Size Matters: Now Automakers Brag About How Small Their Engines Are

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Is all that classic macho car chatter about V8s, horsepower, and “muscle” disappearing? Now, amid $4 gas and government requirements for cars with better mileage, car manufacturers are pumping their own tires regarding how small—and fuel-efficient—their vehicles’ engines are. That goes even for the supposedly most macho automobiles of all, SUVs and pickup trucks.

It’s taken quite a while—and more than a few gas price hikes—for automakers to come around to the idea that the building and selling of small cars (or big cars with small engines) is a smart business move. By the fall of 2011, nearly half of all new cars in the U.S. had four-cylinder engines, compared to just 32% in 2007. Average gas mileage has improved as well, with the typical new car getting more than 23 mpg, compared to 20 mpg four years ago.

Ford, the prototypical macho American automaker—the company that brought us the Mustang and the F-150—has made one of the swiftest shifts to focusing on fuel efficiency. The average new Ford sold in February 2011 got 17.3 mpg, compared to 22.2 mpg for the average Ford sold in February 2012.

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For decades, Ford and other U.S. automakers seemed to assume that bigger usually meant better, in terms of vehicle and engine size alike. The Freudians out there may have wondered whether these car manufacturers were focusing on size in order to compensate for something.

Now, though, the pendulum has swung, and Ford feels comfortable enough to call attention to the small packages its vehicles have under their hoods. Ford chief Alan Mulally said the company’s goal is to “increase the fuel efficiency every year forever” in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and that smaller engines are one of the strategies being employed to reach this goal:

Ford is now marketing that with new introductions later this year, it will have seven vehicles with the smallest engines in their respective segments.

They include the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines going into the new Escape crossover and Fusion family car, the 2-liter four-cylinder that’s already in the Edge SUV, its bigger Explorer sibling and the Taurus large sedan and a 3.5-liter V-6 it is placing in police Interceptors and F-150 pickup trucks.

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What could be next for Ford and other automakers are cars with engines that are (yep) even punier. The Detroit News reports that early reviews of a three-cylinder Ford vehicle are positive:

“This engine is a game-changer,” Steve Cropley of Autocar magazine, a British publication, said of the three-cylinder Ford Focus that just went on sale in Europe. “You barely hear the thing start, and it idles so smoothly you’d swear it had stalled.”

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A car with a three-cylinder engine could get more than 50 mpg on the highway, and it would run on regular gasoline—no special fuel or plugging-in required. Both Ford and Mitsubishi plan on introducing three-cylinder cars to the U.S. market in 2013, and BMW, Volkswagen, and Nissan are working on three-cylinder vehicles as well.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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