Dear Tom and Ray:
I am thinking of buying a new car, and I need to know if a four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine would be the wisest choice. I live on a hilltop, 2,400 feet above the valley, and the road to my home is about five miles up the long, steep hill. I have always driven a car with six or more cylinders, and I fear that a four-cylinder would not last long climbing the hill each day. What do you advise?
TOM: There's not an absolute answer to this, Mary. It would be like asking you if my brother should buy a shirt in XXL or XXXL. You'd be hard pressed to give him a good answer without seeing the specific shirt and the size of my brother's spare tire.
RAY: It was a 195/65 R16 as of yesterday.
TOM: In general, engines are getting smaller and more powerful. So lots of people who used to buy V-8s are now buying sixes. And people who bought sixes are buying fours. And soon, people who've always bought fours will be buying three-cylinder engines!
RAY: And because of advanced technologies, like direct injection and turbo charging, people aren't giving up any power when they're moving down in size and weight.
TOM: So there's no general rule anymore. There are underpowered sixes and overpowered fours. What you get depends on the technologies in the engine and the car the engine is paired with.
RAY: Sometimes the manufacturer will lay out a choice of engines for you. Pickup trucks are a great example of that. Some people use their pickup trucks as suburban commuter vehicles. So a six-cylinder engine may be all they need. Others may haul heavy equipment with their pickup, and they need the additional towing capacity of a V-8.
TOM: But we've also seen cases where a manufacturer will offer a lower-powered, older-technology "base" engine just to be able to advertise a low starting price. In that case, almost no one wants the base engine.
RAY: And then there are cases in which the base engine is really all anybody needs. The manufacturer just offers a more powerful engine to satisfy the egos of folks who want to overdo it and pay more. The Honda Accord comes to mind, with its great 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and its unnecessary 278-hp six.
TOM: In general, you'll pay more not only to buy a six-cylinder engine, but also to repair and maintain it over the life of the car.
RAY: We just test-drove the brand-new Ford Escape. It's a small SUV that used to come with four- and six-cylinder engine options. Interestingly, it has three different engine options now, but they're ALL four-cylinder engines. We drove the middle one; a turbocharged, 1.6-liter four, which is tiny by SUV standards. But we were surprised to find that it had as much power as anyone might need in normal driving.
TOM: So I wouldn't necessarily recommend a six-cylinder for you, Mary. What I would recommend is that you avoid something whose reviews use the word "underpowered" a lot (unless those reviews are in enthusiast magazines like Car and Driver, which consider everything underpowered).
RAY: Once you narrow down your car choices, feel free to write back to us, and we'll give you any specific thoughts we have on those particular car-engine combinations. But don't be afraid of modern four-cylinder engines as a class. There are more of them than ever that provide plenty of power.