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Published: Friday, 11/18/2011

Companies shift focus to 4-cylinder vehicles

New models emphasize 40 mpg efficiency

The Chevrolet Spark at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit. The Chevrolet Spark at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Image

LOS ANGELES — In the high-tech head rush that many of us recall as the late '90s, it was hard for a car to make much of an impression with fewer than eight cylinders.

With pump prices falling in an age of conspicuous consumption, frugality was about as fashionable as disco clothes at a rave party.

These days, a 32-valve V8 remains the price of entry into the upper realm of the luxury ranks, but the makers of mainstream models mostly boast about the potency and efficiency of their 4-cylinder engines.

Witness the renaissance of 4-cylinder engines at the Los Angeles Auto Show that runs through Nov. 27. Nearly 20 cars with fuel efficiency of at least 40 mpg appear, and not all are hybrids.

In addition to the world debut of the Chevrolet Spark microcar, automakers are showing how crossovers and larger models can bypass even 6-cylinder engines without excessive sacrifice.

Hyundai has tied its fortunes to 4-cylinder engines in its best-selling Sonata and popular new Elantra in a marketing plan built around 40 mpg fuel economy.

In the compact crossover category, Ford, Honda, and Mazda all will introduce new 4-cylinder models.

The 2013 model Ford Escape will offer three engines, all 4-cylinder. A 1.6-liter EcoBoost makes its first appearance in North America, along with a 2.5-liter version and a 2-liter EcoBoost designed to replace the previously optional V6. Ford is expected to drop the hybrid version in the 2013 model year, in favor of the 1.6 EcoBoost the company claims will get better highway mileage.

To make the most of the Escape's power, engineers lightened the load through new technology such as the use of microscopic cells known under the trade name MuCell in the instrument panel.

Using microcellular foam saves an estimated $3 per vehicle compared to solid-injection molding, according to Ford. It also reduces weight by more than a pound.

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