Richard Truett is a technology and engineering reporter for Automotive News.
We all knew General Motors was taking a big chance slotting a four-cylinder engine in the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
There would have to be a very compelling reason for truck buyers to give up either two or four cylinders and step down from a V-6 or a V-8.
But now that we know the fuel economy ratings for the Silverado's new 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine are 20 mpg city, 23 highway and 21 combined, it is hard to see what marketing types call the "why buy."
When Ford introduced the 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 in the F-150 in 2011, the compelling reason was tire-smoking performance combined with the ability to haul an enormous load. And if the driver kept his foot from pressing too hard on the accelerator -- which limited the use of the turbochargers -- good fuel economy could also be had. Despite endless chest-beating from Ford's hyperactive public relations department at the time, drivers weren't going to get Eco and Boost at the same time, but they could get both if they learned how to drive the truck properly. No other truck offered that kind of flexibility.
Ford successfully convinced legions of buyers to pay a premium for a smaller engine, but I am telling you flat out right here and now that GM will fail to do the same with the new 2.7-liter, which costs more -- a lot more -- than the 4.3-liter V-6 that remains available in the 2019 model.
Here are the numbers:
The basic 2019 Silverado Work Truck starts at $29,795 and comes equipped with the ancient but trusty 4.3-liter V-6. The four-cylinder engine is standard in the 2019 Silverado LT, which starts at $38,395 -- $8,600 more than the Work Truck. (Neither price includes shipping.) Now, not all of that price difference is related to the engine. The equipment levels vary in the two trims. The 2.7-liter has a new eight-speed automatic transmission, while the 4.3-liter V-6 soldiers on with an old six-speed automatic gearbox.
The fuel economy on the 2019 4.3-liter version of the Silverado has not been EPA rated, but the 2018 Silverado with the same powertrain -- and lot more curb weight -- got better highway fuel economy than the lighter 2019 model with the 2.7-liter. The 2018 V-6 Silverado delivered 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 20 combined. It only stands to reason that the 4.3-liter powertrain in the 2019 Silverado will get better fuel economy than last year's truck since the new model sheds up to 450 pounds.
Now here's the clincher: A small engine in a large vehicle can be -- and often is -- just as thirsty as a larger engine in the same vehicle if it has to work hard all the time. The advantage here usually goes to the larger engine. And there is precedent for this.
Ford learned a painful lesson in what is called "powertrain matching" early in the EcoBoost rollout, when late in 2011, it offered a 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Explorer crossover. It was a dog that didn't sell because the 240-hp, 2.0-liter engine had to work so hard to move the 4,500-pound light truck that it neither provided good performance nor good fuel economy. Ford engineers learned they had to do a better job matching an engine's torque and horsepower output to the vehicle's weight, aerodynamics and duty cycle. The Explorer's 2.0-liter engine was replaced by a 2.3-liter at the end of 2015 rated at 280 hp. Highway fuel economy remained the same, at 27 mpg, with the bigger engine.
Automakers don't release fuel economy results for vehicles as they are towing heavy loads. Indeed, there is no EPA test for that. But I can see the fuel economy figures for the Silverado's 2.7-liter engine careening down Davis Dam like a semitruck with overheated brakes when a customer hooks the Silverado up with a heavy trailer.
GM says the 2.7-liter turbo, four-cylinder engine develops more torque and horsepower than the 4.3-liter V-6, which is true. But that makes me wonder why GM just didn't offer a new, lighter, more modern V-6 to replace the 4.3. The company's 3.6-liter V-6 would have been an excellent choice for the Silverado.
All this is not to say GM won't have a strong chance to outright own the fuel economy crown for full-size trucks. Next summer, the Silverado will get a 3.0-liter six-cylinder turbodiesel engine that is widely expected to deliver over 30 mpg on the highway.
So here's the bottom line: The new 2.7-liter engine, loaded with all sorts of technology to boost fuel efficiency and performance, is in the wrong truck. The midsize Chevrolet Colorado is where the 2.7-liter engine will shine, delivering fuel economy and performance along with the ability to haul heavy loads.
I'll give the four-cylinder exactly one year in the Silverado before it fades into the Colorado and becomes a big success. A misfire of this magnitude is rare for GM these days.