GREEN SPECIAL: Car and engine downsizing: why it's a good thing
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Most carmakers are downsizing their products to lessen environmental impact and meet ever more stringent emissions regulations. But that’s not as easy as it might sound, because we consumers aren’t that keen on compromising performance and comfort.
So the car industry is working hard on getting more out of less, which might seem like an impossible task. But it’s been happening for many years now.
Smaller engines are a great start, because fewer cylinders and/or less capacity mean less fuel will be be consumed. But technology like turbocharging, direct injection and cylinder shut-off helps balance the greener size with the same or better performance and driveabilty.
This is happening at the extremes of model ranges, right from urban runabouts all the way to exclusive performance machines.
Not that long ago, a three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine would have seemed laughably small for a family car or SUV. But the 1.0 powerplants offered in the Audi A1, Skoda Scala and Volkswagen T-Cross makes over 80kW – the same power expected from a larger 1.4 or 1.6 four-cylinder engine just a few years ago.
You’d be surprised how far a tiny three-cylinder engine can be pushed: how about the 147kW Ford Fiesta ST or the new 200kW Toyota GR Yaris, both three-cylinders!
Or consider the other end of the spectrum: the Audi RS6 Avant, a true performance icon. A decade ago, the RS6 had a 5.0-litre V10 engine, could do 0-100km/h in 4.6sec and returned fuel economy of 13.9l/100km.
Fast forward (very fast!) to 2020 and the latest RS6 has a 4.0l V8 engine. But thanks to a wealth of technology including twin-turbocharging, cylinder deactivation and a mild hybrid system, it’s now capable of 11.7l/100km while also being substantially quicker: 0-100km/h in an incredible 3.6sec.
The move from combustion engines to Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) is perhaps the ultimate, as there’s the potential for extreme performance and refinement from electric motors, which are also far smaller and simpler than their Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) equivalents.
Big gains can also be made from reducing weight. A lighter car will also help offset some of the bulk that might be gained through added safety and luxury equipment.
New materials such as high strength steels, aluminium and carbon fibre are allowing carmakers to shed kilograms, improve performance and handling and even reduce a vehicle’s physical dimensions without compromising safety, because they are stronger than standard steel.
Audi has been a long-time advocate of advanced materials; the original A8 was a groundbreaker back in 1994 with its aluminium Audi Space Frame (ASF). The current model has a blend of four main construction materials: steel, alloy, magnesium and Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymer (CFRP), saving 28 per cent in weight compared with the previous car.
Less luxurious models are not always so exotic, but the lessons learnt from high-end offerings do trickle down the range. For example, the latest A4 is 15kg lighter than its predecessor, thanks not just to aluminium architecture but also lightweight electrical cabling and more precise laser-cutting of components.
There’s a certain status in exterior size, but the clean-sheet packaging of bespoke BEVs will also allow a reduction in exterior size (and therefore weight) with the same or greater interior space for models where that’s appropriate – like premium SUVs that must remain parkable in congested city centres.
The Audi Q4 e-tron due in NZ in 2022 fits neatly between the small Q3 and medium-sized Q5 SUVs in terms of exterior dimensions, but offers an even more generous cabin than the Q5.
See, small is becoming very big.