Car Industry

No replacement for displacement: Engines are about to grow again

And we can all thank emissions regulations for it.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Tiny engines: Volkswagen's 1.0-liter unit might not be long for this mortal coil.

Volkswagen

For the past several years, automakers have downsized engines in an effort to keep ahead of emissions regulations. Trouble is, regulations keep getting tighter, but engines can get only so small. The answer, it appears, is to take a page from Rita Repulsa and make its monsters grow.

Renault, General Motors and Volkswagen are making moves to either enlarge or remove entirely their smallest motors, Reuters reports. Some of the motors in their smallest vehicles measure less than 1.0 liter of displacement.

Regulations are to blame. As governments move toward on-road testing in lieu of a controlled laboratory environment, the heavier loads associated with these tests show that many of these small motors, most of which are in European cars, emit more pollution than legally allowable. Enlarging motors and tweaking engine tech should remedy that, at least for now.

Downsizing is but one method automakers have employed to stay ahead of emissions targets. To make up for a smaller motor's output, engineers will affix turbochargers or superchargers. Companies can also add expensive and complicated exhaust treatment systems, but that can adversely affect a vehicle's cost and a company's bottom line.

Nevertheless, real-world emissions testing is long overdue. Volkswagen's Dieselgate scandal, wherein it admitted to using software to cheat lab-based emissions tests, highlighted the failure of the status quo. Governments around the world made plans to upgrade emissions testing to better account for real-world situations.

Of course, there's one big ol' solution hanging in front of all these automakers -- electricity. By increasing the number of available hybrids and battery-electric vehicles in their lineups, automakers can drastically reduce tailpipe emissions by removing the tailpipe from the equation.