Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

As a small, weird guy, I've always had a special affinity for small and weird engines. In the US, almost any 3-cylinder is shoved into these categories. Ford's new 1L Ecoboost engine may be the first 3 cylinder in the US that's not weird. It's is, however, small, and very impressive — I know because I finally drove one.

(Full Disclosure: Ford invited me to come down to Irvine from LA in terrible traffic. They did let me drive around a new Fiesta with the 1L engine, and then they gave me some fish tacos, so I guess all in all I don't mind sitting in all that traffic on the 5.)

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

Ford is almost giddy about having such a small engine to sell here in the US — when I got to their facility in Irvine, they had a bunch of displays, kid-science-fair-style, showcasing small but powerful things, like hot peppers and a blue-glowing ant farm (there may have been an ant rave going on), and I think some weird green pills they were encouraging us to take (that one is a lie). They also made a bunch of fun retro-inspired posters for the engine, and even 3D printed — from the actual data files used to cast the actual engine, just scaled down — tiny versions of the 1L Ecoboost engine block.

Normally, I tend to roll my eyes at most overhyped PR efforts from car companies, but all this felt different. It was all so earnest and pleasantly geeky that I found I really liked seeing them so excited over something that most consumers will not give a brace of poops about.

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

So let's dig deeper into what was getting everyone so worked up: Ford's first 3-cylinder engine, ever. Europe's had this engine for a little bit, and it says a lot about the modern car market that we're getting it at all. Things are changing, and the future will have many triplets.

Here's one great little fact about the 1L engine: it has the same power per liter — the same power density — as the 8L, 1001 HP engine in the Bugatti Veyron. This is not a low-end, cheapest-way-to-move-a-box engine; it's a premium engine, just a very small one. In fact, this engine has Ford's highest torque-per-liter of any engine they make at all.

The 1L Ecoboost makes 123 HP and 148 lb-ft of torque, and 90s% of that torque you get from 1350 - 5375 RPM. In the Fiesta, it should manage about 45 MPG on the highway, too. If we compare that to the closest engine in layout and size available in the US now — probably the 3 cylinder in the Mitsubishi Mirage — those numbers look more impressive, as the Mirage makes 74 HP/74 lb-ft out of 1.2L.

That's way more horses and about double the torque out of 200cc less. How are they managing that?

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

Mostly by just engineering the shit out of everything they could. The Ecoboost is turbocharged, of course, with an adorably tiny turbocharger that has minimal lag at low RPMs. The inherent ability of a three to scavenge exhaust also helps to minimize turbo lag, since, unlike a four, the exhaust pulses don't ever interfere with one another.

Every place any little bit of efficiency could be squeezed out of the engine was exploited. Direct injection is a big help, for example — the injection of fuel directly into the cylinder causes cooling evaporative effects, which allow higher compression ratios.

Instead of a timing chain, the engine uses a relatively new belt-in-oil system that takes up less space and manages to save about 1% of MPG. It's because of this I learned that there's a sort of engineering rivalry between the Belt Guys and the Chain Guys, and this is a victory for the Belties. Your move, Chainheads.

Another 1% is extracted from a clever variable displacement oil pump. Apparently, most oil pumps are designed for low RPMs, and then vastly over pump at high RPMs, wasting energy — this variable-displacement design solves that.

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

There's an oil-pressure operated variable cam system on the engine, and the head that those variable cams live in is cast in one piece with the exhaust manifold, which keeps cost down, assembly simpler, and imparts some more efficiency benefits, especially with regard to the dual-circuit cooling system.

Yep, there's two separate cooling loops on this little engine, essentially divided between top and bottom. This allows the lower part of the engine to warm up faster and get the oil up to optimal temperature quicker for less engine wear, while keeping the head/exhaust manifold area cooler. As a bonus, the heater core heats up faster, so there's less ass-freezing in the car on the way to work in miserably cold mornings in cold, unforgiving winters.

