Car Features

Is Bigger Better? High-Volume vs Small-Volume Engines.


Mainstream manufacturers are sprinting to replace their high-volume engines with small-volume ones making just about the same power sometimes even more, and claiming they are more efficient – performance-wise, and ecologically, of course. I will give an example, the latest C63 AMG Mercedes which was previously known for its 6.3 liter V8 engine with an orgasmic sound was replaced by a straight 4-cylinder engine that is electrically assisted (plug-in hybrid). Now on paper, it is a better engine, but is this really the car you want to drive after you’ve been set back north of $80,000? Hmm, I don’t think so.

Speaking for myself, cars have souls, there are cars that are not too powerful, neither are they the most beautiful, but you drive them and you grin from ear to ear (honorable mention to the Beamer boys, as much as it hurts me to admit as a Mercedes fanboy). The question is, is a bigger engine better? Let’s find out. I want us to do this as systematically as we possibly can:

Small car with abig engine
Image courtesy of Warragul City Ford.

Is there replacement for volume (displacement)?

This question comes up a lot, especially when we talk about forced induction, (turbos, superchargers, or both) if you have interacted with me, you know I believe there is no permanent replacement for displacement. What do I mean, for a small-sized engine, say 1500cc to make as much power as a naturally aspirated 2500cc engine, that engine has to be subjected to insanely high boost pressures from a turbo or supercharger, and we all know forced induction is no friend to reliability.

Now I know some people will say and I quote, “I am here for a good time, not a long time”. I agree, turbocharged and supercharged cars are a hell of fun to drive, from the gradual build-up of boost in the former, and the instant boost from the latter, naturally-aspirated engines are no match. But the fact remains, if you need more power and you are also looking for reliability, bigger is indeed better – so NO, THERE IS NO REPLACEMENT FOR DISPLACEMENT.

How about fuel consumption?

With the ever-rising cost of living in Kenya, as well as the dwindling Kenyan Shilling against the American dollar, it’s only fair for us to take a keen interest in how much fuel we use on a daily basis. I know most of you are thinking: well this is straightforward, smaller is obviously better, duh! But is it? The issue of fuel consumption is quite complicated since there are a lot of factors to be considered, some beyond our means.

However complex this might be, allow me to give it a go; On idle, a smaller engine will burn less fuel compared to a bigger engine idling at the same number of revolutions per minute, this means in situations where the car is on but is not moving, the person with the bigger engine will burn more fuel – like in traffic. However, when these cars start moving at highway speeds, things start changing a little bit.

Image courtesy of CarExpert

Bigger engines tend to accelerate easier compared to their smaller counterparts and this is because they have readily available torque and horsepower even at lower rpm. The smaller engine on the other hand might need to rev harder in order to achieve similar acceleration (Please note that in this case, we assume these cars weigh about the same).

Since I have introduced the concept of weight, allow me to derail a bit. When manufacturers design cars, there is a lot of R&D that goes into it because even the most efficient engine could be a catastrophe if placed in the wrong car. Imagine a LandCruiser 300 with the 1600cc engine in the 2023 GR Yaris (makes about 257hp), would that 3-cylinder carry the weight of the Land Cruiser for a considerable amount of time? I don’t think so. So please keep in mind that for this discussion, we are talking about a similar-sized car with the only difference being the engine capacity.

Given my argument, does it mean that bigger is better? In my opinion, bigger is better if you are doing longer trips where the car maintains around 80km/h – 120km/h for the best part. However, if you are moving around town with lots of starts and stops, a smaller-sized engine is a better fit for you, but you might end up burning just as much fuel as a considerably larger and more powerful engine in order to keep up on the longer drives.

Small engines with forced induction, what about these?

As I already alluded to earlier, manufacturers have proven to run away from the bigger engines and this is mainly due to the more stringent emission control regulations. Introducing forced induction – or boost as most people will call it has a significant impact on how an engine behaves. Using a turbocharger, for instance, has a number of advantages, some of which include:

  1. Lower Carbon Monoxide emissions
  2. Improved engine performance across the rev range and especially top-end power
  3. Enables manufacturers to use lighter engines for lighter cars and hence better fuel economy & handling
  4. Improved combustion efficiency – have a better-burning profile since there is more air pushed to the engine

In the real-world scenario, while turbo-charged engines prove to be quite decent fuel-consumption-wise when driven not so very heartily, they have also proven to be just as thirsty as similarly powered naturally aspirated engines. Someone driving a 2.0-liter DIT FA20F Subaru will tell you that they at times get just similar, sometimes even worse fuel figures than those driving one with the 3.6-liter EZ36 engine although the former is actually smaller but just as powerful.

Image courtesy of UK.MOTOR1

The Germans are an interesting lot, while I pride myself on team Mercedes, I will give credit where it’s due and this goes to the VAG Group. Somehow, Volkswagen has managed to hit just about the right spot (for a change huh? ) of power and efficiency. One minute you’d be hooning down the highway doing 12km/l the next you’ll be in town doing 16km/l like you are driving a Suzuki Alto. The particular engine I am talking about is the EA888 engine in the Golf GTI and the R (although here it’s uprated to about 300hp, unlike the 260-ish in the GTI). That said, is bigger better? You tell me.


We have talked about this yet again, and I honestly have found this ending just the way I expected it to – difficult. As I said, I believe there is no replacement for displacement, also, fuel consumption will ultimately depend on the use case of a particular car. If you can, you’d be better placed having both as this will enable you to have a taste of both worlds – good fuel economy around town, and fun to drive while an almost equally fuel-efficient bigger engine for the longer cruises.

You should however note that “big” is very relative, by big I mean margins of below 1500cc. Anything beyond that and this might not apply. Ultimately, for me, bigger is better as long as your pockets allow it, but as they say, to each their own.


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Automotive content writer and self-teaching auto-mechanic.
I will mainly discuss and banter about cars.

the authorww_nab
Automotive content writer and self-teaching auto-mechanic. I will mainly discuss and banter about cars.

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