A Joke No More: Why the Three-Cylinder Engine is the Next Big (Little) Thing in Performance
Back in the 1990s and for a couple decades after, the three-cylinder engine was seen as a bit of a joke, particularly here in North America.
In Japan and other markets, there were some cool and interesting small cars that came with tiny three-cylinder engines like the tiny Honda Beat and Suzuki Cappuccino sports cars. Here though, the vehicle most commonly associated with the three-cylinder engine was the Geo Metro—a small, fuel-sipping subcompact that was one of the cheapest new cars one could buy at the time.
While the Metro served its purpose as a cheap fuel-sipper well, it often became the butt of jokes with some saying that it was the car you bought when a four-cylinder engine was just too large and powerful for you.
From that point it wasn’t until just recently that three-cylinder engines began appearing in America again, this time in turbocharged form and looking to break into the mainstream.
With ever-tightening fuel economy standards both in the United States and abroad, these new three-cylinder turbocharged engines have been built to be as powerful or more powerful than a four-cylinder while being more fuel efficient.
Both Ford and GM have proven the potential of the three-cylinder turbo with a number of cars. GM’s new three-cylinder turbo engine powers the Chevy Trailblazer Crossover, with both 1.2L and 1.3L versions available.
While neither engine is a powerhouse and the Trailblazer isn’t quite an enthusiast vehicle, these small but efficient engines are one more example of mainstream brands downsizing engines and embracing turbocharging across the board—even in their cheapest vehicles.
Ford has done even more work with three-cylinder engines in recent years. It started with their 1.0L EcoBoost turbocharged engine and more recently they’ve started dropping the larger 1.5L “Dragon” EcoBoost three-cylinder into more vehicles.
In the US the 1.5L EcoBoost will be most common as the base engine in the Escape crossover where it makes 181hp and 190 pound feet of torque—a horsepower figure similar to a 2.5L naturally aspirated four cylinder, but with more torque at lower RPM.
In addition to the Escape, the 1.5L EcoBoost three-cylinder is also the engine that powers most trims of the 2021 Bronco Sport, with output the same as the Escape that it shares a platform with.
Ford's Enthusiast Three-Cylinder: the Dragon Ecoboost
But to find the true enthusiast version of the EcoBoost three-cylinder you have to go across the pond to Europe where even higher output variants of the “Dragon” can be found.
This hot version of the 1.5 makes 200hp and an even more impressive 236 pound feet of torque, and it debuted in the Mk8 Ford Fiesta ST, which sadly is not longer offered in the North American market.
This engine also powers the 2021 Ford Puma ST, another forbidden fruit that’s basically a Fiesta ST mixed with a higher riding, crossover bodystyle—a vehicle that would probably go over well quite well in the US.
King of the Hot, Three-Cylinder Engines?
And for as much potential as the Ford EcoBoost three-cylinder has shown, the new king of the three-cylinder performance world comes from Toyota, which uses exclusively three-cylinder engines to power the latest iteration of the Yaris hatchback.
The real story though is the GR Yaris, a widened, AWD, rally-bred version of the Yaris that uses a high performance turbocharged version of Toyota’s three-cylinder engine.
The three-banger engine in the GR Yaris displaces 1.6L and makes 268hp and 272 pound feet of torque—numbers that are better than many high performance 2.0L turbocharged four cylinder engines are making.
The result is car that delivers performance comparable to the Honda Civic Type R in a smaller package—and a fun factor that people have been raving about in every market it's sold in.
Sadly, as with the aforementioned Ford products, the GR Yaris is not sold in North America, with even the base Yaris no longer imported to the US. There is a rumor, however, that Toyota will be using the same powertrain in a high performance version of the larger Corolla for the US market.
So while North America has yet to experience these cutting edge high performance three-cylinder engines, they will hopefully be arriving here in some form soon.
Whatever happens, it's pretty clear that the days of Geo Metros and three-cylinder engines being a laughing stock are long gone.
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