The downsizing disaster discussion


Great to see a Jensen FF adorning the home page of PistonHeads. The FF/Interceptor is a big car, even by today's standards, but that's OK because it also had a big engine - 6.3-litres worth of eye-streamingly inefficient Chrysler V8.

The Peel P50 recently tested by Autocar has a 49cc engine, but that's OK too because the P50 is so small you don't so much get in it as wear it.

What's annoying is the car that promises a lot but delivers little. Dressing disasters up as good ideas is an art form in which the auto industry used to excel. A while back Autocar famously ran a picture of the then-new Range Rover Sport being towed off the test track. Turned out it wasn't a breakdown at all, though. In fact, according to an LR spokesman, it was "the Sport's towhook being tested". See what they did there?


A few years previous to that, I was at the test track (very possibly the same one) crashing a Japanese sporting hatchback into a stupidly-parked MoD Land Rover. At least, that's what it might have looked like to the ignorant observer. What I was actually doing, of course, was "testing the hatch in an impact situation". Along similar lines, my last speeding conviction should never have reached the courts, as I was not speeding. I was actually amassing test data on the feasibility (from a safety perspective) of a 138mph motorway maximum.

In the industry's defence, most of motoring's major letdowns - Ford Edsel, Chevrolet Corvair, Jaguar Polecat (you may have missed that one) - are long since forgotten. There have been more recent ones though. Like the Alfa Romeo 166 Ti.


A road tester once tossed me the keys to one of these. I was immediately suspicious. It's best to be suspicious when a road tester tosses you the keys to something with big wheels, fat tyres, lowered suspension and a swoopy body that looks like it's breaking the speed limit even when it's standing still. Why? Because if the car was any good, the road tester would be keeping it for themselves. That's how it can work on car mags.

The key-tosser's motives were soon revealed. As the tossee, I found it difficult to detect much difference between the Ti's 'standing still' and 'going along' modes. Even with one's big toe firmly embedded in the carpet, the Alfa struggled to shake off a pizza delivery moped, a well-driven double-decker bus and an OAP on a circus unicycle.

Only by peering under the Alfa's bonnet did I discover the awful truth. Not the 'awesome' (to quote Alfa's website at the time) majesty of the 243hp 3.2-litre V6. Not even the 'mighty' vision of the 223hp 3.0-litre. No, this dandied-up mountebank featured the 'unique' disappointment of the 152hp 2.0. It was hard to imagine how a dealer test drive of any 2.0 166 Ti would convert into a sale, even to the most masochistic company car tax dodger.


That muttony Alfa reminded me of a Volkswagen Type 2 microbus I used to own. Its 1.6 flat-four engine seemed a bit too flat, so I had a recon replacement put in. On the van's return I immediately noticed no change whatsoever in its performance, or in its appalling 18mpg fuel consumption figure - a figure which I decided to report, in person, to the mechanic responsible for this frankly rubbish transplant. The follow up plan, which involved ramming an inlet valve up his nose, was cut short by his response. '18mpg?' he marvelled, with total sincerity. 'Really? That's brilliant.'

That mechanic might have been impressed by the Alfa 166 Ti. Generally though, it's not a good idea to put a titchy engine in a big vehicle. I could easily be persuaded to eat a blue loaf, or even to drink bacon-flavoured milk, but I'd never buy a small-engined big car.

A big-engined small car, now that's different. Who wouldn't pay £45k or more for a 444hp RS4-engined Audi A1? How much would you pay for a 500hp Aston V8-engined Fiesta, a 600hp AMG S 63-powered A-Class Merc, or an Alfa Mito (yes, they still sell them) with a 700hp Ferrari 488 GTO lump shoved up its miniskirt? Soon, if the market continues in the way it's going, we may have the chance to test out this sort of proposition.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (23) Join the discussion on the forum

  • E65Ross 24 Jan 2018

    Clearly this author has different thoughts than the one who said smaller engines make for more enjoyable and better cars.

  • Fastdruid 24 Jan 2018

    E65Ross said:
    Clearly this author has different thoughts than the one who said smaller engines make for more enjoyable and better cars.
    Well in general I'd rather lighter cars...but with decent engines. The headline power figure doesn't matter as much to me as the power to weight and I'm less bothered about capacity (although there is no replacement for displacement wink ) as much as being interesting with decent characteristics.

    I mean for example for a daily driver a V6 1.8 making 160hp would be great in a <1200Kg car... That would be a sub 7s car.


  • LandRoverManiac 24 Jan 2018

    I think sticking a small engine in a large car is pretty daft and a false economy. I was once in a Skoda Octavia (not a small thing as cars go) with the 1.6 diesel - utterly wheezing, gutless and had to be thrashed to make any kind of progress.

    The owner said that it got nowhere near the mpg it was supposed to - likely because you had to work it's socks off to actually get anywhere. See also the PSA 1.6 hdi for another feckless engine bolted into vehicles far larger than it should be.

    A bigger understressed engine will generally be nicer to use, in many cases slurp less juice in the real world and probably be a damn sight more durable and robust than the little strimmer motors people seem to opt for.

    None of the above applies to a small, light car, where a small revvy engine can be fun. However modern cars are getting fatter and heavier all the time - so that category is getting smaller all the time.

    Rant over! =)

  • Toltec 24 Jan 2018

    Doesn't always work out that way, way back I had a Mk2 cavalier with the 1.6 engine and I'd average 35 -38 mpg, the loan Sierra 2.3D I had for a while after that never bettered 31mpg in the same use conditions even though it was supposed to do 34mpg in town and 42mpg combined.

    More to do with the 1.6 petrol having a fair bit more power (for the time) and not being on WOT whenever any acceleration was needed.

    Do the modern small turbos run stoic when cruising, but on boost?

  • sgtBerbatov 24 Jan 2018

    LandRoverManiac said:
    The owner said that it got nowhere near the mpg it was supposed to - likely because you had to work it's socks off to actually get anywhere. See also the PSA 1.6 hdi for another feckless engine bolted into vehicles far larger than it should be.
    Can confirm. I've a 3008 with a 1.6 HDi and while it pulls alright, especially up a steep hill, it doesn't return the intended MPG and quite frankly could do with a 2.0litre lump.

    But, small cars with small engines are bloody great fun. My 107 is a fantastic car, like a go kart. The Corolla I have with a 1.3 litre engine does move fairly well too (better than the 3008 actually). I can't wait to put a 1.8 lump in it one day.

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