From 4 Cylinder to V6: A Shopper’s Mini-Guide to the Basic Engine Types

When it comes time to trade in your old clunker, you have a lot of homework in front of you. Should you upgrade to a larger engine, or keep a 4-cylinder. Here’s how to evaluate your choices.

The inline 4

Smaller vehicles, like the new Ford Fiesta come with inline 4 engines. They’re simple, cost-effective to build, and cheap to maintain. There’s one bank of cylinders, one cylinder head, and one valve train.

Inline 4 cylinders are good because they’re small, compact, and they tend to be cheap to buy. Cars with inline 4 engines can sometimes cost as little as $9,000 new – especially if it’s a compact or subcompact car.

There are fewer moving parts, and so fewer things to break. For mechanics, 4-cylinder engines, and especially inline 4s, are easy to work on, so maintenance tends to be cheaper.

Unfortunately, these are often underpowered engines so they get great fuel economy but don’t have a lot of power.

The Straight 6

The straight 6 is a 6 cylinder engine. Like the inline 4 design, the cylinders are arranged in a straight line.

These types of engines are very wide and they can be complex, depending on the engineering. Maintenance can be expensive on these engines because of their size and the fact that most inline 6s are squeezed into a vehicle’s engine bay, so it’s a tight fit.

The V-6

The V-6 is a 6 cylinder engine where the cylinders are arranged in a “V” configuration, making them more compact than straight 6s. They can be used in both front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive vehicles. They have a more rigid design and can be a bit easier to work on.

The downsides to this type of engine are that there are two cylinder heads, so they’re more complicated to work on, cost more to maintain, and heavier.

The V-8

No, it’s not a vehicle that runs on vegetable juice. These oversized engines add a cylinder to each bank of the V-6 model. People love them because they’re so big, and they sound big, too. The engine is typically short (in length) and has a good balance, depending on how the engineers designed the crankshaft and firing order of the pistons. It’s got a rigid design and allows for high displacement, which makes them very powerful engines.

Old American muscle cars typically had V-8s in them because they produces the most power possible, given the technology of the time. They also made the car extremely fast with a truly scary amount of torque off the line.

Unfortunately, V-8s are heavy engines which, combined with the power output, makes them terrible on fuel economy. Expect to spend a lot of time at the gas pump refilling. There are more moving parts in a V-8, which means there’s more stuff to break. The cost to manufacture them is also higher, resulting in a higher sticker price on vehicles fitted with them.

About the Blogger

William Burns understands engines in his role as a mechanic. He is also mad about cars and enjoys sharing his motoring thoughts with an online audience. William is a regular contributor for a number of motoring and lifestyle websites.


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Auto Upkeep 4th Edition

Michael Gray

Mike has roots in the automotive service industry. He began diagnosing and fixing cars at a young age in his family’s service station. He has worked in automotive parts supply stores, towing companies, and service facilities. After graduating from St. Cloud State University (MN) with a Bachelor’s degree, he implemented and taught a basic car care program at the high school level. During work on his Master’s degree at Illinois State University (IL), he was a curriculum specialist on a National Science Foundation project where he co-authored ten integrated mathematics, science, and technology books designed for team teaching. Mike has also supervised teachers in Career and Technology Education as a school system administrator.

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