The Frontal Cortex

Smaller Engines

The new Honda Accord comes out next month and, like virtually every new car, it boasts a bigger frame and bigger engine than last year’s model. So I thought it might be worth revisiting some of the earlier generation Accords. It turns out that they were signifcantly more fuel efficient. For example, the 1982-1985 model got an extremely respectable 29/40 mpg. (In contrast, the four-cylinder engine in the new Accord comes in at 21 city, 31 hwy. The 6 cylinder gets 19/29.) The bad news is that the 1982 Accord only had 86 horsepower.

Here’s my question: do consumers really want/need such big engines? Or are we simply swayed by the fact the engine output is so easily quantifiable? I think horsepower creep is analagous to the ever expanding number of megapixels in digital cameras, which are not only useless but actually waste valuable hard drive space. Likewise, I’m not sure we really need our midsize sedans to generate 260 hp, especially when such a power boost detracts from its fuel efficiency. That said, 86 hp is really pretty paltry.



  1. #1 matthew
    August 31, 2007

    I am reminded of this awesome post from

  2. #2 bigTom
    August 31, 2007

    The industry claims that people come into the showroom to look at fuel efficient cars, but then their heart (with a little help from the salesman) falls for an overpowered car. I suspect the only cure for this is drastically higher gas prices. But this is politically impossible, so we have to wait until scarcity drives up the price (and profits for oil producers and refiners).

  3. #3 Soren Kongstad
    August 31, 2007

    One of the most popular vehicles in Denmark is the Hyundai Getz

    It has 66 HP and goes 35/49 mpg.

    My mom has one, and for driving in the city I can’t imagine what you’ll need the extra HP for?

    Sure its a small car, but then again the mileage is only so so. You can get bigger cars with a better mileage, and better HP.

  4. #4 Soren Kongstad
    August 31, 2007

    I forgot to mention that the hyundai is so popular because it is one of the cheapest cars you can buy. It starts at about $ 21.000

    With gas prices at about $6.5 pr gallon the Hyundai is very affordable 😉

    I guess US conditions are a little different

  5. #5 Doug
    August 31, 2007

    Engine size is also due to the increased weight of automobiles, as weight is related to safety. Our Volvo V70 XC wagon weighed quite a bit, and it in return it got horrible gas mileage (nothing like it’s Estimated MPG). The doors on that thing seemed like they were made of solid lead.

    But we got rid of it for a Honda Minivan, which promised to get 28MPG because it’s modified VTEC engine from six to four cylinders. It still gets about 19 MPG around town.

    I still drive my 1991 Honda Accord which gets 26MPG with a 120 Horsepower 1.2CC engine. Of course it’s a standard transmission, which (seems) to help.

  6. #6 Doug
    August 31, 2007

    I meant to say above that our Honda Odyssey Minivan has Variable Cylinder Management which switches between six and four cylinders on demand. It still gets horrible mileage, even on long trips.

  7. #7 bob koepp
    August 31, 2007

    My 1985 Honda CRX got 45 mpg. I drove it until it was beyond repair, about 180K on the odometer.

  8. #8 hibob
    August 31, 2007

    To some extent, new cars have bigger (or at least more powerful) engines just to match the performance of older cars. New cars are much safer, and are hundreds of pounds heavier to match. New passenger cars come with bigger emissions control systems that cut down on fuel efficiency. The cars in the treehugger post (see above comment) predate catalytic convertors, and that’s a chunk of why they could get up to 100 mpg. The ’82 honda had a catalytic convertor, but many new cars have 2. The non-PZEV (partial zero emissions vehicle) version of my car has about 10 more horsepower and 10 more ft/lbs of torque than the PZEV version, in part due to the second cat. The computer also changes the torque/RPM curve in a way that hurts mileage when you are driving at city speeds, and makes the engine run extra rich in order to dump unburned fuel onto the 1st catalytic convertor if you are driving fast and it’s running too hot.
    Living in CA, I’m especially glad I have the PZEV. But the irony is a little grating.

  9. #9 6EQUJ5
    August 31, 2007

    I miss my ’63 Volkswagen Beetle.

  10. #10 Left_Wing_Fox
    August 31, 2007

    One of the problems I have with the current crop of micro-cars is that they are priced more as luxury items, rather than cost-effective personal transport. The smart fortwo coupe starts at $16,700 canadian, while 4-door subcompacts like the Yaris and Versa are over $2000 less.

  11. #11 bigTom
    August 31, 2007

    GREED for SPEED we don’t NEED

  12. #12 Shaun
    August 31, 2007

    One factor that ensured I opted for a V6 when I purchased my car last year was the simple reality of driving in the NY metro area. Around here you need the extra power to merge onto highways etc. as I imagine in the case in many metro areas. I went with the Ford Fusion and have gotten a respectable (for a 6 cylinder anyways) 25 mpg mixed highway/city.

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