The truth of things small

Warren Brown
Columnist March 29, 2013

Tom Libby is a numbers guy, the senior forecasting analyst for R.L. Polk & Co., a research and marketing firm for the global automobile industry.

Libby and several of his colleagues were here to help journalists make sense of what they were seeing at the 113th New York International Auto Show, which opened to the public this weekend and runs through April 7.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

As expected, the media were captivated by the flashy stuff, such as the carefully orchestrated “surprise” unveiling of the new Chevrolet Camaro Z28, a street-legal racing car born in 1967 and now reintroduced into an automobile business torn between the need for speed and more fuel economy and less tailpipe pollution.

The unveiling of the super-sexy, frost-white, minimum-500-horsepower Z28 — and similar high-horsepower presentations by Chrysler, Ford, Porsche, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz — captured the most camera, blog and print attention.

But according to the numbers presented by Libby and friends, the real story is elsewhere — in the explosion of North American and global sales of cars with four-cylinder engines, such as the 2013 Kia Rio SX sedan I drove here from Northern Virginia.

At least 52 percent of the new automobiles sold in the United States last year were equipped with those small engines, Libby said. “It is a real trend, one that’s growing. Sales of cars with V-8 engines,” such as the Camaro Z28 that garnered most of the media notice, “are way down,” Libby said.

What’s going on here is a classic tug of war between the flesh — represented by horsepower and speed in this case — and the spirit, pulled in the direction of penitential fuel economy and cleaner living by very real concerns over the need for energy conservation and the reduction of pollutants that contribute to global warming.

Despite the hoopla over fast and fancy wheels, the numbers — and a careful look at all of the vehicles on display in the auto show at the Javits Convention Center here — strongly indicate that fuel economy and clean air are winning.

I motored up from my home in Northern Virginia at the median highway speed of 75 mph in a car with a 1.6-liter, gasoline-direct-injection in-line four-cylinder engine (136 horsepower, 123 pound-feet of torque). If “fun to drive” means driving as fast as you want to drive, or legally dare to, I had lots of fun. And the drive was made even more enjoyable when I reached New York’s city limits, some 300 miles north of the Virginia residence, with the fuel gauge showing the Kia Rio’s 11.4-gallon tank still half full.

The next day, I had enough gasoline left for a round trip to the BMW Group North American Corporate Headquarters in nearby Woodcliff Lake, N.J. At BMW I got the surprise of my career as an automotive journalist — a perfectly balanced, wonderfully smooth, fun-to-drive gasoline-direct-injection in-line three-cylinder engine. That’s “three” as in 3. Three.

BMW will first introduce the engine, available as a gasoline or diesel model, in its European markets. The company eventually plans to bring the engine to the United States. The aim is to get 40 miles per gallon on the highway without undermining BMW’s legendary performance.

That is the real story. That is the way things are going — overall smaller engines and lighter blessed with fun-to-drive performance. It is as boring, reliable and rewarding as a good, solid marriage. But apparently, according to Libby’s numbers and most of what I learned here, it is what most of us really want.

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