Home » The Three-Cylinder Engine Is Slowly Taking Over American Cars

The Three-Cylinder Engine Is Slowly Taking Over American Cars

Morning Dump Three Cylinders
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Did you know you could get the new Nissan Rogue with a 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine? The three-cylinder motor has been around, in various forms, throughout the years. Almost always the three-cylinder engine has represented an efficient yet undesirable poverty-spec car (sorry Geo Metro!). No more. The three-cylinder is here to stay and it’s gone slightly upmarket.

There’s a certain inevitability to this. Turbocharging, direct injection, variable valve-timing, et cetera have led to V6s as powerful as V8s and, now, inline-four motors as powerful as V6s (and many V8s). What’s there to replace the four-cylinder motor in cheap cars? Three is a magic number, after all.

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This Morning Dump won’t be all motor as we talk about a car with 4x the cylinders and two offshoots of the UAW strike, one quite predictable and one a big surprise.

The Rise Of The Three-Cylinder

2024 Chevrolet Trax Activ 005

Right off the bat, it’s important to note that the absolute king of powertrains in the United States is the four-cylinder engine. Whether in boxer or inline configuration (or V4 if you’re driving a Taunus), America can’t get enough of the fourbanger.

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This data comes from intelligence firm S&P Global Mobility, which points out that four-cylinder engines still make up 57.2% of all sales in the first three quarters of 2023. The once-popular V6 and V8 engines have dropped to 26.8% and 10.9%, respectively.

According to this data, as recently as 2019 the three-cylinder engine made up less than 1% of total sales, which I’m thinking was Mirages and maybe leftover Fiestas? By comparison, in just four years that number has jumped to 6.2%, which is a huge jump.

What’s the deal? S&P points to the rise of the subcompact+ crossover like the Buick Encore, Chevy Trax (which our Thomas Hundal quite likes), and Ford Bronco Sport:

S&P Global Mobility data shows US new personal registrations of 589,026 for subcompact-plus utility models through July, compared to just 123,033 personal registrations for subcompact utilities.

Consumers moving up from a subcompact utility face a modest bump in monthly payments, from an average of about $422 for a subcompact, with a $40 increase to get into a subcompact-plus, according to AutoCreditInsight data supplied to S&P Global Mobility by TransUnion. Moving up further to a compact utility would entail about $ 100 per month in incremental payment from a subcompact-plus.

The story goes on to point out that the lack of consistent inventories has made it “impossible” to tell what the market really wants. My suspicion is that there’s a ton of upside and market demand left for these vehicles and improved inventories will result in more sales and, therefore, more three-bangers (that sounds wrong).

Detroit Automakers Will Start Reducing Incentives

2023 Jeep® Gladiator Rubicon

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Speaking of inventories… just as vehicles are starting to become affordable again (depending on how you’re financing them), the strike is reportedly leading automakers to reduce inventories as they face the possibility of newly reduced production.

From Automotive News:

September incentive promotions will be allowed to run their course with cuts appearing in October, Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ head of insights, told Automotive News on Friday, the day the UAW had announced plans to expand its strike to new Ford and GM plants.

J.D. Power Data and Analytics Vice President Tyson Jominy on Monday said automakers establish incentives at the beginning of the sales month, with the first incentive bulletins expected to appear overnight between Monday and Tuesday.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t going to apply to all vehicles from these automakers as the article goes on to point out:

Caldwell said incentives might not shrink on the high-inventory Jeep Gladiator even though Toledo Jeep Assembly factory workers are on strike, but other models would be “reined in,” Caldwell said. (Enough Gladiator inventory exists to manage at least a five-month strike, Cox Automotive Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke wrote in a UAW strike update posted Monday.)

It will be interesting to see what automakers do and if it’s a bellwether for the strikes themselves.

Trucking Volumes Crater Because Of Strike

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One fascinating way to look at the economy is through the trucking industry, which my buddy Joe Wiesenthal over at Bloomberg does with his co-host Tracy Alloway for their podcast “Odd Lots” (check out this episode in particular).

Trucking is both an upstream indicator (moving raw commodities/parts) as well as a downstream one (delivering assembled products/processed commodities). I’ve been keeping an eye on trucking volumes via Craig Fuller’s tweets (see above tweet) and it initially seemed somewhat contained.

