In a once-unthinkable turnabout, Ford Motor Co. is bragging about how it now makes some of the smallest car engines in the industry - a sign of evolution for a company that once made its money selling powerful trucks, SUVs and the Mustang muscle car.
Ford's race to smaller engines represents a trend in the industry as all automakers woo fuel-conscious consumers and work to meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at TrueCar, an auto price information company.
"We believe that we are going to pay more for energy going forward and that fuel efficiency is the top reason to buy. That is going on all around the world now," said Alan Mulally, Ford's chief executive, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week.
Mulally said that Ford's strategy of making powerful but smaller engines is part of the automaker's goal to "increase the fuel efficiency every year forever."
Ford has focused on small turbocharged engines, which it calls its EcoBoost line. Although Ford vehicles with these engines carry a premium over standard models, they have among the quickest paybacks from gas savings in the industry, Toprak said. A recent TrueCar analysis of the latest industry offerings of small but powerful engines - with and without turbochargers - found that the Mazda3 with the SkyActiv engine and transmission was the best economic proposition.
The Mazda engine features a high compression ratio and avoids the added expense of a turbocharger. Chevrolet's tiny Sonic with the EcoTec engine had the second-quickest payback. Ford excelled at building big vehicles with small engines. Its Edge sport utility vehicle with the EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine was third, and its big F-150 pickup truck with a 6-cylinder Eco-Boost engine was fifth.
The small Kia Forte sedan was fourth in the True-Car analysis. Ford is now marketing that with new introductions later this year, it will have seven vehicles with the smallest engines in their respective segments. They include the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engines going into the new Escape crossover and Fusion family car, the 2L, 4-cylinder that's already in the Edge SUV, its bigger Explorer sibling and the Taurus large sedan, and a 3.5L V-6 it is placing in police Interceptors and the F-150 pickup truck.
Ford and other automakers have downsized by making engines with equal or greater power than the engines they replace. Ford, for example, said the 1.6L four-cylinder turbocharged engine that will go into the Fusion that comes out later this year is smaller than the 2.5L 4-cylinder in the current base model of the Fusion, yet it will have slightly more horsepower and a double-digit percentage increase in fuel economy.
Toprak said Ford's strategy is already paying off particularly well in truck sales. "The fact that V-6 engines now make up over 50 percent of F-150 sales would have been simply unthinkable five years ago," Toprak said.
Executives within the automaker debated the wisdom of putting smaller engines in the truck, which has been the best-selling vehicle in America for years, Mulally said.