The industry term was called “downsizing,” but all it referred to was making engines smaller to use less gas, and then turbocharging them to make up for lost power. It’s the trend automakers have been pushing over the last decade, and it was supposed to be what saved the ordinary internal combustion engine. It was a lie.
Lately we have seen how these micro-sized engines have resulted in CO2 and nitrogen oxide emissions far above legal limits, leading automakers to start to reverse course on just how small they have made their engines.
You might think that by calling downsizing a lie that I am being annoyingly simple. Surely there had to be some kind of hybrid drive technology, or some sort of vacuum-lined complexity that made downsizing the sweeping philosophy that took over the car industry and seemed like its savior until very recently. Nope! Make the engines smaller, and turbocharge them. V8s get replaced by turbocharged V6s, and V6s become smaller turbocharged four-cylinders. The four-cylinders get smaller or get replaced by even tinier two- or three-cylinder motors. Done. It seemed brilliant.
To understand downsizing, you need to remember that the culture of the auto industry a decade ago was somewhat grim as it looked to the environment. There were hybrids that people either didn’t want or didn’t want to be associated with, there were promises of hydrogen cars that never seemed to materialize, and there were some electric cars not greatly removed from golf carts. Remember the GEM? People actually were buying those things, kind of.
In the face of all of those expensive, slow, and not particularly desirable scenarios, there was downsizing, and it seemed so simple it could actually work.
I remember when I first heard the term. I was in a wonderful if rather stern lecture for my class at the Technical University in Berlin, ‘Decision Making Processes In The Automotive Industry,’ taught by Prof. Dr. Bernd Wiedemann. He covered a number of different topics in that bright little room, most of which ended up relating in some way to the four and a half decades he spent working at Volkswagen. The development work he did to modernize the Volkswagen Caddy was the subject of one particularly cheery lecture, as was a long discussion on downsizing.
It was like a miracle in how it was described, a technological philosophy that Wiedemann explained was the perfect solution to increasingly stringent emissions standards set up in the European Union and the world. VW, he noted, showed particular mastery of the tech.
Again, downsizing is a very simple idea: turbocharging a small engine would give you the power of a larger engine while retaining the fuel efficiency of a smaller engine. It meant that a VW Golf that might have been powered by a two-liter engine would be just fine with a 1.6, a 1.6 could be replaced by a 1.4 or 1.3, and you could continue to scale down the sizes of your engines in this downsizing regime.
The auto industry bought into the plan like mad, and a few years after that lecture in early 2010, we were seeing 1.0 liter engines in small family cars across most European manufacturers. Even here in the land of the Big Gulp, downsizing became standard. Just about everything comes with a two-liter turbo four now, even when a few years ago 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated fours, with 3.0 liter V6s above them were the norm.
Even our beloved pickups got downsized. In 2011, Ford took the aging 4.6- and 5.4-liter V8s out of the best-selling F-150 and replaced them with a 3.7-liter V6 and a 5.0-liter V8 with a twin-turbo 3.5 liter V6 in the mix as well. That 3.7 has since been replaced with a minute (but powerful) 2.7 liter V6, turbocharged in typical downsizing fashion.
The most extreme case of downsizing was executed at Fiat. It managed to fit a 0.9 liter, two-cylinder engine into its smallest 500 and Panda hatchbacks.
Fiat called it the TwinAir and it came with some very interesting hydraulic valve technology in addition to its turbocharging to extract the highest level of efficiency and power from the teensy little powerplant. The results looked spectacular. Fiat advertised the car with a stunning 67.3 mpg average fuel consumption. The thing won awards left and right. Looking back on it all, as EVO’s Antony Ingram did today, it’s kind of absurd.
As I said, this was the most extreme downsizing in the car industry. And it was the most extreme disappointment.
Not long after the car debuted, reviewers and owners found themselves rarely able to come even remotely close to Fiat’s claimed mileage figures. One particularly notable test from CAR Magazine saw a TwinAir Fiat Panda barely cresting 30 mpg in ordinary driving. Other reports cited by Reuters found these TwinAir cars to regularly return 40 percent less economy than claimed, making them very worst offenders on the market.
And this is where the lie of the thing comes though; downsized engines might provide the fuel economy of a small engine while returning the power of a larger one, but they’ll never do both at the same time.
This is because of the trick of turbocharging. You only get the power advertised once the turbocharger kicks in. Once you’re in boost, the turbocharger is forcing air and fuel into your engine, wildly raising the amount of gas you’re burning. You might be making the power of a larger engine, but you’re sucking fuel like one, too. So with a downsized engine, you can get the economy of a small engine, but only at the lowest levels of the rev range, before the turbocharger kicks in.
When does this happen? Not when you’re driving like a normal person, as owners quickly discovered. No, the conditions for downsized engines just so happen to perfectly match up with those of government tests for fuel economy and exhaust emissions. These tests are easy enough that downsized engines can complete them while rarely, if ever, dipping into the gas-guzzling boost they need to work in the real world.
Anyone familiar with a heavily turbocharged engine will recognize this pattern. I myself became very familiar with boost’s inherent economy tradeoff in an Alfa Romeo 4C, with its 240 horsepower, 1.75-liter turbocharged four cylinder threatening to run the tank dry on a remote canyon road.
But hidden behind the term of downsizing, the obvious boosted failings of these engines stayed out of most people’s minds until they found themselves disappointed at the pump.
“If you’re buying a 500 it is because you want one,” one world-weary TwinAir forum poster admitted after another user complained of seeing half the fuel economy they had expected. “Number crunching isn’t going to justify it.” It’s not hard to find more resigned and confused posts across TwinAir forums. One even noted that Fiat’s larger 1.2-liter engines periodically returned better mpg than their 0.9-liter siblings and were less sensitive to how you drive. Put another way, you didn’t need to drive a 1.2 like a grandma as your only hopes of desperately eking out good mpg numbers.
All of this is not the same issue as the nightmare failing of Dieselgate, but it’s not all that different either; carmakers have been building cars that work well under test conditions and not in ordinary use. ‘Cycle-beating’ is the industry term for downsizing’s particular detachment from reality. As for consequences, Volkswagen is bleeding billions here in America for its diesel manipulations, and we should not forget Hyundai’s $41.2 million dollar payout for their false MPG claims a number of years ago.
And all of this grows increasingly moot. When I as getting lectured about downsizing back in early 2010, the Tesla Model S was only a concept car. Normal, desirable electric cars were still something of a future ideal. And nobody is quite as concerned about preserving the viability of internal combustion engines, what with new reasonably-priced electric car programs coming from Tesla and GM, as well as (perhaps somewhat urgently) Volkswagen and Audi.
But I will always, for some reason I can’t quite explain, love downsizing. It was so canny. I guess automakers realized they need to make cars any cleaner or more efficient; all they needed to do was pass tests. It as so cheap, but it was also, in a kind of diabolical way, genius.
Correction: This story originally misspelled the first name of EVO writer Antony Ingram. It has been updated.