Now it’s dropped off significantly. The most exciting part is that even the experts weren’t entirely sure how much of America’s total trucking volume was accounted for by the auto industry. While it’s possible something else is going on here, the UAW strike is the most obvious explanation at the moment for the drop and shows that trucking volumes are tied to automotive production to a greater extent than many people thought.

The V12 Aston Martin Valkyrie Hypercar Is Good

Aston Martin Valykrie

Le Mans is getting exciting again. The cars are good again. They’re not necessarily as loud or as wild as they used to be (the Glickenhaus car being the recent exception), but at least there are more of them.

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You know what’s cool, though? The return of a V12 powerplants. Not a hybrid. Not a weird diesel. A damn V12. Will it be competitive when it goes racing in 2025? Who the hell knows? Who the hell cares?

It’s a V12!

It’s based on the Cosworth-built 6.5-liter V12 in the roadgoing Valkyrie that revs to 11,000 RPM and has about 1,000 horsepower. The one racing at Le Mans will probably not have 1,000 horsepower, but it’ll sound freakin’ amazing.

The Big Question

Would you buy a three-cylinder car? Have you?!?

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Scott
Scott
8 months ago

I’ve got no preconceptions against owning/driving a car w/a three-cylinder motor… it just depends on the sum total of the car, as it always does. I gather Ford’s three banger isn’t that great as it ages or to service, but oddly (ironically?) I haven’t heard the same complaint about the three pot motor used in recent base Mini Coopers.

Like Thomas, I find the new Chevrolet Trax reasonably appealing as a practical daily driver that might not prevent me from being able to afford medicine in retirement. I especially like the slightly-more-smooth-looking Buick Envista stablemate, and should a deal on one cross my path at some point, I’d have to seriously consider it.

Let’s be honest… I know some buyers and even more marketing people like to pore over specs like wads of power and torque, but for a modern smallish car (or crossover, which at some point just seems like a hatchback to me) you don’t really need something in excess of 200HP to get around. Whatever most threes can muster is probably fine.

PS: If the Trax/Envista were somehow offered with a manual transmission (I know it’ll never happen given their target market) I’d be thinking much more seriously about buying one new, rather than waiting to see what the used market holds in a few years. Could you imagine? A practical, decent looking small hatchback I mean crossover in an actual color (say blue, or maybe green) that you could row yourself for low $20Ks? That would be nice, and since the Ford Maverick debacle, probably the only way to get me to buy American for my next new car.

Last edited 8 months ago by Scott
Prikka
Prikka
8 months ago

I had a Smart Roadster Coupe some years ago with 700cc three-banger. A bit rough at idle perhaps, but in a car like that it was just part of the character. Sounded pretty good from mid-range onwards, a bit like Porsche flat six***. In the coupe version I had, engine and turbo noises are a lot more audible in the cabin and really add to the experience.

*** if you closed your eyes and took some hallucinogens, you might actually think you’re driving a 911 in limp mode.

I rented a Fiesta some years ago while travelling to Germany. I believe it was the 140hp Vignale-version. It was surprisingly peppy and had no problems at keeping steady 180 on Autobahn.

So yeah, only positive experiences from three cylinder engines. However, there are only few cars with such engines that I find interesting (mainly kei-cars, which don’t really suit my needs), so I probably won’t have another in a near future.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
8 months ago

SELL ME A GR YARIS YOU COWARDS

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
8 months ago

Would you buy a three-cylinder car?”

Yes

“Have you?!?”

No

And chances are, my next car will be a ‘no cylinder’ electric car.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago

“Have you?!?”

No

TBF cars aren’t bags of potato chips. Most people aren’t making cylinder count choices on a weekly basis or even as part of a Five year plan.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Most people aren’t making cylinder count choices on a weekly basis or even as part of a Five year plan.”

Well technically when they’re buying cans of pop and other drinks, they ARE making cylinder count choices on a weekly basis!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago

Fair enough!

Now I’m thinking cases of soda and beer should be sold as V12s!

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard
Last edited 8 months ago by Manwich Sandwich
Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago

Looks like a party to me!

