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Chrysler-Fiat FIRE engine is solid

I just drove the first engine from Chrysler's dip into Fiat technology, and it's solid. The 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine revs smooth and fast up to a Honda-like 6,900 rpm. It sounds sweet and generates plenty of useful power on the way there.

Called the FIRE engine, a nickname that dates to the 1980s when Fiat jumped on the automation bandwagon and developed an assembly system for a Fully Integrated Robotic Engine, the engine comes out of Chrysler's plant in Dundee, Mich.

The Fiat 500 that goes on sale this month is the first car fitted with the engine, which uses Fiat's Multiair variable valve timing to generate impressive power, torque and fuel economy.

The engine produces only 98 pound-feet of torque, but Multiair makes it available at relatively low rpm for quick maneuvers in traffic. It had plenty of power for fast highway cruising and zipping through curving desert roads east of San Diego, too.

Look for the 1.4-liter to power several of the small cars Chrysler's brands are developing based on Fiat vehicle architectures. Chrysler's Dundee facility can build about 250,000 of the engines annually. Only 100,000 or so will go to the 500.

Nobody will say this officially, but you can expect turbocharging and direct gasoline injection to boost the 1.4-liter's power significantly for cars larger than the tiny 500. Alfa Romeo already offers a 160-horsepower version of the engine in its MiTo sport coupe in Europe.

Multiair can be bolted on to existing engines. It's only a matter of time until it boosts the power and fuel economy of the 2.0- and 2.4-liter Chrysler-developed four-cylinder engines also built in Dundee.

Hatchback comeback

Look for more hatchbacks in showrooms and on American roads soon. This is great news. A good hatchback can look great, and it's a practical body style that provides more cargo space than a sedan of the same size.

Ford expects about 50 percent of sales of its new 2012 Focus compact, which I drove through the hills north of Los Angeles last week, to be in the hatchback style. That follows a surprising 60 percent take rate for Fiesta hatchbacks last year.

Ford expected to sell more Fiesta sedans, but buyers smartly realized the hatchback looks better and has more room.

The conventional wisdom among automakers is that Americans like sedans and shun hatchbacks. It's the reverse in Europe. Hatches account for most European sales of compact and smaller cars, and the body style is moving into midsize cars.

Ford's not alone in its renewed interest in American hatchbacks. GM will test the waters with the Chevy Sonic hatch this fall and the tiny Chevy Spark in 2012.

Chrysler is working on hatchbacks among the slew of new models that arrive starting next year.

One theory holds that Americans don't like hatchbacks because the first hatchbacks Detroit built — misbegots like the Ford Pinto and Chevy Chevette — were terrible cars.

On the other hand, hatchbacks like the Mini Cooper and Pontiac Vibe sold well, and some crossovers are simply tall hatchbacks, like the Nissan Juke. Maybe the secret to selling Americans on hatchbacks is as simple as building a car that looks so good that people can't resist driving it.

Once you've been in a hatchback like the Mini, Juke, Focus or Audi A7, resistance is futile.

Chrysler-Fiat FIRE engine is solid 02/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 3:30am]

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