3 Cylinder Domestic Cars Foretold Auto Industry's Efficiency-Obsessed Future
If you only buy American cars, chances are you haven't come across a 3-cylinder vehicle in a long time. That's about to change as General Motors amps up its 3-cylinder turbocharged assault on the compact SUV segment with the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer and the 2021 Buick Encore.
These cute utes are bringing back a technology embraced by an increasing number of import badges with the goal of boosting efficiency without adopting exotic, and expensive, hybrid systems. The history of three-cylinder engines in domestic showrooms is an interesting one, however, and it comes with more than a small assist from overseas partners that had already mastered the craft.
Leading The Charge: The Chevrolet Sprint
How can anyone get excited about a pint-sized econobox like the Chevrolet Sprint? What if we told you that even though it debuted 35 years ago, the Sprint still manages to beat a long list of modern vehicles, including some hybrids, when it comes to fuel efficiency. In fact, even when translating its original 47-mpg city/53-mpg highway rating to revised EPA standards, its 39-mpg city/47-mpg number remains incredibly impressive.
Launched as a 1985 model, the Sprint was actually a rebadged version of the Suzuki Cultus, a Japanese hatchback that traded the bulk that Americans were used to for a super-lightweight 1,600 pound platform that needed only three cylinders to get it to highway speeds. Granted, the 48 horsepower, 1.0-liter unit under its hood would take a whopping 15 seconds to get there, but that wasn't the point.
Chevrolet would keep the Sprint on sale alongside the Chevette until the latter was discontinued towards the end of the 80s. Surprisingly, Chevy would for two years market a hot hatch version of the two-door Sprint called the Turbo, starting in 1987. By slapping a snail under the hood, the Sprint Turbo could suddenly generate 70 horsepower and 79 lb-ft of torque, a nearly 50 percent jump over the base model. This dropped the car's 0-60 time to a more manageable 9 seconds, which would keep the Sprint Turbo neck-and-neck with a first-generation Miata off the line.
3-Cyl, Take 2
GM was pleased with the reception afforded the Sprint, so when it came time to replace the model it decided to try a similar formula. The effort would ride under the confusing Geo banner, the division the company set up to corral most of its captive imports from Suzuki and Isuzu. In Canada, the Sprint would continue to be sold as a Chevrolet, alongside its mechanical twin the Pontiac Firefly.
The new Geo Metro was still based on the Cultus (now called the Swift by Suzuki), and its fresh-for-1989 lineup delivered not just a pair of hatchbacks (two-door and four-door), but also a sedan (Canada-only), with a convertible to follow in 1990. The car's (corrected) 43-mpg city and 52-mpg highway rating continued to shock and awe, even if its 1.0-liter, 55 horsepower engine didn't. There was even an XFi version of the car available for those who wanted to strip out as many creature comforts as possible in a bid to add a few more miles per gallon to the ledger.
General Motors would introduce a refreshed version of the Metro in 1995, moving to four-cylinder power and ending the automaker's three-cylinder experiment until the upcoming SUVs mentioned earlier finally hit showrooms later in 2020. Outside of the U.S., the Chevrolet Spark would feature a three-cylinder engine in the 2010s, although Americans only ever got to sample the four-cylinder model.
Ford Turns Up The Wick
No other domestic automaker would take a three-cylinder risk until 2014, when Ford elected to bring back it back in the Fiesta hatchback. The 1.0-liter EcoBoost motor delivered 123 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, fantastic numbers compared to anything available in the 80s or 90s, and it also provided a respectable 31-mpg city and 43-mpg on the highway.
Both output and efficiency beat the standard four-cylinder motor found in the base Fiesta at the time, but it was an unpopular option among buyers confused about paying more money for fewer cylinders, and the engine was retired shortly before the Fiesta model itself was scheduled to retire from the U.S. market in 2018. It would continue on for a short time in the larger Focus compact as the last hurrah from Ford's terminated small car program, providing buyers a break from the problematic six-speed dual clutch transmission found in the standard car by way of its more traditional torque converter automatic design.
Seeking performance cars as unusual as the Sprint Turbo? Check out our list of alternative muscle machines.