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Ford's Little Engine That Could Challenge Hybrids

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Ford Motor Co. intends to prove that good things come in small packages — really small packages. The company has taken engine downsizing to a new level with its new three-cylinder EcoBoost engine, which has been introduced in Europe and is set to hit the U.S. market next year.

The EcoBoost offers more power than many conventional four-cylinder engines, with fuel economy numbers a hybrid could envy. Early fans are calling it a modern "little engine that could," and Ford is betting that American customers are ready to embrace a three-cylinder engine.

An Unsuccessful Predecessor

Seventeen years ago, Americans could buy a car that got a whopping 45 miles to the gallon on the highway. No, it was not the Toyota Prius, the hybrid car that arrived on the market five years later. The car was actually General Motors' Geo Metro, which also had a three-cylinder engine.

The Geo Metro was not a success, with about three times the horsepower of a riding lawnmower. But the car did have one bragging point: astonishing fuel economy.

T.J. Baldermann, a certified car technician, has bought at least seven Geo Metros, which do not include the ones he's bought just for parts. He says it's hard to beat 45 to 50 miles to the gallon. Baldermann is part of Geo Metro's tiny, loving fan base. But the car never sold well and was discontinued in 2000.

Paying Less At The Pump, More At The Dealership

Ford spokesman Richard Truett is optimistic about consumer demand for the three-cylinder EcoBoost. "I think everyone realizes that fuel prices are going to be permanently high," he says.

The engine may be small, weighing less than 225 pounds, but that's a point of pride for the company. Greg Johnson, a powertrain engineering manager at Ford, says this engine is more powerful than the four-cylinder engine in the current Ford Fiesta. It uses direct fuel injection and turbocharging.

Ford cars powered by the new engine could get well over 45 miles per gallon with no hybrid technology involved. But those savings at the gas pump will cost drivers at the car dealership. Ford is expected to charge about $1,000 more than for one with a four-cylinder engine.

"The big experiment is, will Americans pay more money for a smaller motor if they're getting better fuel economy out of it?" says car industry analyst Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive.

He says the strategy is working with Ford's F-150 pickup truck. The standard engine is a V-8, but almost half the truck's buyers are paying extra for the V-6 engine with fewer cylinders, direct injection and turbocharging.

Betting On Hybridlike Fuel Economy

Ford is likely to market cars as offering hybridlike fuel economy without the hybrid price. But Bragman figures not everyone with a Prius is going to trade it in.

"There's a certain magic to the word 'hybrid' for some people. There are some people that just want to have the hybrid. They want to have a hybrid badge. They want to be seen as having purchased a hybrid," Bragman says.

Still, Bragman thinks most drivers care less about what's under the hood than they do about fuel economy.

While Ford is betting on its little engine, GM is staying out of that game for now even though it has a modern three-cylinder engine that it sells in cars in Europe. Instead, GM thinks American drivers will embrace something else once shunned here: diesel. The company will offer a Chevy Cruze that runs on diesel fuel next year.

Copyright 2012 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.

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