4-Cylinder Revolution: Lots More Fuel-Efficient Cars With Tiny Engines Being Sold

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Could it be that America’s fascination with gas-guzzling SUVs, muscle cars, and V8-powered sedans is really on the way out? Today, nearly half of all new cars sold are equipped with 4-cylinder engines.

According to data gathered by Edmunds, roughly one-third (32%) of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in January 2007 had 4-cylinder engines. But due to a variety of factors—fuel regulations affecting car manufacturers’ production, higher gas prices and the recession causing drivers to want better fuel economy, technology providing more power via smaller engines—the odds of a new car being outfitted with a small engine have greatly increased since then.

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In March 2011, cars with 4-cylinder engines accounted for 50.5% of all new vehicles sold. For that matter, in every month of 2011 thus far, the percentage of new cars with 4-cylinder engines has never dipped below 45%.

Naturally, overall fuel efficiency has increased at the same time. In March of this year, the average new vehicle sold got 23.5 mpg, 15% better than in four years prior.

What’s behind the shift? For one thing, American motorists unsurprisingly became much more keen on buying cars with better gas mileage during the summer of $4-per-gallon gasoline (2008), and again early this year, when prices were nearly as high. The rise of small-engine-powered cars also coincided with the recession and post-recession years, when unemployment remained high and consumers sought all sorts of ways to save money. At the same time, new regulations have been pressuring automakers into improving the fuel efficiency of their fleets.

What’s made the transition to cars with smaller engines especially smooth has been that drivers haven’t had to sacrifice much in the way of power. Edmunds points out that the turbochargers and direct-injection means that the 4-cylinder engine of today is often as powerful, if not more, than some of the V6s and V8s of yesteryear:

Ford Motor Co., for one, now has a turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder engine for its Explorer crossover, a vehicle that once was commonly fitted with a V8.

The downsizing trend isn’t limited to automobiles. Earlier this year, the average newly built home measured 2,377 square feet, down from 2,521 in 2007. Home builders say that by 2015, the average new home in the U.S. will be down to 2,152 square feet.

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Ten years after that, average fuel economy is expected to be 54.5 mpg. So it looks like the downsizing of American vehicles is a trend that’s likely here to stay.

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.