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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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