Trucks at Work

Smaller … yet more powerful

Compact and sub-compact cars – obviously! – have very little in common with medium- and heavy-duty trucks. At least, that used to be the case.

That’s all changing, however, thanks to a single engine component – the turbocharger. Surprise, surprise: the turbocharger is giving small cars and big trucks alike more power while reducing fuel consumption at the same time.

And the combination of those two attributes is going to drive increased use of turbochargers in the motor vehicle space, especially where small cars are concerned, in the very near future.

[You can watch just how turbocharging plays such a critical role in the small car space below, as engineers from General Motors put the new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact through a series of brutal test drives back in 2011.]

According to research conducted by J.D. Power and Associates and LMC Automotive, there has been a pronounced increase in the use of turbochargers in the U.S. as automakers try to crank out more horsepower from smaller (4-cylinder) engines. While turbochargers were fitted in only 2% of gasoline or flex-fuel vehicles built in the U.S. four years ago, that increased to 9.5% in 2011 and is expected to reach a whopping 23.5% by 2017.

Moreover, turbochargers are also being fitted to larger (6- and 8-cylinder) engines as well; thus, as a result, while barely 1% of all new light vehicles powered by gasoline or flex fuel produced in U.S. back in 2008 came equipped with turbochargers, it reach 7% of new light vehicles in 2011 and is projected to top 19% sold in 2017.

It’s worthy to note that 4-cylinder engine is projected to gain more market share in the U.S. due to turbocharging. LMC’s data indicates that large 8-cylinder engines are slowly losing share; while they powered 18.3% of new light vehicles sold in 2008, their percentage dropped to 14.6% in 2011 and only 12.7% in the first quarter of 2012.

Conversely, 4-cylinder engines were fitted in 42.7% of new light vehicles sold in 2008, but increased to 49.7% in 2011 and to nearly 54% of all light vehicles sold in the first quarter of 2012.

The advent of more powerful small displacement engines that still sip delicately at fuel are helping spark a revival of small car sales – and of new models as well, such as the 2013 Dodge Dart.

J.D. Power and LMC project that sales of new light vehicles in the U.S. this past March should total some 1.4 million units – the highest monthly total since 2008, the two firms stressed – with sub-compact and compact passenger cars accounting for approximately 25% of all retail sales through the first two months of this year.

Sales of sub-compact vehicles have increased the most, up more than 35% in the first two months of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011, J.D. Power and LMC noted – driven in no small part by high gasoline prices, which averaged over $3.92 per gallon in the U.S. for the month of March, according to data tracked by AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge report.

“Automakers are going to have to closely monitor shifts in segment demand and build accordingly,” noted John Humphrey, J.D. Power’s senior VP-global automotive operations. “But given the production rationalization the industry underwent during the recent financial crisis, most automakers … are much more flexible and better prepared to adapt to quick changes in market demand.” 

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