How Car Engines Work

The inline 4-cylinder engine of the Lotus Elise.­

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How are 4-cylinder and V6 engines different?

The number of cylinders that an engine contains is an important factor in the overall performance of the engine. Each cylinder contains a piston that pumps inside of it and those pistons connect to and turn the crankshaft. The more pistons there are pumping, the more combustive events are taking place during any given moment. That means that more power can be generated in less time.

4-Cylinder engines commonly come in “straight” or “inline” configurations while 6-cylinder engines are usually configured in the more compact “V” shape, and thus are referred to as V6 engines. V6 engines have been the engine of choice for American automakers because they’re powerful and quiet but still light and compact enough to fit into most car designs.

Historically, American auto consumers turned their noses up at 4-cylinder engines, believing them to be slow, weak, unbalanced and short on acceleration. However, when Japanese auto makers, such as Honda and Toyota, began installing highly-efficient 4-cylinder engines in their cars in the 1980s and 90s, Americans found a new appreciation for the compact engine. Even though Japanese models, such as the Toyota Camry, began quickly outselling comparable American models, U.S. automakers, believing that American drivers were more concerned with power and performance, continued to produce cars with V6 engines. Today, with rising gas prices and greater public environmental awareness, Detroit seems to be reevaluating the 4-cylinder engine for its fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

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2007 L.A. Auto Show

The turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 engine of a Nissan GT-R.

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As for the future of the V6, in recent years the disparity between 4-cylinder and V6 engines has lessened considerably. In order to keep up with the demand for high gas-mileage and lower emission levels, automakers have worked diligently to improve the overall performance of V6 engines. Many current V6 models come close to matching the gas-mileage and emissions standards of the smaller, 4-cylinder engines. So, with the performance and efficiency gaps between the two engines lessening, the decision to buy a 4-cylinder or V6 may just come down to cost. In models that are available with either type of engine, the 4-cylinder version can run up to $1000 cheaper than the V6. So, regardless of what kind of performance you’re looking to get out of your car, the 4-cylinder will always be the budget buy.

One final note: It’s not a good idea to try to install a V6 engine into a car model that comes with a standard 4-cylinder. Retrofitting a 4-cylinder car to handle a V6 engine could cost more than simply buying a new car.