12-Cylinder Subcompacts

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Nissan Micra 1.2 Supercharged

Last year, Nissan brought us to Japan to drive an early mule of the Infiniti M35h hybrid, and while we were there, we got another fuel-economy treat: a quick drive in a Micra equipped with a 1.2-liter supercharged 3-cylinder.

Like Ford, Nissan uses direct injection on their engine, yet the 1198-cc engine produces only 97 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque. Of course, the Micra is a smaller car than the Focus, so it also needs less power -- still, Nissan quoted enormous mileage numbers for the Micra. Emitting only 95g/km of CO2 outs the Micra as having overall fuel consumption of 57 mpg.

The best parts of this three-cylinder, however, are its soundtrack and lag-free response. The supercharger takes care of the latter and helps with the former by layering a slight whine on top of the three-cylinder's funky sound. This engine, unlike other 3-cylinders, sounds like half of a Porsche 911. Yes, it's a cliche, but it's also true: the nasal wail -- at least at higher engine speeds -- is more pleasing than almost every four-cylinder we can think of.

Nissan uses the same counterweight philosophy as Ford's -- and no balance-shaft -- so once the engine is spinning fast enough to smooth out the firing pulses (say, 2500 rpm), it's remarkably smooth. And the supercharger's power delivery is linear and instantaneous.

Seat Ibiza 1.2

The Volkswagen group produces a 102-hp turbocharged, direct-injected 1.2-liter three-cylinder. Sadly we haven't driven it. We did, however, have the pleasure of driving a Seat Ibiza with the normally aspirated 12-valve three-cylinder. It's available in two strengths: 59 or 68 horsepower. Either way, a drive in this vehicle is a quick lesson on how spoiled we are here in America.

The 68-hp version makes its peak power at a relatively low 5400 rpm, but believe me, you don't want to go anywhere near there, as it sounds like it's planning on exploding at any given moment. To use the word "peak" to describe the engine's maximum output sounds a little too positive. We'll phrase it differently: the point at which the engine is least starved of torque occurs at 3000 rpm, where it produces 83 lb-ft.

Worse, the engine is both hesitant to rev and easy to stall. At around-town engine speeds, it sounds vaguely like a Jetsons car with a broken Spacely Sprocket. Over 3500 rpm, the Porsche flat-six music kindasorta kicks in, and then by 5000 it's so thrashy that you shift just to make the hurt go away.

Seat quotes a 0-62 mpg time of 15.9 seconds and a top speed of 96 mph, making this car quite unsuitable for American driving styles. Of course, it wasn't designed or built for the American market. But its engine is a reminder of the last three-cylinder that most of us remember: the one in the Geo Metro. Sure, it was a fuel miser, but the engine itself made a pretty good case for a small four-cylinder, in terms of NVH. So does the Seat unit.

But the Ford and Nissan three-cylinders? If you're looking for superb fuel mileage without the cost of a hybrid system, well then you should be looking forward to the arrival of the three-cylinder engine.

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