These days, there are fewer and fewer cars. And fewer and fewer hefty engines in them.
As automakers increasingly discontinue passenger cars in favor of SUVs and pickups, they’re also moving away from the once-standard six-cylinder engine, also known to many as the V6 because of its shape.
In its place is the formerly dreaded four-cylinder engine, which is shedding its previously sluggish reputation after incorporating new technologies that improve its performance while maintaining respectable fuel economy.
In fact, only one midsize car that isn’t a luxury model still comes with a V6 enginel – the Toyota Camry – according to auto industry data source J.D. Power.
If you want a V6 in a car, you’ll have to buy a premium model like a Mercedes-Benz, a large car like the Toyota Avalon or amuscle car like the Dodge Challenger.
But Forrest Jewel, who works in Oklahoma City, gets to experience V6s every day. He’s a valet and has the opportunity to drive a wide variety of new vehicles on the job.
“The V6s are definitely more fun,” he says. “They’ve got a little more power and they sound a little better on the exhaust.”
Yet he’s seeing fewer and fewer these days. And he understands why.
“They’re putting the smaller engine in,” he says. “The technology is better.”
That change doesn’t sit well with people like Stewart Westlake.
The Manitoba, Canada, addictions counselor owns a Chrysler 300 large car with a six-cylinder engine, which gets him 30 mpg. He’s happy with his performance and fuel economy and is dreading the possibility that V6 engines will go away completely.
“I don’t like compact cars, and I really don’t like 4-cylinders,” he says. “I’ve had a 4-cylinders. There’s just nothing to it.”
To be sure, automakers have made significant improvements to 4-cylinder engines in recent years. In many cases, they’re offering turbocharged 4-cylinder engines with direct fuel injection, enabling greater power output than many V6 engines of days gone by.
“In rough terms, V8s became V6s, and V6s became 4-cylinders,” says Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics for J.D. Power. “You get the same level of performance. We’re able to have our cake and eat it too and get the fuel economy from these engines.”
In a traditional engine, A piston moves up and down within each cylinder, compressing the gasoline, triggering combustion and exhaust that rotates the crankshaft, driving the wheels. The more cylinders, the more powerful the car.
Cooper Ericksen, Toyota’s head of product planning, says the average consumer doesn’t see much of a difference between the number of cylinders in an engine but instead focuses primarily on its price, performance, fuel economy and other factors.
“Today consumers listen to friends and drive the vehicle and make decisions about how they like it rather than the prestige or desire to have more cylinders/larger displacement,” Ericksen said in an email.
At least, many consumers. Not all.
“I wouldn’t settle for a turbo 4-cylinder,” Westlake says. “I’d probably go to a truck or a SUV.”
Sean Dale, a V6 and V8 fan who lives in Belton, Missouri, is also skeptical of the capability of 4-cylinders.
“When you work something harder, it’s not in my opinion normally going to work as long,” he says. “That 4-cylinder is going to be working a lot harder to move that same car as a bigger engine would, and I don’t know if it would last as long.”
V6 engines idling as cars die
In general, the industry-wide shift from cars to SUVs and pickups also explains the demise of the V6 engine in cars. V6 engines are still common in full-size pickups and SUVs, where their increased capability provides noticeable oomph.
But as sales have declined for cars – which now represent only about 1 in 5 new-vehicle retail sales, down from about half a decade ago – automakers are moving to reduce the number of powertrain options they offer.
In the mainstream midsize car segment, V6 engines represented only 2% of retail sales in 2020, compared with 35% in 2005, according to J.D. Power.
“In 15 years, it’s gone from a third to gone,” Jominy says. “It’s basically now all 4-cylinders.”
Among all vehicles, including SUVs and pickups, V6 engines accounted for 27% of retail sales in 2020, compared with 40% in 2005. The 4-cylinder engine has taken over, representing 54% of all retail sales in 2020, up from 30% in 2005, according to J.D. Power.
But in passenger cars, 4-cylinder engines made up more than 3 in 4 sales last year, despite performance models making up a greater share of the segment.
First, the historical Detroit Three brands Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler eliminated most of their passenger cars. Now, foreign automotive brands like Honda and Nissan have simplified their lineups by getting rid of the V6 engine option in most of their cars.
“It’s almost death by a thousand cuts for cars,” Jominy says.
Electric cars are the newest threat
Potentially the last straw for the V6 will be electric vehicles.
“I think everything’s going to be electric before long,” says Dale of Missouri. “It’s kind of like the auto industry is forcing people to go the way they want them to go.”
To be sure, advocates for fuel efficiency point out that V6 cars typically burn more gasoline than 4-cylinder engines, creating more carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. They say that moving away from big engines is necessary for that reason alone.
“We’ve shifted our priorities to focus more on fuel economy and emissions,” says Michelle Krebs, analyst at car-buying site Autotrader.
Regardless, there’s no turning back now for the automakers, which need to adapt to increased fuel economy standards throughout the world while also matching consumer preferences for bigger vehicles.
“Car segments are shrinking to begin with, so automakers are really trimming those lines,” Krebs says. “Even if they stay in cars, they are trimming their offerings.”
Even Toyota, whose Camry still carries a V6 option, acknowledges that the sunset may be near for the 6-cylinder engine, which the company says currently represents only about 5% of Camry sales.
“There will likely be a day where we need to move on from a traditional V6, but that decision has not been made yet,” Toyota’s Ericksen says, adding that the company’s hybrid options are proving increasingly popular alternatives.
Until then, V6 fans are savoring every moment with their favorite powertrain.
You can follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.