Mustangs, M3s, AMGs, and more - all have a history of four-cylinder power, so is our hate of their modern counterparts justified?
I recently wrote a less-than-complimentary first drive report of the four-cylinder Mercedes-AMG SL 43, criticizing its lack of emotion from under the hood. It's a criticism I've leveled against many a four-cylinder performance car in the past, and I've been pretty outspoken against the concept of a four-cylinder Mercedes-AMG C63, not just because it's fat and heavy, but because dropping from a soulful V8 to a hairdryer-esque four-pot is an absolute betrayal in my eyes.
When there were rumors of a new four-cylinder BMW M3 in the cards (thankfully, they never materialized), I was extremely apprehensive, and comments on any articles about that rumor were filled with "a four-cylinder M3 would be sacrilege." As car lovers, we're often all too quick to call out a four-cylinder performance car as a betrayal of its heritage. But just as often, we're entirely wrong in saying so.
Throughout history, iconic cars we automatically associate with six- and eight-cylinder powertrains have used only four more often than we'd care to admit. And that makes us hypocrites when OEMs return to those roots. Or does it?
The first-ever BMW M3, the E30, was powered by a four-cylinder engine instead of a six. The S14 was a motorsport-derived inline-four displacing 2.3-2.5 liters depending on version and generating as much as 235 horsepower in Euro-spec Sport Evolution guise. The original M3 was a proper homologation car and the most motorsport-related M3 we've ever had.
The Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 - the forefather of the C63 we know today - was also powered by a four-cylinder, arguably one of the most iconic there was. The original 2.3-liter was a pretty good piece of kit, but Cosworth made it legendary, developing a new head from light alloy, doubling the valve count, and equipping dual overhead cams. In base form, 183 hp and 174 lb-ft (Euro-spec) were impressive enough, but a larger 2.5-liter version meant you could get as much as 232 hp in road-going Evolution II form. Racing versions were even known to produce as much as 350 hp.
Before this, the Mercedes SL was the proud home to a four-pot in 190 SL form. While the 190 SL lacked the 300 SL's tubular spaceframe chassis, its engine was directly adapted from the straight-six in the 300, just with two fewer cylinders. More attainable than the 300 SL, it was ideal from a public sales perspective, but it also spent a fair amount of time competing in global motorsports. In its early years, a dedicated sports-racing variant was even sold with a small windshield and lightweight aluminum doors.
Even the Ford Mustang has had four-cylinder options as far back as 1973. While the modern EcoBoost 'Stangs get a lot of hate, the turbo 2.3-liter configuration has historical significance in the Mustang world, with the Fox body's similar configuration producing similar outputs to the V8 of the era. But even before the Fox body, the second-gen pony car had a four-cylinder available. It was much-maligned, but its existence still supports that the Mustang wasn't always a "V8 or bust" proposition.
Those who know their 'Stang history will know the original Mustang I concept from 1962 was also powered by a four-pot, as the mid-engined Mustang utilized a Taunus V4, which could churn out as much as 109 hp in race tune.
Ferrari is renowned for its V12s throughout history and, to a lesser degree, its V8s. But even the house of Enzo Ferrari dabbled in four cylinders. The famous Lampredi I4 was used in Formula Two, the World Sportscar Championship, and even Formula 1. In 1952, Alberto Ascari won his first F1 World Championship title piloting a four-pot Ferrari, doing so for a second time in 1953.
The Ferrari 750 Monza and 857 S sports cars also featured versions of the Lampredi I4, among many others. And before I hear you chime in with some nonsense about Ferrari merely caving to regulations for different racing series, remember that Enzo Ferrari didn't go racing to support his road cars; Enzo Ferrari built road cars to fund his racing exploits. The man wouldn't make a four-cylinder race car unless he wanted to.
And then we have Porsche. Renowned for its flat-sixes, Porsche dabbled in flat-fours long before the 718 Cayman and Boxster came along. The very first Porsche, the 356, used a variety of four-pots on its way to dozens of victories and countless smiles on cross-country journeys. The Porsche 904 is regarded by many as one of the finest driving experiences around, and the Stuttgart-based purveyors of automotive joy even built a four-cylinder version of the 911 called the Porsche 912.
But if Porsche built a 911 in 2023 with a four-cylinder, there would be pitchforks and torches on its doorstep in no time.
What's my point in all this? The four-cylinder has a far greater heritage than we care to admit. We conveniently forget about the greats with only four cylinders under the hood because it suits a particular narrative.
Great BMWs and Porsches must have six cylinders. Ferraris must have V8s and V12s. And AMGs? Nothing less than a V8 will do. The same supposedly goes for the Mustang. But every one of these icons has four-cylinder success stories in the annals of their history; the four-pot wasn't always some unloved footnote in the history books.
I circle back to the original question posed at the outset, and given the argument I've just made, my answer may be surprising. Because I don't think we are wrong to malign a four-cylinder C63 or SL, and I think if BMW built a four-cylinder M3 or Porsche a four-cylinder 911, I might just go buy a pitchfork of my own to join the protests.
That's because times change, and so too do technologies, and most importantly of all, we don't drive race cars on the road. "Race car for the road" is a phenomenal marketing slogan, and everyone thinks they want that... until they drive one and realize they don't.
Iconic road cars with four cylinders developed in racing were meant to live at redline, carry as little weight as possible, and abuse their occupants with heat and noise and teeth-clattering ride quality for hours at a time in the pursuit of glory. Not even the most masochistic of us would actually find that experience pleasurable in a daily driving experience.
What we really want is a road car with enough nods to a race car that we feel like heroes, and if you disagree, then you're probably not done with puberty yet. Revisit this in a few years when your voice has broken and your acne has cleared. You'll see.
The E30 M3 and 190 E 2.3-16 were never volume sellers, and when you look back on their respective model lines, neither of these is the car that epitomizes the badge. The most iconic M3? Probably the E46, although I'll accept a solid argument for the E36, too. Tell me to pick the definitive AMG C-Class, and I'll tell you you're wrong to think of anything other than the W204 with the 6.2 V8. You can't mention Mustangs without subconsciously hearing a V8 rumble, and the GT3's flat-six wail almost defines the modern 911.
Special road cars don't need to make the same compromises race cars do for the sake of performance. And special road cars should feel special even when you aren't going balls-to-the-wall.
Performance cars are special for many reasons, almost all of them emotional. Their visual aggression (or beauty) needs to arouse us in some way, and their tactility needs to transcend the mere control of a machine to meld man and metal as one single-minded being. The sound they make is every bit as important, whether it's at idle or full song.
We don't drive sports cars (performance sedans, hot hatches, and anything of performance ilk included) to feel ordinary. We drive sports cars to stir the soul.
And there are very, very few four-cylinder engines that can achieve that. They exist, and I have no issue in cars in which a four-cylinder has always defined the experience: a Golf GTI, a Civic Type R, and even a Mazda MX-5 Miata are all perfectly acceptable, perfectly lovable with a four-cylinder under the hood. But for cars that have come to be defined by the aural pleasure of a V8 or an inline-six, I don't think we should sacrifice their character at the drop of a hat.
Mercedes-AMG has learned this the hard way.