BLOG: The time for 4-cylinder American muscle cars has arrived

The lightest version of the 2016 Camaro, powered by a four-cylinder engine, weighs 3,333 pounds.Photo credit: RICHARD TRUETT

DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — I’m flashing through the desert under a cool and cloudless sky on the way to a little speck-of-dust town called Furnace Creek. State Route 190 is nearly empty. It’s just me out here with this four-cylinder, turbocharged 2016 Chevrolet Camaro.

I can drive as fast I want — and I do — for brief periods. I don’t have any desire to attract members of the law enforcement community. The reasons for a few brief dips into triple-digit speeds is because I need to decide once and for all if a four-cylinder engine is really man enough to be planted under the hood of traditional American sports cars.

The answer is yes.

In the new Camaro and the revamped Ford Mustang, the four-cylinder turbo engines are more than adequate. In fact, they point the way to the future.

Although sports cars and muscle cars are small potatoes, saleswise, they still have to contribute their fair share to an automaker’s fleet average fuel economy. All automakers must meet the 54.5 mpg fuel economy standard by 2025.

But improved fuel economy is not the only or even the best reason for installing four-cylinder engines in place of V-6 and V-8 motors in Camaros and Mustangs.

The lightest version of the 2016 Camaro is the model powered by a four-cylinder engine. It weighs 3,333 pounds, according to Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser. The lightest Mustang is powered by a 2.3-liter four, and it weighs 3,524 pounds.

In addition to the lower weight, smaller engines also have other advantages. They can be placed farther behind the front axle to help a car get closer to the optimal 50/50 weight distribution. Lighter, better-balanced cars handle better, which makes them faster around corners. And, because brakes have a stronger bite when weight is reduced, smaller engines can improve safety by shortening stopping distances.

“The performance of the Camaro 2.0-liter turbo will challenge many of the iconic muscle cars of the ’60s,” Oppenheiser says. “It dives into corners quicker,” he adds.

The three engines available in Chevrolet‘s Camaro.

Chevrolet says the 275-hp, 2.0-liter Camaro hits 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, while the 3.6-liter V-6 model makes the 60-mph run in 5.1 seconds. The 455-hp Camaro SS needs just 4.0 seconds to hit 60 mph.

I drove all three versions during a Chevrolet press event here, and it was the four-cylinder car that I most wanted to drive home. While the other cars were fun to drive, the 2.0-liter car did indeed feel lightest on its feet and more balanced.

When an automaker launches a new car, the moment it goes out the door, work begins on the next generation. The current Camaro, Mustang and Dodge Challenger were built around the V-8. But as the Mustang, Camaro and Challenger evolve — and continue losing weight — I can see the V-8 engine fading into the history books. It won’t be needed.

The next Challenger, which is expected to be based on the Alfa Romeo Guilia platform, likely won’t offer a V-8, probably just a beefy turbo V-6 and a powerful four-cylinder. And while that may be a huge disappointment to fans of the 707-hp Hellcat engine, power isn’t the only measurement that matters. The power-to-weight ratio is a big part of the whole equation.

Maybe that’s why Ford chose a twin-turbo V-6 for the GT supercar, not a V-8. Ford engineers designed a lightweight and compact (60-degree) V-6 that could deliver the same or more power than a V-8 and keep the weight off.

“Twin-turbos give [the engine] lots of power-density for its compact size, and less weight improves nearly every performance dynamic — handling, acceleration and braking,” says Ford spokesman Paul Seredynski.

By the way, the Camaro 2.0-liter has an EPA fuel economy rating of 31 mpg highway. Despite leaving wear marks in the carpet under the accelerator pedal in nearly 200 miles of high-speed driving, I still achieved a respectable 29 mpg. The age of small, powerful engines in American sports cars is finally here.

Makes you wonder what General Motors is thinking of putting under the hood of the next-generation Corvette.

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