Trucks continue to get bigger – what buyers seem to want – while their engines get smaller, which is effectively a function of what the government demands, as the downsizing of engines is one of the ways for the car companies to reduce the fuel consumption of the vehicles so equipped.
Which they have to do – not because buyers of trucks (or even most cars) are demanding fuel economy uber alles but because the government refuses to accept that lots of buyers care about other things uber alles. So the government mandates the fuel economy they’re not particularly interested in, in order to force buyers to be more “efficient” – no matter what it costs them.
And the car companies try to figure a way to make those smaller, more “efficient” engines perform at a level acceptable to buyers.
Enter the 2019 Chevy Silverado 1500 – the leading edge of this strange, increasingly desperate dynamic. It will be the first full-size truck to come standard with a four cylinder engine – comparable in size (2.7 liters) to the engines that power mid-sized cars that weigh 1,000-plus pounds less and which aren’t tasked with towing thousands of pounds.
The little engine replaces the 4.3 liter V6 that is the current Silverado’s standard engine and makes up for its lack of displacement via heavy turbocharging – which adds power-on-demand but also adds parts and internal stress as well as costs, both up front and down the road.
As opposed to the 4.3 V6, which doesn’t need a turbo to make power and is a much simpler, lower-maintenance design. It is basically a Chevy small-block V8 less two cylinders. It shares the famous – and famously simple – layout that made its debut back in 1955. A very proven – and very durable – design.
One camshaft, not mounted over the heads. Two valves in those heads. A timing chain that never needs to be replaced instead of a belt that periodically does. And, of course, no turbo. So, no worries about having to replace a turbo after the warranty runs out. Ever.
Not even after 250,000 miles. Regular vs. premium unleaded fuel.
The 2.7 liter engine is turbocharged and intercooled and double overhead cammed, with twice as many valves in its head. It makes 310 hp vs. 285 hp for the force-retired V6, but it takes 22 pounds of boost (and premium unleaded) to do it. That is a lot of pressure on an engine. Maybe it will hold up. Maybe not.
If not, who gets the bill?
Naturally, the car press doesn’t mention any of that – nor that the fuel economy gains will probably be trivial vs. the simpler, lower-cost 4.3 liter V6 and not sufficient to offset the higher cost of the turbo’d engine as well as the higher cost of maintaining and repairing it.
That has been true so far, at least.
Consider the 3.5 liter twin-turbo V6 Ford puts into the Silverado’s cross-street rival, the F-150 pick-up, as the “fuel saving” alternative to the 5.0 liter V8 (which is still available, for now – but no longer the F-truck’s top engine).
The “EcoBoost” 3.5 V6 carries an EPA rating of 17 city, 23 highway – vs. 16 city, 22 highway for the same truck with the V8 but no twin-turbos.
Even in a best-case scenario, the “efficiency” gain is unnoticeable – from the buyer’s perspective. What’s the advantage, then, for the buyer? It’s true the turbo’d engine makes more torque (and lower in the RPM range) than engines not turbo’d, but in that case why not turbocharge the bigger engine – and get even more torque?
Because, of course, it’s not torque or anything that most buyers care about that’s the object of this exercise – which is to eke out small MPG gains on an individual-vehicle basis that factor and become very important – to the government – on a fleet average basis. Your small-engined truck may not give you a noticeable MPG uptick, but that 1 MPG uptick on the EPA’s test loop times all the trucks just like yours that Ford or Chevy or whoever builds is noticeable when the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) figures are calculated.
A small turbo four in place of a V6 – or a small turbo V6 in place of a V8 – improves the car company’s CAFE numbers, helps them dodge fines for “non-compliance.” Naturally, the costs of compliance are passed on to you, in the form of a more complex, expensive vehicle. One that also probably needs premium unleaded to deliver its fractional MPG gains, too.
The car companies paper that over by trying to get you – the buyer – to focus on the increased power/torque the turbo’d engine makes – and that is certainly true. But again the question arises – why not just make a more powerful and simpler, less-expensive-to-build and keep up V6 or V8 in that case, if more power is desired? Especially given the trivial “efficiency” gains achieved by going with the smaller, more technically complex, expensive and stressed engine?
Those “efficiency” gains by the way, are often a loss – in real world driving.
In the real world, a small but turbo’d-to-make-up-for-it engine uses more gas than the larger, not turbo’d engine because it’s necessary to force-feed the small engine to make it temporarily swell with the power of the larger engine. Because the engine is small and off-boost, makes small power, the driver is usually calling up the boost (via his right foot) to make up for that smallness, keeping the engine perpetually swelling with turbo-boosted power and using the fuel necessary to support that.
No free lunches.
Ask anyone who has actually driven these things – like me, for example. If you Faberge Egg-under-the-accelerator pedal then yes, you might squeeze out a slightly noticeable MPG advantage vs. the larger engine without the turbo. But who drives that way? More to the point, why would anyone drive that way. What would be the point, in a truck?
The whole thing is incongruous and more-than-slightly batty – like dieting by eating two Bic Macs and a small diet Coke.
But the car companies peddle these littler turbo’d engines over slightly less “efficient” – but more appropriate – larger engines because it appeases the federal Ayatollahs issuing the fuel efficiency fatwas and the buyer be damned – to bowdlerize what J.P. Morgan is supposed to have said once about the public.
But that’s not the point. In a truck, at least, the point is – or used to be – simplicity, ruggedness, longevity and keeping the cost of buying and running the thing down.
If it used a bit more fuel, so be it – and so what.
The federal ayatollahs be damned.
. . .
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