Three-Cylinder Cars: Always The Odd Ones Out?

June 2, 2011

Three-cylinder engines have been used in quite a few performance motorcycles—including legendary collectibles like the Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket 3—but among cars, at least here in the U.S. market, they've always seemed the odd ones out.

Triples haven't earned a lot of respect or acceptance here, giving them a sort of smirk-inducing novelty status to Americans who might know the difference. And looking back at the three-cylinder models that we've received in the past, it's understandable. In nearly all of these older models, refinement left much to be desired; automakers seemed in particular to have trouble quelling excess vibration from in-line threes, and in tuning them for high gas mileage managed to tune most of the guts and perkiness out of them.

No respect, but some familiar names

 To date, there's been the Chevrolet Sprint (later called Geo Metro), the Suzuki Swift (only briefly with a three), the Subaru Justy, and the Daihatsu Charade, as well as the original Honda Insight from the last decade. And currently, the only three-cylinder car on sale here is the 2011 Smart Fortwo.

The original Honda Insight Coupe had perhaps the smoothest engine of the bunch (and the best gas mileage), and even then it could be quite coarse and agricultural when revved; but among them, this editor has had the most driving time with a Geo Metro, which seemed content puttering along in traffic and returning 45 mpg or more, but felt almost dangerously sluggish as soon as I carried passengers or got up to 70 on the highway. Meanwhile, the Subaru Justy from the same period was something of a tech leader in the U.S., offering a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) here about 20 years ago, long before Nissan decided to roll them out across most of its line and several other automakers adopted them.

Fanatical following

What most of these models have in common is a reputation for durability and reliability. Sprints and Metros have found a loyal, almost fanatical following and are driven on the hard commute to high miles with only maintenance and minor repairs, while Daihatsu Charades, considering how few were sold for the brief time the brand entered the market, are still an occasional sight on the West Coast

With Ford's announcement that it plans an all-new EcoBoost turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder—and plans to put it in a U.S.-bound product—those old perceptions of three-bangers might change. As we reported, the new three takes advantage of some of the latest technology, like Ford's Ti-VCT variable cam timing system, direct injection, and a number of other design elements aimed at making it perkier, smoother, and more economical.

Ford three could turn the tide

Global development chief Derrick Kuzak has gone so far as to call the engine "a little dynamo." Perhaps the three-cylinder followers will have a new model—and a new engine—to worship.

Incidentally, this isn't the first time a turbocharged three-cylinder will have been offered in the U.S. market, though; in the late 1980s, Chevrolet (or Geo) offered a Sprint Turbo, making 70 hp. As one of the original 'pocket rockets,' it could get to 60 mph in less than ten seconds.

Yes, times have changed, and maybe it's time to really embrace the three-banger.

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