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V-8 Engines Sputter at Detroit Auto Show

Monday, January 21, 2008 - 00:00
The V-8 engine, long a symbol of power for American car companies, is sputtering. At the Detroit auto show, Detroit's Big Three are promoting smaller engines and alternative-fuel vehicles, eliminating the V-8 from many models and relegating it to niche status.

Ford Motor Company, which first popularized the V-8 in the 1930s with the famous flathead V-8, will start using a turbocharged 6-cylinder in many vehicles, including the next generation of its Explorer sport utility vehicle. The company has named its new engine technology EcoBoost, a nod to consumer concern for the environment.

"It is pretty clear that the V-8 is on its way out of the mainstream," said Ford chairman, William Clay Ford Jr. General Motors recently canceled a $300 million program to develop a new V-8, citing new fuel-economy standards that require a 40 percent improvement in overall gas mileage by 2020. "That cancellation was a direct result of the 35-mile-per-gallon legislation," Robert A. Lutz, GM vice chairman, said.

The V-8 will continue to be a staple in pickups and large SUVs, and Detroit continues to flex its muscle-car muscle with some other models. General Motors, for example, unveiled a limited edition 620-horsepower Corvette ZR1 calling it the fastest and most powerful Chevrolet ever. The company also showed off a high-performance Cadillac, the CTS-V, delivering a reported 550 horsepower.

Ford executives said they had at times wrestled with the decision to give up V-8s in some models, including a new sedan from the Lincoln luxury division, because they worried about customer reaction. "I worked on the Lincoln Continental program 20 years ago, and people were vehement that it had to have a V-8," said Mark Fields, Ford's president for the Americas. "But now people don't really care (what engine type the vehicle has) if the performance is there." Some Asian automakers, notably Honda, have stayed out of the V-8 market entirely. Toyota offers V-8s in its full-size pickups and SUVs, but it has dominated the midsize car market with four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines.

"The era of indulgence is over," said John A. Casesa, managing partner at the Casesa Shapiro Group, an investment firm in New York. "When oil goes to $100 a barrel, the romance of a V-8 under the hood diminishes pretty quickly."

Chrysler is bucking the trend somewhat. The company is updating its Hemi engine and achieving better fuel economy by marrying the current edition to a hybrid system in its full-size Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUVs. But the automaker, which was bought last year by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, is developing a new line of V-6 engines that would be an alternative to the V-8s in popular models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV. "There is a new group of young customers that may not appreciate or care what the Hemi does," said Chrysler vice chairman (and former Toyota executive), James E. Press.

That observation would have been considered sacrilegious in the glory days of the V-8. Ford, the 50-year-old great-grandson of the company founder, Henry Ford, said the passing of the V-8 era is somewhat bittersweet for baby boomers like him. "We all grew up when the coolest guy on the block had the most cubic inches under the hood," he said. "That feeling dies hard."

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