Big-car rebound revives V-8 engine

So you thought the V-8 engine had conked out in the energy pinch of the 1970 s? Well, think again.

With the sharp rise in the sale of larger cars, motorists are snapping up V-8 engines fast, thus forcing carmakers to step up production. Chrysler, for example, is turning out 1,400 V-8 engines a day, double the output of less than two years ago.

The reason is the relative stability in gasoline prices as well as the increasing fuel economy of the modern V-8.

This complicates life for Detroit carmakers. Many American motorists, Detroit maintains, really prefer a large car. It was simply the uncertain fuel situation of a few years ago that forced them into small cars. In other words, some motorists were forced to buy what they really didn't want - or so the thinking goes.

A V-8 engine today, of course, gives far better mileage than it did 20 years ago. Computerized fuel-delivery systems; lighter weight, not only the engines themselves but also the cars; better transmissions, and the rising emphasis on car aerodynamics - all this is helping the V-8 engine reassert itself on the American highway.

Whereas a V-8 engine was getting no more than 10 to 12 miles per gallon during the fuel-pump crises of the 1970s, that figure now has virtually doubled.

This has made a large-size car a far more viable option for the buyer than a few years ago when people were predicting $2-a-gallon gasoline by now.

Indeed, in order to sell more small cars, carmakers are forced to offer sharply lower interest rates on loans which obviously is costing them money.

Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca, for one, is unhappy it.

If he had his way he'd clamp a much higher tax on gasoline. For the last couple years Iacocca has been urging a 50-cent federal levy per gallon, not the 9 cents of today. Then, if the supply of fuel went up, he'd increase the tax so as to keep the price from falling at the pump.

The Chrysler chairman would set the pump price of unleaded regular at, say, $ 1.50 a gallon, no matter what happened at the wholesale level. If the wholesale price fell, the government would collect more tax and help cut the federal deficit.

''Let us get the profit,'' he asserts, ''not them'' - meaning the Mideast oil producers.

No one has taken him up on his pitch, however, and the price of gasoline now favors the resurgence of the V-8.

This is very bad news for Detroit, in one sense, because the automobile industry still has to meet a federal fuel-economy standard. At the same time, however, it makes more money when it sells a V-8 - and to an industry that lost corporate mind.

Neither Ford Motor Company nor General Motors can meet the 26-mpg standard for 1983-model cars, nor are they expected to meet the fuel-economy requirements in 1984 and '85. But because both companies had exceeded the standard in prior years, they have a few miles apiece ''in the bank.''

Unlike Chrysler, both GM and Ford will have to draw down their surplus in order to avoid hefty fines.

Next year the standard climbs to 27 mpg and, in 1985, to 27 1/2 mpg. Depending on the strength of big-engine cars, the companies could exhaust their fuel-economy ''bank account'' and be subject to a fine.

There recently has been pressure on Congress to eliminate the fuel-economy standard all together because of the sharp drop in the amount of gasoline required to run the nation's motor vehicles.

To show the strength of bigger engines today, 8-cylinder engines of 5 to 5.7 liters took 21 percent of total North American production in 1982, compared with 16.7 percent in 1981.

The point is, many motorists never lost their preference for a big car. They want the extra room which a large car provides. They also want the surge when they step on the gas pedal.

The big-car, big-engine trend is a surprise to carmakers and their engine designers. Product planners had figured that small, lower-priced cars would have swept the market by now, but this didn't happen.

The devastating sales performance of GM's J-cars after their introduction two years ago showed the way consumers were thinking. It wasn't till GM increased the performance of the cars that sales began to rise. All carmakers have had to tweak their small engines for improved performance.

Even so, there is no way that carmakers are ignoring the small engine as they look far down the road. They still have a bevy of small-size engines on the way.

Besides the rise in the popularity of the large car, the success of many of the new sporty cars is also favoring the V-8. In early 1982, for instance, Chevrolet built only 24 percent of its new Camaros with V-8s. By contrast, more than half of all Camaros had V-8 engines in the same period this year.

The new Corvette has a 5.7-liter V-8 with 350 horsepower under the hood and zips from 0 to 60 mph in a reported 6.6 seconds.

Ford Motor Company says that in the first four months of 1982, only 11 percent of its sporty Mustang had a 5-liter V-8. This year the figure is 30 percent.

Clearly, many car buyers are willing to pay a premium for a V-8 engine as well as more money at the pump.

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