Image Gallery: Exotic Engines
Image Gallery: Exotic Engines

The Corvette ZR1's supercharged 6.2-liter V8 engine produces 620 horsepower standard. See more pictures of car engines. See more pictures of engines.

Photo courtesy General Motors

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­Have you ever opened the hood of your car and wondered what was going on in there? A car engine can look like a big confusing jumble of metal, tubes and wires to the uninitiated.

You might want to know what's going on simply out of curiosity. Or perhaps you are buying a new car, and you hear things like "3.0 liter V-6" and "dual overhead cams" and "tuned port fuel injection." What does all ­of that mean?

­­In this article, we'll discuss the basic idea behind an engine a­nd then go into detail about how all the pieces fit together, what can go wrong and how to increase performance.

­The purpose of a gasoline car engine is to convert gasoline into motion so that your car can move. Currently the easiest way to create motion from gasoline is to burn the gasoline inside an engine. Therefore, a car engine is an internal combustion engine -- combustion takes place internally.

Two things to note:

  • There are different kinds of internal combustion engines. Diesel engines are one form and gas turbine engines are another. See also the articles on HEMI engines, rotary engines and two-stroke engines. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
  • There is such a thing as an external combustion engine. A steam engine in old-fashioned trains and steam boats is the best example of an external combustion engine. The fuel (coal, wood, oil, whatever) in a steam engine burns outside the engine to create steam, and the steam creates motion inside the engine. Internal combustion is a lot more efficient (takes less fuel per mile) than external combustion, plus an internal combustion engine is a lot smaller than an equivalent external combustion engine. This explains why we don't see any cars from Ford and GM using steam engines.

Let's look at the internal combustion process in more detail in the next section.