GO
Loading...

Four Dollar A Gallon Gas Fuels Return Of The Four Cylinder

2008 Honda Civic
Source: honda.com
2008 Honda Civic

All hail the mighty 4 banger! The little engine that could, is now doing the job. And those desperate to get better mileage are happy to have the solid, if unspectacular, four cylinder engine powering their car, truck, and yes, even a few SUVs.

The switch to 4 cylinders is picking up momentum, with the small engines powering almost half of all the vehicles sold last month. Yes, that's right, the 4 banger is doing a lot more than driving small and mid size cars. The reason? People are desperate to save money and these engines do that on two fronts.

First, most obviously, 4 cylinder engines are more fuel efficient than 6 and 8 cylinder engines. With gas over $4, the savings can be substantial, depending on how much you drive. While each engine is different, most estimate that 4 cylinders are about 10% more efficient than a 6 cylinder in the same car.

That brings up the second reason these little engines are taking off. A 4 cylinder version of a particular car is cheaper than a 6 cylinder version. The pricing varies model to model, but 4 cylinder editions can be $1,000 to $1,800 less than 6 cylinder models. So for the consumer, this is a win/win. They save money buying a lower priced car with a 4 cylinder engine and that car will go further on a gallon of gas, saving the buyer more cash.

Increasingly, people in showrooms are putting these smaller engines in bigger cars, crossovers, SUVs, even pick-up trucks. That's what's interesting about this transition to 4 cylinders. Buyers still want size, utility, and frankly anything but a compact car. So they opt for a smaller package to drive their bigger ride. Sure, they are giving up power. But for many, they'd rather pay that price than the higher prices at the pump. Plus, many buyers still need the utility, space, etc. of a crossover or SUV. They may admire the mileage of small cars, but they don't admire the lack of functionality with those pint size rides.

You know, I find this "return" of the four banger fascinating because it goes against a long held belief in the auto industry. For years, study after study has shown that buyers given the choice of fuel efficiency or horsepower almost always have gone for the power. Maybe it's time we re-think that belief. The 4 banger is banging at the door and it's ready to roar again.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

Autos