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine will reportedly be added later.

The mid-size Ford Fusion is mostly unchanged for 2011. Base engine in the S and the SE is the 175-hp 2.5-liter Duratec in-line four mated to a six-speed manual transmission. There’s also the 2.5-liter Atkinson-Cycle I-4 engine and electric motor paired with an eCVT transmission in the Fusion Hybrid. Fuel economy for the four-cylinder S model is an EPA-estimated 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway and 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway on the SE. On the Fusion Hybrid, it’s 41 mpg city/36 mpg highway. The Fusion also offers two V-6 engine choices. Base MSRPs range from $19,695 and $21,375 for the four-cylinder-powered Fusions up to a starting $28,100 for Fusion Hybrid.

Looking for a more upscale mid-size family sedan powered by a four-cylinder engine? There’s the 2011 Audi A4 with a 211-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and a choice among three transmissions: Multitronic (front-wheel drive), six-speed manual and quattro all-wheel drive, and six-speed Tiptronic transmission and quattro all-wheel-drive. EPA estimates are 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway (multitronic), 21/31 mpg (six-speed), and 21/29 mpg (Tiptronic). Three models range from $31,950 to $41,450 starting MSRPs.

Subaru says that 70 percent of 2011 Legacy buyers will opt for the 170-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine combined with continuously variable transmission (CVT). There’s also a 265-hp turbocharged four-cylinder, but that requires premium fuel. EPA fuel economy numbers for the four-cylinder engines are 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway. For 2011, starting MSRPs for three 2.5i Legacy models with the 170-hp four-cylinder engine range from $19,995 to $25,295.

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Comment (1)
  1. V6s are becoming rare here in Australia. 10 years ago they were common in large SUVs, now everything is switching to diesel. Both Pathfinder and Santa Fe just dropped V6s for diesel 4-cylinders recently, as did Grand Vitara. There are a few holdouts remaining but in 10 years time I predict they will be gone from SUVs, and much less common in passenger cars. It's not really about the fuel consumption, it's about emissions. The large displacement means a V6 will never be able to match a 4 cyl for CO2. The future is all diesels, turbos, and direct injection.

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