Some engines are good and some engines are bad. So, today we’re going to take a walk through history and look at both the best and worst four-cylinder engines of all time.
Honda B-Series (Good #1)
Alright, what place better to start a list like this than with Honda, and specifically the B-Series?
And for those who don’t know, the B-Series is one of the most legendary performance engines of all time, powering cars like the Civic Type R with the B16B and the Integra Type R with the B18C.
The B-Series as a whole is a family of four-cylinder, naturally aspirated engines ranging from 1.6L to 2.0L of displacement.
And what makes it a family is parts interchangeability, meaning you pretty easily do something like taking a B20 2.0L block and bottom end with a B16 VTEC cylinder head.
Think of the B-Series like a set of Legos. Lots of the parts interchange between each engine, allowing you to build the perfect engine for your needs. And on top of that, it’s a very powerful engine for its size, weight, and lack of forced induction.
Straight from the factory, the B16B outputs a whopping 182hp from its 1.6L of displacement.
Now on paper, being happy with 182hp sounds kind of ridiculous, but you have to remember this is a naturally aspirated engine.
That equates to about 113hp per liter of displacement. For comparison, the Cobra Mustang from the same year only output 305hp from its 4.6L of displacement, which equates to 66hp per liter of displacement.
That’s nearly half of what the B16B output per liter.
Now that’s not exactly a fair comparison for a variety of reasons, but it helps to put into perspective the absurd amount of power Honda was able to squeeze out of the B-Series. It had VTEC, a cylinder head with massive flow, and a crazy high rev limiter.
But, the B-Series was also more than just a performance engine, as Honda adapted and modified it for a more torque-oriented application with the Honda CRV.
Not only was it the perfect engine for both performance and commuter applications, but it’s absurdly reliable with really no major issues anywhere in the engine.
It’s arguably the peak of Honda’s 1980s and 1990s engineering and it will forever be one of the best four-cylinder engines of all time.
Subaru EJ (Bad #1)
Now we’ve talked about this next engine family before and mostly painted it as a bad engine. Because, well, it’s not exactly known for staying in one piece and that’s the Subaru EJ.
And while Subie fans are very passionate about defending the EJ as an engine that can be a good engine with the correct modification, that proves the point that it’s frankly a bad engine in stock form.
I don’t know how you can see these things explode regularly all over the internet and still defend the EJ as a good engine. It’s not.
It’s an engine that was inspired by an airplane engine.
Now to be fair, I will concede that the majority of the problems with the EJ engine platform are from aftermarket parts and poor tuning.
In totally stock form, the EJ doesn’t typically explode and it will work just fine for the majority of its life.
But it seems like the second you even think about modifying one of these or look at it the wrong way it immediately grenades a piston ringland.
And for those who don’t know, the common issues with the EJ include
Again, many of these issues really won’t show themselves in stock form, but can very quickly become problematic when aftermarket parts and an aftermarket tune are added to the equation.
Frankly, Subaru’s use of cast pistons and rods in the EJ is a contributing factor to these problems, because one misfire or boost spike can easily explode a piston or worse.
If you look at just about any other Japanese four-cylinder engine from this timeframe, none of them really suffer from any of the issues or even the same amount of issues as the EJ.
It can be fixed and built into a good engine, but that can get very expensive very fast, and that excuse can be used for just about any poorly designed engine.
I’m sorry, but the EJ is kind of a bad engine.
Mitsubishi 4G63 (Good #2)
Now like many Japanese automakers, Mitsubishi does a lot of different things in the world of manufacturing.
But what we’re here to admire is their 1980s World Rally Championship product, the 4G63.
This was first introduced all the way back in 1980 as a little naturally aspirated 2.0L addition to the Mitsubishi Sirius 4G6 family.
But you have to fast forward to 1988 to get to the specific variant we’re here for, the 4G63T first seen in the 1988 Galant VR-4, then later on, the Lancer Evolution.
Here in the States, you can find the 4G63 in 1st and 2nd generation DSMs, which for those who don’t know, is a series of little cars offered by Mitsubishi, Eagle, and Plymouth.
God, it’s so weird to think of a Plymouth as a little four-cylinder economy performance car.
Now the 4G63 engine uses a cast iron cylinder block and aluminum cylinder head. On paper, it’s much like other performance four-cylinder engines from this timeframe.
