Small is beautiful when it comes to engines

In days gone by, our American cousins used to say “their ain’t no substitoot for cubic inches” (it sounds best with a Texan drawl). To get more performance, the formula was simple. Increase the size of the engine.

These days, manufacturers are heading the other way.

Mini 998cc engine
One litre engines – like this 998cc Mini engine – are making a comeback

In an era where manufacturers are under pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and buyers are seeking ever greater mileage per gallon, small is, once again, beautiful. Not that one-litre, or sub-one-litre, engines are new. I learned to drive in a 998cc Mini and my first car was an 875cc Hillman Imp.

But since then the norm for a small engine grew to 1.1 litres, then 1.2 litres and up to 1.4 litres. More powerful versions tended to have a 1.5, then 1.6-litre and latterly 1.8-litre engines.

But now 1.4 litres is the new 1.8 and 1.0 is the new 1.4. And this new breed of giant-killing smaller engines is proving quite remarkable.

I have just handed back the keys for a Ford B-Max 1.0 Ecoboost. It’s the second time I have driven one, but it am still amazed at the power and performance such a small engine delivers in what feels to be a sizeable vehicle. The Fiat 1.0 twin-air produces similar reactions.

Indeed, the first time I drove one, I found myself compelled to check the car’s papers in the glovebox before handing it back. Could this really be a one-litre?

The one-litre giant killers may grab the headlines. But I have been similarly amazed with the giant killing performance of cars powered by Volkswagen’s smaller TSI power units, like the Volkswagen Beetle 1.2 TSI I drove last year.

This trend to smaller engines is not just restricted to mainstream manufacturers, the luxury brands are also downsizing.

It used to be that a BMW wore its engine size on its badge. If the badge said BMW 328i, the last two numbers meant there was a 2.8 litre behind the familiar grille. Now, however, the BMW 328 has a two-litre engine and the 335 has a three-litre engine. It seems that BMW wants to keep the big sounding badge, while delivering smaller engine efficiency.

When it comes to buying a car, the combination of mileage per gallon and low emissions delivered by this new generation of smaller-engined cars, means that diesel is no longer the clear-cut choice of the economy-minded buyer. Do the calculations of the higher purchase price and higher pump prices stack up for diesel?

Unless you are really racking up the miles driving up and down motorways, the diesel advantage is not so certain. With the increasing efficiency of smaller petrol engines and concerns about the emissions from diesel engines, the writing may be on the wall for oil burners.
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