High-MPG Three-Cylinder Engine Headed To Future Volvo Models—Even S60

September 2, 2014
2015 Volvo S60 and V60 Polestar

2015 Volvo S60 and V60 Polestar

You might barely be getting used to the idea of how four cylinders are now enough to power a nearly mid-size sedan briskly. Now what about three cylinders?

Volvo thinks so, and this past week it confirmed plans to offer 'Drive-E' turbo triples on a wide range of its models -- not just for Europe and overseas markets, but for the U.S. as well. And by the time the next-generation Volvo S60 arrives, around 2017, you might have that choice.

At present, Volvo is already doing quite well in fuel-efficiency. The 2015 Volvo S60 T5, in front-wheel-drive form with the new Drive-E four-cylinder engine, achieves standout fuel economy, at 25 mpg city, 37 highway (29 combined). To contrast, the 2014 S60 with the in-line five-cylinder earned 21 mpg city, 30 highway.

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That 2.0-liter Drive-E four produces 240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, so the turbo three, likely at 1.5 liters, could easily slot below as a base engine -- providing strong performance even if it’s well under the 200-hp mark, if Volvo’s able to cut several hundred pounds of weight from the next-generation S60 as it was from the redesigned XC90.

At roundtable discussions with the automotive press this past week, Peter Mertens, Volvo Cars’ research and development chief, confirmed that all of these engines will be turbocharged (the new Drive-E four-cylinder can be either turbocharged, or turbocharged and supercharged).

R&D chief: Triples a 'no-brainer,' even for premium cars

“We are working heavily on three cylinders,” said Mertens, who added that the three-cylinder engines aid fuel economy and help reduce the overall weight of vehicles. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Mertens hinted that the smaller engine won’t be limited to the compact models, like the next-generation S40 and others built on the upcoming Volvo-developed CMA platform that’s to be shared with Geely. Larger models -- like the 60-Series (S60, V60, XC60), core models for the U.S., to be built on Volvo’s exclusive scalable product architecture (SPA) underpinnings that debut in the 2016 Volvo XC90 -- are also fair game for a three-cylinder.

Volvo Drive-E four-cylinder engine - turbocharged and supercharged

Volvo Drive-E four-cylinder engine - turbocharged and supercharged

“If you have a very efficient way of producing and developing four-cylinder engines you’re going to put a three-cylinder on the same line,” said Mertens. “It doesn’t really matter from a manufacturing point of view.

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Can three-cylinders break beyond cheap small-car territory?

So far U.S. products with three-cylinder engines are limited to a few relatively inexpensive small cars -- like the Mitsubishi Mirage, Ford Fiesta SFE, and MINI Cooper, as well as the 2015 Ford Focus. But three-cylinder engines could be far more common in the U.S. in a couple of years, both as range-extending powerplants in plug-in hybrids (Volvo has plans for that, too) and as motivation for larger, more premium products such as Volvo, which appears to be working to reposition itself up against Audi and BMW. 

And Mertens appears to be a cheerleader for the engine-downsize strategy. “By the way, I drive a car right now with the three-cylinder...it’s fantastic,” he teased to a room of U.S. correspondents, adding that the sound quality from it is better than a four-cylinder.


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