Depending on the variant of 4G, you’ll find a few different cylinder heads.
There is a low-performance 8-valve head, a slightly better 16-valve head, and the best 16-valve dual overhead cam head.
And much like the Honda B-Series we talked about earlier in the video, the 4G63 has a lot of interchangeability with its larger brother, the 4G64, meaning you can pretty easily combine the two and create a turbocharged 2.4L engine.
And what’s even crazier is that the 4G63 is still in production today in 2023 for a few different Chinese automakers, meaning it’s been in production for over 40 years.
That’s absolutely absurd and it speaks volumes about the adaptability of the 4G63 to be perfect for both performance and commuter-style applications. And on the performance side, it’s pretty insane too.
If you look around on the internet, it’s not particularly hard to find examples of the 4G63 producing over 1000hp and close to 2000hp for built billet block engines.
Granted, those are heavily modified and often include very expensive custom parts, but the core architecture is the same.
Now I’d like to highlight that it’s not a perfect engine, as there is a pretty serious problem with the 4G63 engines equipped with the 7-bolt crankshaft, known as crank walk, which basically the destruction of the thrust bearings.
There is also the annoying problem with the internal balance shafts of the engine breaking the timing belt prematurely, which ultimately results in complete engine failure and destruction.
That being said, it’s one of the highest-performing four-cylinder engines of all time and certainly deserves its respect.
Vega 2.3L (Bad #2)
Alright so looking at the next terrible four-cylinder engine, we have one of the weirdest engines you’ll ever see, and really it’s only weird because of one thing, and that’s the 2.3L Chevy Vega engine.
Now this engine is particularly interesting and ultimately very bad because of its backward material usage compared to any modern engine or basically any engine ever.
Now for nearly all engines, the cylinder block is made from cast iron and the cylinder head will be cast iron or cast aluminum.
For engines with an aluminum cylinder block, you’ll always see it matched with an aluminum cylinder head, except for one engine: the 2.3L Vega engine, which uses a cast iron head with an aluminum block.
Now ultimately this engine was designed to be lightweight, efficient, and cheap to produce.
All of these are important elements when designing a car for the compact market, which is exactly what the Vega was.
But, the reversed configuration of the Vega engine could have worked if GM had used steel cylinder liners, but instead, they just didn’t, leaving the bare aluminum block to deal with all the stress of combustion.
And I think it’s very important to note that aluminum engines without steel cylinder liners are not problematic on their own.
It can be done well, but historically it hasn’t been done well.
Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche have all used linerless aluminum engines in the years since the Vega engine with a mixed bag of success, but frankly, the general trend is bad. Aluminum engines without steel cylinder liners just kind of suck.
And that with the lack of cylinder liners was made even worse by the Vega’s tendency to kill head gaskets anytime it overheated.
This problem was because the aluminum block expanded and contracted faster than the cast iron head.
But overheating this engine came with an even worse problem: it broke down the silicon content of A390 aluminum, which left soft spots on the cylinder walls that would eventually become scuffed and scored by the pistons.
Unlike an engine with cast iron sleeves that be repaired and reused, the Vega’s block was irreparable, meaning the engine block had to be thrown out in the case of cylinder wall damage.
Overheating this engine generally resulted in one of two things: a blown head gasket, or a weakened cylinder block.
Either way, it’s a pretty severe problem and frankly it’s an absolute trash engine.
Honda F20C (Good #3)
Before the world of naturally aspirated performance four-cylinders was taken over by the K-Series, we had the arguably better but much less popular Honda F20C.
Now for those who don’t know, this is the engine you can find under the AP1 S2000, with the later AP2 S2000 using stroked F22C.
The reason that this engine will forever be amongst the greatest four-cylinder engines is its absurd power per liter of 120hp, totaling 240hp in both the AP1 and AP2 S2000.
That kind of power per liter was absolutely absurd and set the record for naturally aspirated engines until Ferrari released the 458.
The fact that it took a Ferrari engine to outperform a Honda engine in terms of power per liter should highlight how absurd the F20C’s performance was at the time it came out. It was flat-out miles ahead of anything else naturally aspirated.
So, how did Honda get the F20C to make so much power?
Well, a big part of that is the extremely high rev limit of 9,000 RPM, which was later lowered to about 8,000 RPM with the F22C to help manage the longer stroke.
