ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Seventeen years ago, Americans could buy a car that got a whopping 45 miles to the gallon on the highway. It wasn't the Toyota Prius, which arrived five years later. The car was GM's Geo Metro, and it had a three-cylinder engine. It was not a success.
But as we hear from Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton, another Detroit company thinks Americans are now ready to embrace a three-cylinder engine.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Wow. You know, really, to mention in the same breath the old-style three-cylinder engine in the Geo Metro and the one Ford has developed, well, it's just plain unfair. It's wrong. We're going to do it anyway.
T.J. BALDERMANN: My name's T.J. Baldermann. I work on cars. I'm a certified technician. I am a car guy, and I drive a Geo Metro.
SAMILTON: Baldermann has a great sense of humor - thank goodness. The car has maybe three times the horsepower of a riding lawnmower. But the Geo Metro does have one bragging point: astonishing fuel economy.
BALDERMANN: I could drive pretty much whatever I want to drive. But, you know, when you get something that gets 45, 50 miles to the gallon...
SAMILTON: Well, you drive them till they rust, which doesn't take too long in Michigan.
BALDERMANN: And it's probably my seventh or eight Geo Metro, not including ones I bought just for parts.
SAMILTON: The Geo Metro still has a tiny loving fan base, people like Baldermann. But the car never sold well, and it was discontinued in 2000.
RICHARD TRUETT: But we're in a new era now. I mean, I think everybody realizes that fuel prices are going to be permanently high.
SAMILTON: That's Ford Motor Company's Richard Truett. We're test-driving a European-made Focus on Michigan roads to see if the three-cylinder engine in it is up to merging onto the highway and passing other cars. It is. It can even leave a Hummer in the dust.
TRUETT: You're passing a Hummer with five less cylinders with an engine that's a quarter of the size.
SAMILTON: Now, the engine may be small, but that's a point of pride for Ford.
GREG JOHNSON: It weighs less than about 225 pounds.
SAMILTON: Greg Johnson is a Powertrain Engineering manager at Ford. He says this engine is more powerful than the four-cylinder in the current Fiesta, thanks to direct fuel injection and turbocharging. When the engine gets here next year, it could give the car it's in well over 45 miles per gallon, no hybrid technology involved.
JOHNSON: It weighs less than about 225 pounds.
SAMILTON: You're waiting for the yes, but, right? Well, here it is. Ford is expected to charge about a grand more for a car with this tiny engine than for one with a four-cylinder engine. Fewer cylinders, higher price.
AARON BRAGMAN: So the big experiment is will Americans pay more money for a smaller motor if they're getting better fuel economy out of it.
SAMILTON: That's Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive. Bragman says the strategy is working with Ford's F-150. The standard engine is a V-8, but almost half the truck's buyers are paying extra for the V-6 with direct injection and turbocharging. Ford will likely market the car as offering hybrid-like fuel economy without the hybrid price. Bragman figures not everyone with a Prius is going to trade it in.
BRAGMAN: There's a certain magic to the word hybrid for some people. There are some people that just want to have the hybrid. They want to have a hybrid badge. They want to be seen as having purchased a hybrid.
SAMILTON: Still, Bragman thinks most drivers care less about what's under the hood than they do fuel economy. While Ford is betting on its little engine, GM is staying out of that game for now, even though GM does have a modern three-cylinder engine that it sells in cars in Europe. Instead, GM thinks American drivers will embrace something else once shunned here: diesel. The company will offer a Chevy Cruze that runs on diesel fuel next year. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.