Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Turbos trump hybrids in engines of choice

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If you're inclined to believe the mainstream media, the internal-combustion engine is dead.

Or, if not actually deceased, then certainly breathing through a tube on a respirator. At the very least, the doctor has rendered a diagnosis of terminal cancer, the patient has settled its affairs and the vultures are circling the will.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, contends he will not stop until all cars are electric. Leonardo DiCaprio, when he is not bedding supermodels, is shilling for electrically minded Fisker. And virtually every automaker -- from Hyundai to Rolls-Royce -- is falling over itself proclaiming its electrification.

Were the court of public opinion the final arbiter, the internal-combustion engine would be a goner. Everyone knows the gasoline engine is on its last legs.

Except for, it seems, the experts.

The International Engine of the Year committee (of which Yours Truly is a member) recently announced its 2012 winners and, funny enough, there's not a single pure electric vehicle among the bunch (the Chevrolet Volt does make a token appearance, but it offers a range-extending gas-fuelled engine as a backup).

There's not a single hybrid to be found. Virtually all the category winners -- of which there are 12 -- combust refined dinosaur juice internally. Even diesels got shut out.

So, we're all a bunch of oil-soaked apologists, you're thinking, failing to get with a world that now emphasizes fuel economy and squeaky-clean tailpipes rather than horsepower vroom engine noises.

And, if you looked at the association's selection of the Ferrari 4.5-litre V8 in the Above 4.0L category, you'd certainly have your evidence, the voters waxing poetic about the 458's flat-plane crank and citing its 124 horsepower-per-litre specific output as proof of its superiority.

Surely, you might think, the fix is in, the jury nothing more than a bunch of over-the-hill car nuts.

But the truth of the matter is that the International Engine judging committee is made up of techno-wonks. I, for one, am an engineer. So is the Toronto Star's Jim Kenzie. And Marc Lachapelle is so technically astute he could qualify for iron ring status on sheer geekiness alone.

Indeed, I suspect most of the 74 judges are geeks, more apt to appreciate an elegant engineering solution rather than simply voting with our right feet.

And, if our awards are any indication, that elegant solution is turbocharging. Or, more accurately, turbocharging small engines so they behave like larger ones but without the fuel economy penalty.

The International Engine committee divides engines into seven categories between Sub 1.0L and Above 4.0L. Turbocharged gasoline-fuelled engines won five of those seven categories. Indeed, in all the lesser categories up to three litres, all of the winners were turbos.

A turbocharged gas engine -- Ford's new 999-cubic-centimetre three-cylinder EcoBoost -- also won the Best New Engine Award and, indeed, that same engine won overall Engine of the Year. Other than the Chevrolet Volt winning Green Engine of the Year, turbos would have won all of the categories save for the screaming V8s of the BMW's M3 and aforementioned 458.

So, if the International Engine of the Year Awards are to be believed, turbocharging -- and not electrification -- is the future of automotive propulsion, at least for the near future.

Nor, again, is this some motorhead antipathy toward electrons. Toyota's 1.5L Synergy Drive Hybrid was a perennial category winner from 2004 until 2008, taking overall Engine of the Year Award in its first year. Ditto Honda's 1.0L IMA hybrid, which won its categories from 2000 to 2004, taking the overall title in 2000.

And diesels -- again, also shut out this year -- have been well-represented in previous years.

Indeed, since 2009, all of the awards' overall winners have had a displacement of less than 1.4L, proof, say the awards' organizers, that downsizing and an emphasis on fuel economy are here to stay.

Last year's winner, Fiat's Twin Air, displaces just 875 cc and -- shades of your riding mower -- has but two cylinders. It's not that the awards' jurors don't appreciate the need for better fuel economy -- they just don't believe electrification is the best way forward to a more frugal, less polluting future.

"This is a fitting victory for a truly remarkable engine," says Dean Slavnich, co-chairman of the awards. "For a three-cylinder engine to power a vehicle like the Ford Focus with such ease proves that the future is very, very bright for the IC (internal-combustion) engine.

"Power, response and very good real-world fuel consumption figures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this engine and what it offers drivers today."

Or, as Mark Twain said upon hearing of his own demise, "Rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 E6

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