The head even featured some unique design choices borrowed from Honda’s racing program, such as a single valve spring rather than a dual spring setup.
It also uses a co-axial rocker arm to help reduce friction in the valve train and allow a pretty aggressive VTEC crossover at close to 6,000 RPM.
And because this engine was only ever used in the S2000, Honda gave it a pretty big focus on both size and weight, with an aluminum block and head, and internally it used all forged components, which is something Honda had never done for a production car engine.
It’s lightweight, and compact, held the record for power per liter naturally aspirated production car engines, and it’s ultra-reliable.
This engine might not have the insane aftermarket of the Honda B-Series or K-Series, but it’s pretty hard to deny how important the F20C was and is to Honda’s performance legacy.
Chevy Iron Duke (Bad #3)
Alright now let’s aim our sights back at GM, because if you thought their 2.3L Vega engine was bad, just wait until you hear about the Chevy Iron Duke.
Now, this is a little 2.5L inline-four cylinder naturally aspirated engine that GM developed as a fuel-efficient alternative to their larger V8 engines.
This was during the 1970s when America was dealing with yet another fuel crisis with fuel prices getting out of control and the average American really felt it on their wallet.
As much fun as V8 pony cars are to drive, they’re not exactly what you would call economical.
And while the Iron Duke was actually great at sipping fuel and saving your wallet, it was comically bad on performance.
The 3rd generation Camaro equipped with an Iron Duke engine quite literally had a 20-second 0-60 time.
I’m not even kidding you, it was that bad.
Power output was initially rated at just 85hp. That’s right. Literally not even 100hp from a 2.5L engine.
To be fair though, there were versions as high as 110hp, but that’s still pretty bad. If you do the math on this, the 2.5L Iron Duke is sitting at 34hp per liter which is unforgivably bad, even for a commuter-focused engine.
Outside the embarrassing power figures though, the Iron Duke was a decent little engine, other than being pretty heavy from its all cast iron construction.
Man, I can’t even imagine how embarrassing it would’ve been to buy something like a 1982 Camaro with this engine.
You pull up to a stop light and quite literally can’t even hit 60 miles per hour by the time just about every other car on the road has completed a quarter-mile pass.
And even worse than that, it had a terrible three-speed automatic transmission behind it. You couldn’t even clutch kick this thing in the rain to have fun sliding around.
But to be fair, I’m not sure how much sliding you could even do with just 85hp in a heavy car without a limited slip diff in the back.
Either way, the Iron Duke will go down as one of the weirdest and weakest production four-cylinder engines ever.
BMW S14 (Good #4)
Now I know for a lot of you out there, the idea of a good four-cylinder engine will generally fill your head with Japanese engines, some of which we’ve already looked at in this video.
But, the Germans also know how to make a halfway decent four-cylinder, so let’s take a look at the BMW S14.
Now this is arguably BMW’s greatest ever four-cylinder engine and part of what makes it so special is the car it powers, the E30 M3.
One of the most iconic performance cars of all time.
The idea with the E30 M3 was quite literally to take the 3-series, which was just a family sedan, and practically turn it into a race machine that someone had a number plate.
Throughout a very short 5-year life cycle, the S14 was available in three versions, the S14B23, the S14B23 EVO2 which was mechanically nearly identical to the standard engine but with more power, and the S14B25 EVO3 which had a larger 2.5L displacement and even more power.
Funny enough, the S14 uses the same exact engine block as the BMW M10 engine, which itself was the basis for the BMW M12 Formula One racing engine.
The S14 engine was the brainchild of a German engineer who also put together some of the most iconic performance engines ever, including the 2002TIK, a turbocharged engine that won the 1969 European Touring Car Championship, and the aforementioned M12 engine that powered the BMW’s F1 cars.
The cylinder head of the S14 comes from the BMW M1, which was BMW’s supercar of the time, except with two cylinders chopped off to make it fit.
The result is a naturally aspirated power output ranging from 197hp up to 235hp.
But, more importantly, as mentioned earlier, it powered the E30 M3, which went on to be one of the most successful racing platforms of all time, winning the 24hr of Nurburg five times and the 24hr of Spa four times.
And while the S14 is a nearly perfect little racing engine, it does have a few small issues with the timing belt system, but outside of that, it’s fairly reliable and there have been plenty of these engines that have seen upwards of 300k miles.
