Is bigger always better? While the obvious answer is yes for most things, when it comes to car engines, it’s not always cut and dry. The old saying used to be, there is no replacement for displacement, but with the advancement of technology and engineering, that’s not the case anymore. Because even the smaller engine options found in many car model lineups carry some serious capability. Why are we seeing top-of-the-line or premium offerings with engines smaller than their predecessors?
We’ll tackle several factors that make engines way more efficient and powerful, which incentivized the development of smaller and smaller displacements in vehicles. That being said, you can also add these things to bigger engines and expect higher power figures, but that’s more power than the average person needs for daily driving. We may want more power, needs and wants are different.
What is engine size?
It’s not the actual size of the engine block, but the total volume inside the engine’s firing chambers. There are two units that engine displacement comes in. The more common unit is liters (L). The more precise unit is cubic centimeters (cc). For example, the Toyota Wigo’s engine is listed as a 1.0-liter, but in cubic centimeters, it only has 998ccs. This practice isn’t to deceive but to simplify. If someone asks how big an engine is, it’s easier to say and remember 1.0-liter rather than 998ccs.
Manufacturers can also round down, like in the case of the Kia Stinger. It has a listed displacement of 3.3-liters or 3,342ccs.
Smaller engines are more capable now
Up until the late 80s to early 90s, most passenger cars in the world had carbureted engines. Carburetors are mechanical by design and don’t require any computers to run an engine, however, these machinations are imprecise and will need readjusting after a period of time.
Over the years manufacturers have made strides in engine technology and design. So much so that we’re seeing a trend of small-displacement motors becoming the norm. Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) allowed for more efficient fuel delivery, while variable valve timing allowed for more usable power throughout the rev range. Meanwhile, brands like Mazda and their SkyActiv technology make the most out of every ounce of fuel by compressing it in the combustion chamber as tight as possible to create a more concentrated bang. Then, as turbo technology was able to advance and go down in price, more affordable models started coming standard with turbochargers in the engines. This advancement allowed manufacturers to downsize their engines while delivering enough power and torque to make for a capable car.
However, even the most basic cars now are good enough for daily use. The Toyota Wigo is a well-known small hatchback that has a 1.0-liter naturally-aspirated engine, yet the car is enough to bring you from point A to point B with good fuel efficiency and reasonable performance. You will also find that smaller engines are best suited for short distances where speed and power aren’t as important. However, the capability of a motor can be improved when outfitted with different technologies and components that improve power and torque output. Of course, if the engine is just a bigger version of the same series, a smaller-displacement will be less powerful. This is the case with the Toyota Vios since the 1.3-liter engine is not as powerful and as capable as the 1.5-liter in the top-of-the-line variants.
Electronic Fuel Injection, and variable valve timing
Carburation is a mechanical but imprecise fuel delivery system. Mechanical fuel injection also exists, especially with old diesel motors, but the biggest leap forward in fuel injection technology was the advent of computers which led to Electronic Fuel Injection, otherwise known as EFI. Controlled by a computer, EFI systems inject a precise amount of fuel into the combustion chamber of the engine, which boosts fuel efficiency and power.
Variable valve timing is another frequently touted development by manufacturers. Variable valves allow engines to produce adequate amounts of power and torque at low RPMs and higher outputs at higher RPMs. The result is more usability throughout the engine’s rev range, and also increased fuel efficiency.
We’re seeing 1.0- to 1.5-liter engines that are turbocharged. A prime example is the Ford EcoSport. There are two engine options in the lineup, a naturally-aspirated 1.5-liter gasoline motor, and a 1.0-liter turbocharged gasoline motor. Both engines produce similar horsepower figures coming in at about 121 hp and 123 hp respectively. However, the smaller engine is a 3-cylinder, while the larger engine is a 4-cylinder. The torque of the 1.5-liter is rated at 150 Nm, which is pretty sizable, but the smaller engine produces more at 170 Nm. Going by the old way of thinking—there’s no replacement for displacement, the smaller engine should output less power and torque, but because of the turbocharger, it’s more capable than its “bigger” brother.
The trend continued with other brands as well. Honda was one of the first to field a turbocharged 1.5-liter gasoline engine in place of its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter gasoline engine found in the old top-of-the-line Honda Civic. After that, the floodgates opened up, 1.5-liter turbos rose in popularity. The engine configuration and size are common in the industry with many manufacturers having their own 3- or 4-cylinder 1.5-liter motors. You will find this engine size and configuration in cars like the Geely Okavango, Maxus D60, and Chery Tiggo 8, all of which are 7-seaters, which is a testament to how capable these kinds of motors are.
Smaller engines are also getting augmented with hybrid technology. As previously mentioned, the Geely Okavango comes standard with a mild hybrid system that boosts the performance of its powertrain. The turbo paired with the electric motor produces 190 hp and 300 Nm of torque. Whereas the same engine found in the Geely Coolray achieves only 177 hp and 255 Nm of torque.
Hybrid cars also continue to get more mainstream in the Philippine market. Toyota is one of the most well-known in the hybrid sector with its Prius, and one of the first in the Philippines to put a hybrid powertrain in one of its most popular nameplates, the Toyota Corolla Altis. Even a new model based on the Altis can be had with a hybrid system, the Toyota Corolla Cross. Also, the Hyundai Ioniq is also making hybrid vehicles a more common sight on Philippine roads, and the small engines that come with these cars are further augmented by the electric motors. The frugal sub-2.0-liter engines of the two hybrid models get close to 20 kilometers per liter in the city, plus the performance is adequate because the gasoline engine gets an assist from the electric motors so drivers will experience a gain in power and torque, which also results in a smoother drive based on the models we’ve tested.
Engines and electric motors are getting better as the industry continues to develop them. We can expect cars to become more fuel efficient over time and deliver adequate performance regardless of the displacement. The advancements can also trickle down over time to more mainstream automobiles. We could see more hybrids and even electric vehicles on showroom floors in the Philippines, all for affordable and accessible prices.
Because of the rapid development in the EV sector of the industry, we might see a fully electric future with displacement becoming a thing of the past.