Engines: Bigger Isn't Always Better

January 14, 2010

Automotive manufacturers always seem to highlight some aspect of engine performance when they market new vehicles. They'll toss around horsepower and torque ratings, cylinder count, valve and timing technology terms, fuel economy, and all other kinds of performance numbers to make their power plants sound like the best in class.

Gearheads and enthusiasts will naturally be impressed by big power, while green drivers find no purpose for anything but economy. What if you fall somewhere in between, and just want a good value, or just want something to get you moving? Thankfully, there is usually an option for everyone.

Small Engine Stereotype: efficient but weak

The stereotype is true for the most part. Drivers of cars with four-cylinder engines will generally enjoy the best fuel economy. Small engines simply don't burn as much gas. They generally go in smaller cars which don't weigh as much. It makes sense. In more recent years though, turbocharged engines (particularly four-cylinders) have become more readily available in passenger cars. A turbocharged in-line four will feel more like a V-6, without the associated increase in fuel consumption.

Six-Cylinder Stereotype: good balance but not quite high performance

The six-cylinder engine has come a long way in terms of performance. Traditionally found as an economy alternative to a V-8, or the only option in mid-size sedans not geared toward performance. The V-6 has turned into a fuel-sipping, tire-smoking, V-8-killing powerhouse. Many sports coupes and sedans are offering larger displacement V-6s offering more than 300 hp with combined fuel economy ratings in the mid- to high-20 mpg range.

V-8 Stereotype: gas guzzling, big power

As the efficiency and strength of smaller engines have developed, big engines have improved too. The V-8 is still the option for uncompromised power. High performance sports cars, sedans, SUVs and trucks all count on the big V-8 for top performance. Obviously, the bigger engines will use more gas and add weight. Even still, modern V-8s have impressive fuel consumption ratings compared to those of decades past.

So when you're in the showroom, how do you choose?

It's going to depend on your needs and driving style. If you want to feel your engine's power while you accelerate to get on the highway or pass someone on a two-lane road or surprise people at a stop light, don't go any smaller than a six-cylinder. If you need to tow a trailer or want all the power you can get, regardless of fuel economy, the V-8 is the obvious choice. You won't be disappointed. If you absolutely need the best fuel economy or are in the market for the smaller car, there is no need to go any bigger than the four-banger. Don't expect it to throw you back in your seat though. If you still want a little kick, a turbo option will make your four-cylinder feel a lot less wimpy.
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