All hail the three

- Ulysses Ang (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2014 - 12:00am

Car makers have learned to work with three-cylinder engines. To counter the inherent imbalance, they’ve provided better engine mounts, placed counter-rotating balance shafts, eccentrically-weighted flywheel.


Generally, we love things in threes: the number of books in the Lord of the Rings, the number of good Star Wars movies, and even the number of wise men visiting Jesus Christ; add a fourth and things just seem too tacked on (yes, we’re referring to you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Hobbit). However, when it comes to engines, we’ve always regarded four as the lowest acceptable cylinder count. But all that’s changed and we should all welcome it.

Europe and Japan has had more experience with three-cylinder engines, but in the Philippines, the most common experience has been with the Mitsubishi Minica from the late 1970’s. Of course, the low-end nature of the Minica, brought in partly because of the fuel crisis at the time, plays a large part to why Filipinos look at three cylinders with skepticism.

Interestingly, odd-numbered cylinders have always had a certain stigma about them, usually seen as weird compromises. Five-cylinders were made to fit in places a six wouldn’t, threes were for people who couldn’t afford anything with a fourth, and seven-cylinders is simply a mythical beast that doesn’t exist.

However, times are changing. Recently, there’s been a flood of three-cylinder engines for Philippine market models and they’ve quickly shown the relative versatility of three with varying displacements and being mated to all sorts of gearboxes from a manual to a conventional automatic to even a dual-clutch set-up. Hyundai’s got one in the Eon, Mitsubishi’s selling the Mirage and Mirage G4 with it, and even Toyota’s gotten in the fray with the International Engine of the Year Awardee, the 1KR-FE in the Wigo. Also, who could forget the one that could fit as a carry-on luggage and have enough power to outmuscle some sports cars, the EcoBoost unit from Ford in their Fiesta. Internationally, things are also going to get quite interesting. Nissan’s announced that they racing the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a 400hp 1.5 three; Volkswagen’s already selling three-cylinder engines in both gas and diesel versions, Honda’s launching their own turbocharged three, and now, even BMW’s got a 1.5-liter turbocharged three as well. The list goes on and on.

There are a few reasons why three cylinders have taken so long to really catch on. The first is that in four-stroke engines, they’re inherently unbalanced, since with only three cylinders, there’s going to be at least one cycle with none of the cylinders firing. With a crank angle of 120 degrees, the cranks are rotationally balanced; but because the three cylinders are offset from each other, the firing of the end cylinders induces a rocking motion from end to end. An inline-six counters this with a second bank of cylinders to cancel this motion out, but on a three-cylinder, things can get a bit rocky. The second is that it isn’t easy to get good power out of a small engine.

Today though, car makers have learned to work with three-cylinder engines. To counter the inherent imbalance, they’ve provided better engine mounts, placed counter-rotating balance shafts, or with the case of the Fiesta, employed an eccentrically-weighted flywheel. And thanks to better computer controlled engines, mature turbocharging technology, and direct injection, the hurdle of extracting more power seems to have been leapt over as well.

Now’s the time for three cylinders; and the stronghold of the four-cylinder may be coming to an end with the ever-increasing demands on better efficiency and emissions. Getting rid of that extra cylinder makes a lot of sense: there’s less internal friction, less weight, and it’s cheaper to produce. The biggest remaining hurdle is the public’s perception of the three-cylinder. And though car makers have begun to take appropriate steps, they can’t do it alone.

It’s time that we, as car enthusiasts have to help. A lot of us understand that these modern three cylinder engines can be as efficient and powerful as four-cylinder engines. So, it’s up to us to help break down the fallacies that cloud the minds of our ignorant family and friends. It’s time to explain to mom that she doesn’t need that extra cylinder to drive to the grocery or that dad won’t feel dinky zipping around in a one-liter car. Even the so-called purists may need their brains rewired as these modern three-cylinder engines have power pretty close to four and even six cylinder cars from a decade or two ago.

The more three cylinder engines get made, the more it’ll get better. Not to mention, it will do wonders for the environment and our wallets too. In the long term, they’ll even get more affordable and probably produce even more power. And we all know what a fantastic feeling that will be.

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