More isn't always better.
In a world that’s been conditioned to love big engines, the 4-cylinder often gets overlooked for fun and performance. With gas prices always rising and the ever-present problem of pollution, downsizing engines and using forced induction to bring up the horsepower and torque when needed is an attractive proposition. Performance cars like the Honda Civic Type R are delivering 300 horsepower and nearly the same amount of torque, while Volvo is currently only using 4-cylinder engines and higher-end models are using both turbocharging and supercharging at the same time. The days of there being no replacement for displacement are long gone.
While we might be getting more than ever out of minimally sized engines, we’ve already seen some wonderful 4-cylinder powerplants. These are some of our favorites from the past 30 years or so.
We’ll open with a crowd-pleaser. Honda has always had a knack for making thrilling 4-cylinders, and the Honda S2000’s engines are a couple of the best examples. 240 horsepower from a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine is no joke, but add variable valve timing and a 9,000 rpm redline and you have something that will give you goosebumps on a back road. On top of that, the F20C and F22C variants were strong and reliable.
This is absolutely one for the Europeans and, while everyone wanted Alfa’s V6, the 4-cylinder Twin Spark offered oodles of character expected from an Alfa Romeo engine. The Twin Spark moniker referred to the design Alfa was pioneering using a second smaller spark plug for each cylinder to improve on efficiency. The design didn’t catch on, and Alfa gave up in the end, but while the units weren’t powerful they were rev-happy little monsters that made a fantastic sound.
The reason the innovative and reliable Saab engines of the late 80s and early 90s didn’t get the recognition they deserved is largely down to the BMW M3 engines at the time. However, Saab’s B234R has a solid argument for being better. If you owned a 5-speed manual turbo 9000 you had 225 horsepower and almost 300 ft-lb of torque at your disposal. On top of that, with a few basic modifications, you could run with a top trim Porsche 933 Turbo from the lights and be sure of not breaking the internals. Saab used forged connecting rods and crankshaft with a closed deck iron block.
If you ask the internet which engine is the most bulletproof ever built, you would get a string of answers and they would mostly be wrong. We look forward to your comments, but we present the Volvo Redblock. It’s the reason you still occasionally see boxy Volvos from the 80s and 90s on the road with the original engines. Redblocks were simple and well-built engines, and at the top of the tree was the B230FT.
The slant-4 approach made it easy to package, particularly in the front box. The B230FT was the top end turbocharged Redblock, a pure example of low tolerance functionality built for low friction. In stock form, they weren’t impressive for power, but they could be pushed hard in the same way as the infamous 2JZ people still blab on about. It’ll take almost anything you can throw at it, which is why you'll also see them as common engine swaps in RX-7s after the rotary died.
When it comes to flexibility and potential for performance, Volkswagen’s EA888 is a beauty. Stuffed in the VW Golf R and Audi S3 it’s a light yet punchy little powerplant that only falls a little shy of 300 horsepower. The big advantage is that its also capable of decent fuel economy when the hammer isn’t being dropped.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged variation of the Mitsubishi 4G6 series of engines is mainly known for powering the almighty Lancer Evolution cars up until the Evo IX. It was introduced in the JDM Galant VR-4 though and delivered a healthy 200 horsepower at 6000 rpm. The final version in Evo XI used Mitsubishi’s variable valve timing system and a revised turbocharger to punch out anywhere between 286 and 366 horsepower.
People can complain all they like about head gasket failures on some versions and fuel economy on the EJ257, but it’s what makes a Subaru WRX STI the iconic car that it is. And, while the new versions don’t match up to the unequal-length headers of old, there's all kinds of character and that distinctive sound of the flat-4 that still lives on against the odds.
This list wouldn’t be complete without one of the greatest Japanese 4-cylinder tuning platforms. It’s generally considered that 300 horsepower is relatively easy to get with an SR20DET and it’s not until approaching 400 hp that internal parts need beefing up to deal with the extra power. It was found in a plethora of cars, including the S13, S14, and S15 Silvia and the infamous S14 Nissan 200sx. Whether you got the potent factory turbocharged version depends on location, but in the US the aftermarket has that covered.
Part of the reason you buy a Focus RS is the blitzkrieg of a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. The 350 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque you get out the gate is intoxicating, but put a little money into some Mountune goodies and a little more power can be squeezed out and used with drift mode. And for those that think a 4-cylinder doesn’t sound good, may we suggest standing behind a Focus RS as the throttle is mashed.
Originally designed by former Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi, the Fiat Twin Cam (also known as the Lampredi Twin Cam) goes down as one of the most successful engines to feature in the World Rally Championship. It was used in both Fiat and Lancia cars to win manufacturers titles in the Fiat 131 Abarth 3 times, the Lancia 037 once, and the Lancia Delta HF 4WD and Delta Integrale took the title 6 times using variations on the engine.