Scorp Mcgorp
Scorp Mcgorp
8 months ago

Owned a 3 cylinder ’91 Geo Metro wagon in very 90’s teal. that little engine had no guts, and couldn’t keep speed uphill for shit. but it got 36mpg no matter how hard you thrashed it, and was surprisingly roomy. I wish we hadn’t gotten rid of it because it was dead reliable save for needing to replace the rusted exhaust and the need to dutifully replace 1 qt of burned oil every 1,000 miles. the need for a vehicle that could safely shuttle 5 people including 3 car seats meant it needed to be passed on to another.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago
Reply to  Scorp Mcgorp

“I wish we hadn’t gotten rid of it because it was dead reliable save for needing to replace the rusted exhaust and the need to dutifully replace 1 qt of burned oil every 1,000 miles.”

By now many cars, even dirt cheap beaters, have stainless steel exhaust systems and don’t burn oil making them even more reliable than that.

“the need for a vehicle that could safely shuttle 5 people including 3 car seats meant it needed to be passed on to another.”

“1991 Geo Metro wagon” and “safely” are not two things typically associated with each other, especially with the cavet “3 car seats”.

Scorp Mcgorp
Scorp Mcgorp
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

yes, modern vehicles are generally more reliable, but when you’re poor, a vehicle that will run badly but reliably with cheap band aids is something that can be termed reliable in its own way. Also, at that time (12 years ago) it was more reliable than the 2002 Sentra SE-R Spec V that was our other vehicle.

also, the metro was replaced with a safer vehicle, which is what i was getting at there. i do wish we hadn’t gotten rid of it because it was good at what it did, but our needs changed. keeping it as a 3rd vehicle would have been nice, but we had no money and no space for it.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago
Reply to  Scorp Mcgorp

I get it. I was a grad student for way too long in a high rent city. My salary was literally poverty spec AND to add insult to injury I had to pay to park at my job. Who does that?!

Fucking universities, that’s who! Those greedy fucks!

Thankfully I had no kids at the time. Others did but most of them had spouses with proper jobs and/or family to help. The ones that didn’t… Well, it wasn’t good.

That said my ’93 XJ had a stainless steel exhaust. It was also quite reliable if a bit of a gas hog and rattle trap.

Last edited 8 months ago by Cheap Bastard
Richard Truett
Richard Truett
8 months ago

Change Taunus to Saab Sonnet. That was the only car ever sold here with Ford’s V-4.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Truett

Not just the Sonett (Model 97) but also the Model 95 wagon and the Model 96 sedan.

Lotsofchops
Lotsofchops
8 months ago

I take pretty regular trips to Europe for work and have gotten a few different 3 cyl vehicles because we get whatever is cheapest at Avis. I had either a Citroen or Renault with one that I would’ve sworn was a diesel from the shit way it idled. I ride a Triumph so I understand that the 3cyl is inherently less balanced but it’s like they didn’t even try. But recently I got a Seat Arona and that seemed much smoother, if not quick.

pizzaman09
pizzaman09
8 months ago

I would drive a 3 cylinder MINI if I could program off the obnoxious fake engine noises in normal and sport mode. I had one as a loaner once, and the sounds that it made in eco mode, which turned off the fake engine noises, were awesome. Maybe with a hot little exhaust it would even sound more epic.
I’d also import a Honda Beat.

Last edited 8 months ago by pizzaman09
Carson Giardini
Carson Giardini
8 months ago
Reply to  pizzaman09

bimmer code lets you totally turn it off. Super easy.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
8 months ago

I would love 3-cylinder in my Figaro, like on real Kei cars, but there is so much stuck down there in that engine compartment, that at least it LOOKS like a 3-cylinder..

Jakob Johansen
Jakob Johansen
8 months ago

12, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 – 0.

Anonymous Person
Anonymous Person
8 months ago

Waiting on a 2024 Trax which was already dealer-ordered. Previously owned a 1991 Geo Metro.

Gee See
Gee See
8 months ago

Ford 3 Cylinder with in case timing BELT.. yeah no thanks. Good for rental spec, but definitely not design to last much longer than factory warranty. I don’t mind 3 cylinders as long as they are mantainable without removing the engine for simple things like timing belt changes..

For reference IDoCars did a tear down on one of those.

Last edited 8 months ago by Gee See
Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago
Reply to  Gee See

“For reference IDoCars did a tear down on one of those.”

Just watched it. So much this:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=z0UdKbGJs0o

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