Different Types of Car Engines


Jul 13th, 2020

Different Types of Car Engines

When you're shopping for a car, you come across many different terms describing the car's various auto parts, and that includes the engine. Descriptions like 'V8' and 'twin-cylinder' can get confusing to the average car buyer. Is one engine type better than the other? When it comes to engine cylinders, is it better to have more? These are reasonable questions to ask before making a buying decision.

Car engine types are usually described according to two attributes: the layout of the engine and the configuration of its cylinders.

In this article, we'll go through some of the conventional engine layouts and cylinder configurations. By the end of the article, you should have a good understanding of what separates one type of engine from another!

Engine Layouts

Modern combustion engines have similar essential parts. Inside, you'll find combustion chambers, spark plugs, pistons and more. However, the way those parts are arranged (their 'layout') can differ significantly.

Car manufacturers will usually choose one layout over another depending on how it fits in their car and how they intend the car to perform. Smaller cars, for example, will need an engine that takes up less space.

Here are a few standard engine layouts that you may have already heard about.

Straight Engine

In a straight engine layout, all the cylinders are linearly arrayed. The engine is positioned parallel to the length of the car, meaning it goes from the front of the engine bay to the back. With this layout, the engine can have more cylinders, which is why you'll typically find it in more powerful sedans.

The straight engine layout can sometimes be confused with the inline design. Read more below!

Inline Engine

With an inline engine, cylinders are arranged in a straight row, just like a straight engine layout. However, it doesn't go from front to back. Instead, it is perpendicular to the car, meaning it goes from the left of the engine bay to the right. Some people might describe the cylinders as being placed 'side by side'.

With this layout, the engine can be kept small. It frees up more space around the engine for components like the car battery and cooling system.

The inline engine layout is widely used, especially in family cars and hatchbacks.

Flat Engine

As the name suggests, this layout keeps the engine as flat as possible. Sometimes called a 'boxer engine', its cylinders are laid down flat in both directions. Both sides will have cylinders positioned in such a way that the pistons 'punch' outwards. This layout keeps the car's centre of gravity low, which then makes it much easier to handle.

V Engine

Neither flat nor straight, the V engine has its cylinders arranged at an angle in a V-shape. This option is used to combine the benefits of layouts mentioned above. The V-Shape allows the car to fit more cylinders but in a smaller space. Having more power in a smaller area makes the V engine layout ideal for luxury high-performance vehicles.

Engine Cylinder Configurations

Now that we've talked about engine layouts, let's discuss cylinder configurations. This is where we talk about the differences that come with how many cylinders an engine might have.

Having a different number of cylinders affects the vehicle's power output and fuel efficiency. For car enthusiasts, this also matters because the cylinder configurations also determine what sound a car engine makes.

Here are a few standard engine cylinder configurations.

Twin Cylinders

Let's start with twin-cylinder configurations. In case you're wondering, yes, there are engines with only one cylinder. But those are typically found on scooters and motorcycles. In cars, you'll usually start with two cylinders all the way up to eight or more.

As you might guess, twin-cylinder engines are the smallest of them all, and you'll find them on very low-powered engines.

Three Cylinders

Add one more cylinder to the configuration, and you'll have an engine usually found on smaller cars. Some carmakers, however, use this configuration to produce turbocharged versions. These can be seen in cars like the Ford Focus, which has a higher power output than regular three-cylinder engine while maintaining its excellent fuel efficiency.

Four Cylinders

This is said to be the most common configuration in the market these days. Usually, these four cylinders are arranged in an inline type, allowing it to take up less space. You'll find this in economical car designs that balance size and power for everyday use.

Five Cylinders

Engines using a five-cylinder configuration are rare but well-known for the unique sound they make. Some have described it as being a 'warbling' sound, and it comes from how the five cylinders fire in an unusual order. Five-cylinder engines can only be found on specific makes and models, mostly Audis and Volvos. Do a quick search on YouTube, and you'll find loads of compilations of five-cylinder engine sounds.

Six Cylinders

While the five-cylinder configuration is known for its warbling sound, the six-cylinder ones are known for high-pitched, racecar-like sounds. Usually, you'll only find these on high-end vehicles. The six cylinders might be arranged in a straight layout, though they're often found in V-layouts as well.

Eight Cylinders and Above

Notice a pattern yet? The higher we go on the number of cylinders, the more high-performance/luxury the cars tend to be. When you cross into 8+ cylinder territory, you'll only find these in racecars, supercars and only the most luxurious of sedans.


So, why does any of this matter to you? Well, if you're a car enthusiast, you'll probably be more interested in higher power outputs and a cooler-sounding engine. But if you're a regular car buyer looking for a practical vehicle to suit your needs, it's useful to see these traits as a tradeoff.

Some engines will offer you more power than you'll ever need while driving up the cost of the vehicle. You might also end up spending much more on fuel in the long run, and the noise of a five-cylinder might annoy the neighbours every time you drive off to work each morning! 

However, if you shop for a smaller car, it's useful to remember that they usually come with smaller engines (i.e. potentially fewer cylinders). Having too little power, on the other hand, is a problem if you're driving a car full of kids with luggage in the trunk. That's no fun either.

So, if or when you shop for a car, remember to look deeper than just the make and model. Check out the engine and make sure that it fits your needs. More importantly, make sure that it fits your budget, too!

Your working knowledge about engine types will also come handy when your old car starts showing symptoms of engine trouble. When that happens, make sure you refer to your trusty mechanic and buy replacements only from reliable sources. You may also request CarPart to search for an engine or any auto part for you. Let us locate that car part today!

By Ray Hasbollah