American engines shift from big, brawny to smaller, more fuel-efficient motors

By Tom Krisher

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 14 2012 8:25 p.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, May 8, 2012, photo, James Tharp sales manger at Fiat of South Atlanta in Morrow, Ga., poses with new Fiats Tuesday May 8, 2012. Back when gas was cheap, Americans bought cars with V-8 engines like the Big Block, Cobra Jet and Ramcharger, but now, thanks to government regulation and gas-price gyrations, the motors that move the nation?s cars and trucks are shrinking. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Associated Press

DETROIT — Back when gas was cheap, Americans bought cars with V-8 engines like the Big Block, Cobra Jet and Ramcharger. Acceleration was all that mattered, even in family cars that never made it to full throttle.

The 427-cubic inch Chevrolet Tri-Power was the siren song of the gearhead, sending Corvettes roaring down the highway at up to 140 mph.

But now, thanks to government regulation and gas-price gyrations, the motors that move the nation's cars and trucks are shrinking.

Whether they drive hulking pickups or family sedans, Americans are increasingly choosing smaller engines that use less fuel, especially four-cylinder models that offer more horsepower than was possible just a few years ago.

More than half the new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. through May had four-cylinder motors. That's up from 36 percent in 2007, and it's the highest sales percentage since 1998, when the J.D. Power and Associates consulting firm started keeping track.

The smaller engines are helping to change America's gas-guzzling ways. The government now requires automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Drivers are eager to save money on gas, which recently flirted with $4 a gallon and is still pricey at an average of $3.53. Also, people have embraced cars with downsized engines because new technology has made them just as fast as older cars with bigger motors.

"You can take away my V-8, but don't take my acceleration," said IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland. "We're willing to embrace a technology that doesn't make us compromise performance."

In general, car shoppers can pick from three types of engines: four-, six- and eight-cylinders. More cylinders usually produce more horsepower but also burn more fuel.

Until recently, each engine type had dedicated fans. Pickup drivers, who tend to haul heavy loads, favored brawny V-8s. Sedan drivers generally opted for six cylinders if they wanted snappy acceleration or four cylinders if they preferred fuel savings.

Decades ago, when gas was cheap, buyers usually went for bigger engines to get more power. Back then, noisy "fours" clattered down the highway inside compacts or wimpy midsize cars. Some drivers complained that four-cylinder cars didn't have enough power to merge safely onto busy highways.

That began to change in the 1990s, when Honda and Toyota refined their fours, making them quieter and more powerful.

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