Friday, July 6, 2007; 4:53 AM
DETROIT -- Lila Frazell wasn't looking for a car with a four-cylinder engine when she started shopping at a Chrysler dealership in Albuquerque, N.M., early this year. But the black Sebring midsize sedan on the lot at Quality Jeep-Chrysler had all the options she was looking for, including a two-tone beige-and-tan leather interior.
"I got in the Sebring," the 61-year-old paralegal recalled. "It had everything I wanted, and it had plenty of power."
Frazell ended up buying the car, joining an increasing number of U.S. car shoppers who are picking thriftier small engines in the face of gas prices that continue to hover around $3 per gallon.
The percentage of four-cylinder engines in U.S. vehicles has been rising slightly since 2002, but it still was only 25.4 percent of the U.S. engine mix in 2006, according to data collected by Ward's Automotive Group.Still, in midsize vehicles where consumers have a choice, the majority has picked four-cylinder engines so far this year in nearly all of the best-selling models made by the top five U.S. auto sellers
At DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, 72 percent of Sebring buyers drove off with four-cylinder engines through May, compared with 53 percent in the previous version of the Sebring, which was phased out last year.
Chrysler, in preparing to launch the new Sebring, looked at government gas price statistics and made last-minute changes in its lineup to offer a four-cylinder engine even in decked-out versions of the vehicle, said Joel Schlader, brand manager for the car.
Four-cylinder engines generally get better gas mileage and pollute less than their larger counterparts, although they often are noisier and don't accelerate as well. In many cases, the sticker price of a four-cylinder car is lower than the V-6 version, sometimes by more than $1,000.
Before the recent spike in gas prices, buyers of midsize cars made by the Detroit Three typically went for more powerful and quieter V-6 engines, while those who bought the popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord Japanese midsize cars generally bought more four-cylinder engines, Schlader said.
"People thought maybe we were crazy," in putting out more four-cylinder Sebrings, Schlader said. "The demand is clearly there, so if we wouldn't have done that ... I think it's safe to say we might be missing some business."
At Ford Motor Co., where 54 percent of midsize Fusion buyers have bought four-cylinder engines through May, demand for the smaller engines has shifted with gasoline prices since the car was introduced in late 2005, said George Pipas, the company's top sales analyst.
Later this year, when gasoline prices are expected to drop after the peak summer driving season, demand will move back toward six-cylinder engines, Pipas said.