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

Three-cylinder engines, since they have one less cylinder than the engine has cycles, are known for their distinctive back-and-forth pitching motion as they run. Most triples solve this with balance shafts, but those can add weight and rob power. Ford tackled the issue by sort of skirting it: they used an eccentrically-weighted flywheel and front pulley to compensate for that missing-cylinder cycle, and they're essentially translating the vertical pitching motion into a lateral motion, which the car's special engine mounts can easily absorb. The result is that very little engine hopping happens at all.

The engine is an iron block, which struck me as oddly old-school in light of how advanced the engine design seems, but when I brought this up to an engineer, he schooled me but good. I'm glad he didn't slap me again. He explained that iron was a deliberate decision. When it comes to strength, aluminum and other alloys still can't beat iron, and the only way to get the block strong and small (it's less than a foot long) iron was really the only way. Plus, iron needs no cylinder liners, less material to support everything, and the weight isn't bad at all: the total engine, with all ancillaries, weighs only about 215 lbs.

215 lbs? That's about what an old Beetle engine weighs. I'll be first in line when they start selling these as crate engines. Light, about a foot long, and great power density? Caterham should be looking at buying a bunch of these right now.

So, okay, it's impressive on paper. How's it feel actually in a car?

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

Ford stuck one in a car for me to find out. The 1L is a $995 option on the new Fiesta, which also gets Ford's not-Aston Martin Aston Martin grille and a bunch of other tweaks and refinements. But I was just there to try out that engine, so let's focus on that.

The engine sounds pretty good — it's clearly not your usual four, but it's not an unpleasant sound at all. At high revs it gets a sort of reverse-gear high-pitched whine, but that gives it a sort of Jetsons-world high-tech character. Vibration is actually quite minimal, and at idle it feels totally smooth inside the car.

The biggest disappointment is the initial 1st-gear off-the-line takeoff. It's sluggish and boggy for that very first moment, until you get the revs up a bit. I eventually learned to be pretty throttle-heavy at first to compensate, but you're still not going to beat anyone to 15ft or so.

Why Ford's Tiny 1 Liter, 3 Cylinder Is The Future Of Gasoline Engines

Things change pretty dramatically once you get out of 1st. Once the engine gets some revs in it, it really wakes up, and it's a peppy, rev-happy little lump. You can hit 60 in 2nd before redline, and the acceleration is really quite good — especially when you think this is all coming from 999cc.

Of course, lots of throttle and riding it to redline will make any engine thirsty. After a good bit of hard throttle and pushing to redline, the MPG indicator dipped to about an average of 25 MPG, which in context, isn't really all that awful. Not driven like a maniac, I feel confident this should hit the high 30s in the city no problem.

I wanted to see how it did at highway speeds, since this is where little engines tend to get worked hard for long periods. The Fiesta just had a 5-speed manual, which today is almost starting to seem retro. Even without a sixth gear, the gear ratios seem well-considered. Fifth is a really tall gear, an overdrive (of course), and at 80 MPH in 5th the engine is only turning about 2800-2900 RPM — not bad at all.

I could see the average gas mileage ticking up as I cruised in 5th, and the noise and vibration is pretty minimal — you could cruise at 80 with this 3-pot all day and not feel like you've been waterskiing behind a beehive for hyperactive bees.

I don't want to get all fanboy on you, but I'm not going to lie — I really like this engine. It's not perfect, but it's plucky and eager, and really rewards the driver's determination with some engaging performance. It's an interesting mix of advanced tech and humble size, and I think it makes the new Fiesta a really appealing car to drive.

Now I just have to convince Ford to leverage this tiny, potent power pack to do some crazy shit. Can they mount it flat and stick it under the back seat for that mid-engine hatch I've always wanted? Maybe a twin-engine setup? Maybe one at each wheel for the next-gen AWD, 12-cylinder Econoline?

Also, now you can name your cylinders Manny, Moe, and Jack, or Moe, Larry, and Curly without having to throw in a Shemp or whatever for that fourth piston! Hot damn.