21 Nov 2015

“The Purgatory of Car Engines”

, ,

My 1959 Triumph TR3A was blue, but did not have a white convertible top tonneau cover or whitewall tires.

Jack Baruth rants, in Road & Track, against the straight-4-cylinder engine.

As a design, the inline-four is both banal and inadequate. The intake hangs off one side and the exhaust off the other, so when you open the hood it looks unbalanced and cheap. ​Enlarged to modern two-liter-plus proportions, this lack of balance makes it want to shake itself to death. At idle it rattles; at full revs it moans. Instead of the dual-megaphone mufflers associated with powerful V8s, the most efficient four-cylinder exhaust is a massive coffee can hanging off one side of the bumper. With the possible exception of the famous Offenhauser, there has never been a coffee table made from a straight-four block. …

Yet the unloved inline-four plows on. It’s cheap to make, cheap to modify. It fits in everything from a small motorcycle to a 5-Series BMW. It can be turbocharged to serve as a poor replacement for a more colorful six. This strategy, employed by the high-end German manufacturers and the Koreans alike, makes it easier to pass CO2-related regulations. So what if the resulting concoction sounds like a paint shaker? You muffle it to death and then play a fake engine sound through the stereo. Nobody knows the difference.

Read the whole thing.

Sure, a 12-cylinder Ferrari or an E-type Jaguar with a straight-6 would be nice, but face reality, we all have to start somewhere, and less expensive cars, and even some very cool once-less-expensive sports cars which are highly enjoyable to drive are straight 4s. I, for instance, used to own the examples illustrated top and bottom, and they were definitely fun to drive.

Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.

1967 Alfa Romeo Duetto Spyder

5 Feedbacks on "“The Purgatory of Car Engines”"


A few years back when I bought a new Jeep I wanted their four cyl engine. They couldn’t find one anywhere so I got one custom made at the factory.
I am an old mechanic who loves things mechanical. The inline four is a beautiful and incredibly strong engine. Five large main bearings and four rod bearings. I do like V6’s & V8’s too but their lower end is one of their compromises. I have to believe Jack Baruth is an auto aficionado and not a mechanic.

Dan Kurt

Actually, a THREE cylinder engine is the low end ticket if it is a Two CYCLE one. My first car was such a beast: SAAB with its Shrike Engine. Warranted for life. Horse power was circa 45 bhp but seemed more as it was a two stroke with greater torque than a 4 stroke. Also, it had Free Wheeling so the engine was idling when coasting down hill. I was on my third engine, yes two blew up, when I sold the car at 125,000 miles. Got the beast in Europe and it had horrible European ignition that failed to work during North Eastern USA cold, wet weather but worked great out West and regularly had more than 40 mpg on the cheapest gas. The European model had heaver steel sheet metal for the body and the paint job was much better than the American export model. Cost to me at European pick up was $13,000 and SAAB delivered it to me in back in New Haven FREE from Europe as it was a “used Car” after I drove it for more than 1,000 Km and dropped it off at a designated port when I left Europe for the USA.

Dan Kurt

Bill Cook

I had a1971 Alfa Romeo Spyder for 10 years. I can’t think of a more fun 4 cylinder sports car. Elegant and sophisticated for its day, Italians did it right.


Today one can find powerful, confortable, roomy and recent top-of-the-range cars in good condition and low mileage for the price of a brand new down-the-range, uncomfortable, underpowered and completely unattractive one.

Some examples?

See how much you’d have to spend for, say, a less than ten years old Lexus LS which costs much more than $100k when brand new, and which is much better at all regards than a top-of-the range BMW, Audi or Mercedes… and which is a reliable car as a bonus (Lexus is a brand of Toyota, as a matter of fact).

Still less expensive will be a VW Phaeton, assembled in the same manufacturing line as Bentleys. At about $180k when brand new, you’ll easily find one that is a bit more than five years old and with less than a 100k mileage for in the surroundings of $15k only (but, yes, be aware that this one is a bit less reliable than a Lexus LS).

See how much you’ll have to pay for a more than 100k fully equiped Audi A8 in the same condition as the two cars above.

If ever you are a bit familiar with mechanics and rather handy with the rest, then the superior gas consumption of those heavy and powerful cars will not be a problem. For the $10 or $20k more you’d have to spend for a brand new unattractive and cheaply built middle-range car will be lost too within two or three years anyways. This money will be more pleasantly invested in enough gasoline to make thousands and thousands of miles behind the wheel of any of three cars I named.

Besides, any cheap modern car, be it underpowered and introduced as “economical”, no longer offers the reliability of those of the same range that were built thirty years ago. Even Volvos are no longer the reliable and strong cars they once were. Didn’t you notice that, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, taxi-drivers no longer rely on Mercedes as they did before. Those other cars now are known to be awfully expensive to keep in good working order and are as unreliable as a Russian motorcycle may be (this sudden change in reliability with Mercedes happened in the early 2000).

Do not indulge with self-delusion. Today, engines of down-the-range and middle-range cars are as full of electronics as in top-of-the-range’s. There is always this or that that is no longer working for no reason after less than 40k miles only; which parts cost a lot of money to change obviously, since mechanics change parts and no longer repair them, and since they no longer do any effort to look for what and where the problem really is.

Of course, breaking the engine or the gearbox on a Audi A8 or a VW Phaeton will cost to you the price you paid for the whole car; but such a big trouble remains exceptional. And, if ever (bad luck always happens to everyone), then sell it for parts and just buy another one! For a tenth of thousands of $ it’s not much of a so big deal.

Well, take it as no more than a point of view. Because this trick works only if you are knowledgeable in mechanics and in automobile in general, and of course if you know what those things like and don’t like. Forget it if what you like with cars is to make the best “0 to 60″s.


But, if really you want a four cylinders engine in a car of the kind David put in exemples, then watch the video of a test drive of the best pick in this particular category…



Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark