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L.A. Auto Show: First drive of Ford Fiesta three-cylinder engine

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With every automaker competing to get more power from less fuel, Ford this week will unveil a three-cylinder that could portend a larger trend toward smaller engines.

The tiny turbo, appearing in the Fiesta model, will be among the more significant debuts expected at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens Wednesday to the media and Friday to the public. In advance of the show, Ford offered the Los Angeles Times a first drive of the car on Southern California streets.

The Times compared it to the Volkswagen Up! – a three cylinder offered in Europe – and other small-car competitors.

The three-banger is a gasoline-only alternative to fuel-sippers employing hybrid, diesel or electric power, and could become more common. The Up! also has a refined three-cylinder engine, which bodes well for the future of three-cylinders in the U.S.

Photos: Ford's three-cylinder Fiesta

Look for BMW to use a three-cylinder in a hybrid vehicle it plans to bring to the U.S. and also in its Mini line of small cars. For now, the Smart Fortwo, a two-seat mini car, is the only three cylinder offering in the U.S. but it’s not a big seller.

Such small engines can produce eye-popping fuel economy, rivaling gas-electric hybrids and exceeding today’s standard of 40 miles per gallon in highway driving for the small car segment.

“We have seen the transition happening from eight cylinders to direct injection six cylinder engines that produce equal performance but better fuel economy,” said Don Anair, research director of Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The-three cylinder Fiesta shows that can be done with small engine sizes too. Automakers are looking for any way they can to make these cars more fuel efficient.”

Ford believes it has a winner in the zippy three-cylinder Fiesta, which boasts more horsepower than the current model’s four-cylinder engine. The tiny one-liter makes 123 horsepower and 148 foot pound of torque — compared with 120 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque in the current base 1.6 liter four-cylinder.

“People can’t believe we can get that horsepower and torque out of such a small engine,” said Amy Marentic, Ford’s Global Group marketing manager, cars.

The power owes largely to turbocharging, a technology that historically has had reliability problems but is becoming increasingly common. Ford in particular has embraced turbocharging on many new models, including full-sized trucks, in the interest of fuel economy.

The Fiesta acclerates briskly for an economy car and holds the road nicely through turns, with little body lean even on a circular off-ramp leaving the 405 freeway at 40 to 50 mph. The car zipped along, providing road feedback that engaged the driver without being intrusive or harsh.

Tiny engines can get noisy when pushed, and the Ford isn’t the quietest car. But it compares well on that score with competitors such as the Honda Fit or Hyundai Accent and doesn’t drown out normal conversation or music.

The Fiesta will come to the U.S. market in the second half of next year, Ford said. It hasn’t set a price, but the current model sells in the $14,000 to $16,000 range, depending on features. If Ford prices the turbo option as it does in larger vehicles such as the Flex or Explorer, it will add about $1,000 to the price of the vehicle.

Previous mass-marketed three-cylinders have rivaled lawn mowers for vibrations and noise, but the Fiesta’s engine purrs nicely at speed and lets out a pleasing growl when you step on the gas.

Three-cylinder engines are unbalanced by their nature: When one piston rises, two are falling, creating vibrations somewhat like the drum of washing spinning with all the clothes piled one side. That’s why most car engines are engineered with even-numbered sets of pistons, like those found in an inline six-cylinder or a V8.

Video chat: What we want to see at the Auto Show

Ford attacks that problem with patented engine mounts and with weights installed outside the engine, on the pulley and flywheel, to counteract the shaking forces.

The Fiesta’s manual transmission is smooth and easy to shift, even in Los Angeles traffic. Ford has not yet specified what type of automatic transmission might be offered in the turbo Fiesta, but expect to see that option as just 5% of American driver’s currently choose manual transmissions.

Ford also has not released fuel economy figures for the turbo Fiesta, but the car likely will outperform the company’s current efficiency leaders. That could mean up to 45 mpg on the highway and in the high 30s in combined city and highway driving.The three-cylinder in the Up!, which has a less powerful engine, achieved in the mid-40s in combined driving.

“You get the benefit of fuel economy, but you don’t give up a thing on performance,” Marentic said. “Americans don’t like to compromise.”

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