Awards season

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I had a humbling experience recently at Dunton, Ford’s UK-based engine research center, where I was invited to give a presentation to its product planners about the success of the company’s 1-liter EcoBoost engine, which has taken a record three International Engine of the Year Awards on the bounce.

Until that point in late September, I knew the awards were important but I hadn’t realized the impact they have on employees’ motivation, future targets and sales. Indeed, I learned that Ford directly attributes the fact that the 1-liter was the best-selling gasoline engine in Europe in the first half of this year to the awards, with such success fully expected to carry throughout the year, making the little three-pot the most popular gasoline unit of 2014. In total, one in five Fords sold in Europe is equipped with the award-winning engine – but until the tiny EcoBoost achieved such repeated international acclaim, car buyers had seen 1-liter units as too small and underpowered. Now they see an engine that has won the hearts of 82 of the most respected motoring journalists from 34 countries. And that equals great sales success.

What I found intriguing at Dunton was the number of questions I was asked. What makes an award-winning engine? Why has a diesel never won the overall title? Does the jury care about technology or just performance? And, what happened to Honda’s and BMW’s previous success?

The first question was easy to answer: the jury wants to see an engine that has good driveability, great refinement and more than adequate performance – but not at the expense of economy or emissions.

It was also easy to discuss why a diesel has never taken home an overall International Engine of the Year trophy, and the answer

isn’t simply linked to the word ‘international’. While it is fair to say that the jury is global and thus the likes of the US, Australian, Chinese, Japanese and Canadian judges don’t inherently like diesels, it is also a fact that Europeans often vote in favor of gasoline designs. When BMW’s 3-liter diesel meets its 3-liter gasoline, the latter wins in Europe. The same goes for the two Mini 1.5-liter bases. Why? It’s about driveability, and now that gasoline engines are downsized, they are more fuel efficient but still entertain and encourage enthusiastic driving.

It’s also a fact that the winner of the overall award has been less than 1.4 liters in displacement for the past five years. And each winner has been turbocharged or supercharged or both. So yes, advanced engine technology really does matter on one’s way to the title – a humble naturally aspirated unit has never won the overall prize in 16 years.

Finally, the question of Honda’s and BMW’s recent lack of success. The former hasn’t won an award since it dropped its mechanical VTEC, and this comes against a backdrop of its continued pursuit of its dated IMA hybrid and fuel cell tech. BMW, on the other hand, hasn’t done so well in recent years, perhaps because it started taking success for granted. In fairness, its new 1.5-liter engines are clever and rather good, but it didn’t bother pushing their virtues. The result was that the aging 1.6-liter, jointly developed with PSA, beat the new units in the 2014 category honors. BMW was embarrassed by this faux pas, so I’d fully expect it to educate buyers and journalists alike about its developments in 2015. I told Ford’s product planners the same. You have been warned!

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