There is an incredible number of engine configurations on the market today but nothing is more common than the humble 4 cylinder and 6 cylinder engine. From economy cars that achieve wild MPG figures to full-fledged super-cars that produce over 700 horsepower – these flexible engines truly run the gamut of vehicles and applications. The debate about which one of these engine types is superior continues to rage on with enthusiasts and owners alike but the reality of increasing fuel economy demands is what really makes this story interesting.
So who wins the battle of 4 cylinder vs. 6 cylinder? This article will cover the following to see who reigns supreme.
- History of 4 cylinder and 6 cylinder engines
- Common cylinder design layouts
- Pro’s and con’s for 4 cylinder and 6 cylinder engines
- The future
- The winner
History of 4 cylinder and 6 cylinder engines
Most historians agree that the very first gasoline (liquid) internal combustion engine that utilized a compressed charge was designed and built by Nicholas Otto in 1876. Otto developed the engine with Wilhem Mayback and Gottlied Daimler, who assisted in the funding for the project. This pair would also go on to form the foundation for what Mercedez-Benz would become during the course of the 20th Century. Any guess as to what this original, tiny engine was? That’s right, it was a 4 cylinder engine. More specifically, it was a 4 stroke engine, which in practice worked incredibly similar to the engines we have in our vehicles today. In fact, the very first 4 cylinder car was called the Daimler Phoenix and utilized a 4 cylinder engine that was designed by Maybach for use in boats. This took place in 1899, an incredible 121 years ago.
The history of the 6 cylinder car goes all the way back to 1903 when the dutch airplane and automotive manufacturer Spyker introduced the Spyker 60. This race car was not only the first vehicle to introduce a 4 wheel drive system but it was the first vehicle to introduce a straight or inline, 6 cylinder engine. By 1909, the design was in wide usage and would continue to see increased usage during WW1. Everything from Ford Model K’s to giant airplanes used the straight 6 design to provide power. A notable manufacturer of straight 6 engines, BMW, produced their first engine in 1933. The V6 design would come much later when packaging and design aesthetics demanded an engine with more compact dimensions.
Common Design Layouts
While you may be familiar with cylinder counts in modern engines, you may not fully understand the differences in the layout of the motor and why that matters in overall function. Essentially, there are 3 different layouts that manufacturers currently utilize in their motors. The layout we are speaking of here refers to the orientation of the cylinders within an internal combustion engine. Since cylinders are constantly in motion, the balance achieved from the design of the engine is paramount to the final product being acceptable for usage in a passenger car. Let’s dive into these often misunderstood engine types.
Inline or Straight
An inline engine design orients the cylinders in a straight line, with the cylinders oriented at 180 degrees or straight up and down. Typically, this design utilizes 4 or 6 cylinders and is one of the larger design variants due to the orientation of the cylinders and space required to put them all in a straight line. This is especially true for 6 cylinder variants and the reason why straight 8 engines haven’t been common since the 1930’s. All 4 cylinder has engines in modern vehicles that sport an inline design due to their compact dimensions and ability to provide ample power. Several manufacturers have also dabbled with 5 cylinder and 3 cylinder inline designs as well.
This engine design was brought to the mainstream by an increasing need for compact engine designs with prodigious power. As the title implies, these motors have their cylinders oriented in a V pattern, with the separation between the cylinders varying depending on the design. This allows manufacturers the opportunity to incorporate larger displacement engines with higher cylinder counts in much smaller packages. V4 engines are not common due to issues with noise, vibration and harshness. Motorcycles and boat engines are common places that one may find V4. Large displacement 8, 10 and 12 cylinder engineers are all popular in the V configuration.
Boxer or Horizontally Opposed
The boxer engine is used by manufacturers like Porsche and Subaru throughout their lineups. This engine design places the pistons flat on the deck at a full 180 degrees and appear to be punching each other in their normal operations. Hence the “boxer” nickname. This motor is loved for its distinctive character, unique noise and extremely low center of gravity since it is placed low in the chassis of the car. Typical cylinder counts are 4 ror 6 as anything larger than that would make this engine impractical in nature.
Pro’s and Con’s for 6 Cylinder vs. 4 Cylinder Engines
In order to understand the difference between 4 cylinder vs. 6 cylinder motors, you need to have a clear distinction on the purpose of the vehicle in order to come to a conclusion. Each motor type and each design have distinct advantages over the other but only if their intended purpose is clearly defined. For example, you may want an engine with the highest miles per gallon and not care about power, or, the opposite may be true and you may not care about gas mileage but demand maximum power per liter.
Keeping that in mind, let’s roll through the pro’s and con’s.
4 Cylinder: Pro’s
- Excellent Fuel Economy Potential
- Small so it easily fits in most engine bays
- Potential for high horsepower with forced induction
- Easily mass produced
4 Cylinder: Con’s
- Lower power output without forced induction due to maximum practical engine sizes
- Inherently unbalanced nature on secondary forces can lead to high levels of vibration
- High center of gravity vs. boxer motor
- Less rigidity throughout motor structure
6 Cylinder: Pro’s
- High potential for horsepower, especially with forced induction
- Higher displacements attainable without the use of balance shafts
- Better control of secondary forces which leads to smooth operation
- More robust engine structure
6 Cylinder: Con’s
- Larger design may not fit in smaller engine bays
- More expensive to produce
- Lower fuel economy vs. 4 cylinder applications
Verdict: 4 cylinder vs. 6 cylinder
It’s tough to crown a true winner since the true advantages depend on the application. If you are looking for maximum fuel economy, you’ll need to minimize the displacement and therefore the fuel usage. With it, goes horsepower. If you want more power but don’t losing the miles per gallon, then stick with a six cylinder. Seems obvious, right?
The game changer for engine technology has been the widespread introduction of forced induction into mainstream automobiles. Turbocharged and supercharged engines used to be exclusive to high performance dream machines but that is no longer the case. Today, turbocharged engines can be found in the most basic of economy hatchbacks, all the way up to fancy exotics. This has effectively rendered the argument over 4 cylinder vs. 6 cylinder a moot point. Forced induction allows high power with great fuel economy and smooth operation.
So the winner here is not an engine or a cylinder count but the technology that drives us forward towards a new tomorrow. Technology has allowed the 4 cylinder motor to put out enough horsepower for high end performance applications in vehicles like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It has also allowed super-exotics like the NSX and Ford GT to achieve V12 levels of power with half the number of cylinders. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring!
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