Not bad for a German-designed engine.
GM 2.4L EcoTec (Bad #4)
Now you’d think after GM put together multiple terrible four-cylinders throughout the years that they’d learn how to build a decent engine.
But somehow they didn’t. And what I’m talking about is the GM EcoTec.
Now this is a family of engines with displacements ranging from 1.4L up to 2.5L. And on paper, it’s nothing crazy: it’s a pretty simple-looking inline-four cylinder engine with an all-aluminum design and overhead cams.
And while you’d think a pretty standard-looking design would be reliable, you’d be wrong.
This engine has been so problematic for GM, that they’re now facing class action lawsuits over how bad this thing is.
The most recent lawsuit is related to the 2.4L EcoTec having a pretty severe oil consumption problem, which GM allegedly knew about and did nothing to fix. This is probably a situation of them not recalling it because it is cheaper to fix them as they come in.
It’s a pretty dirty practice to save a quick buck and it’s quite a shame that GM knew about this problem and did nothing about it.
Then there are other major problems with the injection system getting clogged with carbon and failing, pretty common and severe oil leaking issues, premature timing chain failure, cooling system components that wear out extremely fast, and more.
No matter how you cut it, there are almost zero good qualities about the EcoTec, but there are loads of bad qualities.
This is and was a bad engine, and GM knew it was a bad engine the whole time.
Volvo Redblock B230FT (Good #5)
So far we’ve looked at Japanese, American, and German inline four-cylinder engines, but there is one other country that has pumped out one of the best four-bangers of all time, and that’s Sweden, thanks to Volvo with their B230FT engine.
And for Volvo fans out there, this is the holy grail of engines, and arguably the pinnacle of Volvo performance.
Now this is a 2.3L four-cylinder, but it’s technically not an inline-four, but rather a slant-four. Functionally it might as well be an inline-4, but just tilted to the side a bit.
Anyways, this has all the hallmarks of a super tough turbocharged engine: an iron block and a closed deck design, meaning the block is ultra strong and won’t explode when you crank up the power.
Up top you’ll find a pretty simple and basic 8-valve design with a single overhead cam. Inside the engine, you’ll find dished pistons, but depending on the year of engine you’re talking about, you may see a piston slapping issue which was caused by Volvo putting the wrist pin too high up on the piston.
In terms of power, it’s not a particularly exciting engine, at just 165hp, but to be fair it’s pretty easy to crank that power number up with just tuning and nothing else.
Meaning Volvo left a lot of power on the table, and with modern parts and tuning, it’s pretty easy to get one of these little things to over 300whp.
While this might not be the most exciting engine on the list, it’s a very important mark on Volvo’s history and it’s one of the best European four-cylinder engines of all time.
Mercedes M139 (Good #6)
Normally when you think of AMG, you probably think of their V8 engines, but today we’re looking at the most powerful production four-cylinder ever, the Mercedes AMG M139.
Now this is a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder with an all aluminum construction, a closed deck block, forged pistons, forged crank, both direct and port injection, and two radiators to keep the whole thing cool, and even crazier a claimed weight of just 354lbs.
Much like other AMG engines, the M139 is hand-built in AMG’s engine factory in Germany.
Now the real reason this engine is on this list is the absurd power output of 416hp and 369lb-ft of torque.
Now if you’re used to modified four-cylinders, say something like a K20 with some boost, that power figure might seem underwhelming, but for a production engine, that power figure is nothing short of absurd.
I mean it literally holds the record as the most powerful production four-cylinder ever.
Getting a four-cylinder to make that kind of power isn’t hard. But getting it to be reliable and stay cool when used on the track is a different story.
There’s a reason you generally don’t see boosted Hondas driving across the country: they break. No offense to anyone with a boosted Honda out there.
It’s just not that easy to make small engines make big power reliably.
Now to be fair, while this is an incredible engine in terms of performance, it of course has some design features that are frankly unreliable.
Remember, this is a German engine.
With two radiators, a total of three heat exchangers, an electronic water pump, the dual injection system, and all of that covered in Mercedes electronics, on top of being packaged super tight and small, this engine seems like one that can and likely will need pretty regular maintenance and it certainly won’t be easy to work on.
But, with a power per liter of over 200, it’s hard to argue this is anything short of an incredible engine.