The old saying "There's no replacement for displacement" doesn't quite ring true anymore. Technological advancements have made it possible for engineers to achieve incredible things with small capacity engines. Today, four-cylinder engines come in a myriad of different sizes and configurations, and they’re beginning to propel some of the most powerful cars on the market. Not only do they deliver bucket loads of power, but they can also be incredibly economical while doing it. The four-banger is now on the minds of everyone from the budget-minded consumer, to the luxury lover, and those with a need for speed.
Four-cylinder engines have now evolved to the point where they can routinely hit speeds of more than 150 miles per hour, and automakers have started to use these smaller engines to breathe new life into classic models as well as using them as the base for brand new performance machines. These power plants are compact enough to fit in any engine bay, yet powerful enough to drive most cars. They come in different variations, such as inline-four and flat-four configurations, and many come equipped with turbochargers; a technology that’s bringing some much-needed excitement into the equation.
Although there are other great four-cylinder cars than those featured on this list, we've tried to compile some of the best and the fastest four-banger cars ever. Anything from 1980s homologation specials to cars that are in showrooms and available to purchase today. They all have two things in common: their four-cylinder powerplants and incredible performance.
25 Honda S2000
All S2000s look similar, but Honda did make changes throughout the 10-year production run, resulting in three distinct models. Cars built from 1999 to 2003—known as the AP1 generation—are powered by an all-aluminum 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. That’s the one everyone knows of, which revs to nine grand and is rated at 240 horsepower at 8300 rpm.
In 2004, the AP2-generation was released and remained in production until 2009 - it received a larger 2.2-liter engine but was still rated at 240 hp. Nearing the end of the roadster’s production, Honda introduced the lighter, stiffer, and more aggressive S2000 CR (Club Racer) in 2008. 625 examples were sold in the United States during the car’s two-year run.
24 Volvo V60 Polestar
For its Polestar models, Volvo started with the twin-charged four used in the XC90 T6, installed a bigger turbo, new connecting rods, a new camshaft, and a bigger intake to make 362 horsepower.
Volvo, more commonly known as a sensible car brand, has practically squeezed every ounce of efficiency out of the 4-cylinder 2.0-liter. There's no lag from the supercharged and turbocharged engine - push the pedal, and all the power is transferred to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic. Just make sure you hang on for dear life.
23 Lotus Esprit
After more than a decade on the market, Lotus gave its Esprit the most significant styling update in 1987. While the overall wedge shape was kept intact, designer Peter Steven’s touches gave the Esprit a more rounded look.
In 1989, Lotus introduced the Esprit SE which was powered by a turbocharged 2.2-liter four-cylinder with the then-new “Chargecooler” air-water-air intercooler system, output increased to 264 hp and 280 hp was available in over-boost. Zero to 60 mph was an impressive 4.7 seconds with top speed clocked at just over 160 mph. That's fast even today, but the Esprit Turbo SE was faster than a V12-powered Ferrari Testarossa - and half the price!
22 Porsche 718 Cayman/Boxster
So they may have lost two cylinders when they became the 718 models, but these cars also gained a healthy increase in power. Equipped with a new 2.0-liter flat-four, the base 718 cars are good for 300 horses.
The base 718 and the S models use two different engines. Where the base model gets a 300-horsepower 2.0-liter, the S gets an extra half-liter of displacement and 50 more horsepower. But wait, there's more. For its most powerful 718 models, Porsche gave the 718 S's 2.5-liter single-turbo flat-four a nice 15-hp boost. With 365 horses, the new Boxster and Cayman GTS are just five horsepower shy of a base 911 Carrera.
21 Mercedes-AMG CLA/GLA/A-Class 45
Nobody really expected Mercedes to enter the compact performance or hot hatch class. After all, they are famous for big sedans that define luxury and comfort, rather than compact cars with screaming engines. But the biggest surprise is how well they executed this move.
The performance of the CLA, GLA and A Class 45 AMG comes from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 381 horses - the little 2-liter delivers as much power as the 5.0-liter V8 from a couple of years back. The cars go from 0 to 60 mph in just over four seconds and reach an electronically limited 155 mph, so in theory, the compact AMGs are capable of even higher speeds.
20 Dodge Neon SRT-4
In the early 2000s, Dodge wanted to get in on the tuner car craze, which meant giving the humble Neon an aggressive new look and a turbocharged engine. The end result was one seriously quick Neon - Car and Driver hit 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, a full two seconds quicker than a regular Neon.
The SRT-4 was only made for three model years and a lot of car enthusiasts tend to overlook it or forget how great it was. With a few modifications, it makes for a great driver's car - and it's not that hard to squeeze out several hundred horses from the engine.
19 Honda Civic Type-R
The fifth generation Honda Civic Type R is every racer's dream with its aggressive design, numerous spoilers, scoops, and air vents all over the body to complement the high-performance engine.
Honda resisted turbocharging their performance engines for a long time, but with the new Civic Type R, they went all-in and extracted 306 horses from the turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder - enough to propel it from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, and on to a top speed of 170 mph. The Civic Type R smashed the Nurburgring front-wheel-drive lap record, clocking 7 minutes and 43.8 second lap time.
18 Ford Focus RS
The first generation Focus RS had a powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 220 hp, but it was not available in the U.S. The second generation Ford Focus RS had a five-cylinder engine, so we'll focus on the third generation - which is one of the most powerful four-cylinder cars on the market.
The new Focus RS has a 2.3-liter turbocharged unit that delivers 345 horses to all four wheels, making it a true hot hatch beast. The performance is incredible - 4.7 seconds 0 to 60, and a top speed of 165 mph. Of course, it needed a special exterior as well, so the RS has a unique front spoiler, bulged fenders, side skirts, and a wing.
17 Ford Mustang EcoBoost
Mustang purists may dismiss the 2.3-liter turbocharged model, but some might remember the 1980s Fox Mustangs with small engines that still delivered decent performance. The downsized engine has proven to be a smart business move by Ford, seeing as the biggest part of their global engine lineup includes turbocharged four cylinders.
With 315 horses, an acceleration time of 5.1 seconds from 0 to 60, and a top speed around 150 mph, the four-cylinder EcoBoost Mustang has proven to be popular on a global scale and is one of the best selling Mustangs on the market right now.
16 Chevy Camaro 2.0
The new Chevrolet Camaro has been equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Muscle car purists may wonder why Chevy would produce a four banger Camaro, but with modern technology, the new Camaro turbo has performance ratings better than those classic V8 powered models from the past.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 275 wild horses, which is enough to propel the Camaro from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds, and to a top speed of 155 mph.
Sure, it may lack the glorious soundtrack of the V8 engine, but it has the right combination of performance and fuel economy that V8 rides have always lacked.
15 Audi S3
The 2016 Audi S3 is a hotter version of the brand's entry-level luxury sedan. It makes the most of its standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system by way of a 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that produces a rather impressive 292 horsepower - enough to propel the compact Audi to 60 mph in a highly competitive 4.7 seconds.
Sadly there's no manual transmission available for the S3, the only option is a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic, but it's not all bad news as it does feature a launch control mode that will make the driver the king of traffic light getaways.
14 Cadillac ATS
For those who want a little style with their four-cylinder power, the Cadillac ATS premium sedan and coupe range is a good car to choose. The Cadillac's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine has a decent amount of power, which is transferred to the right wheels.
With 272 wild horses and 295lb-ft of torque, it should be possible to break traction and get into some sideways action. Those who feel they are too civilized or grown up for that kind of behavior could always choose the all-wheel-drive version.
13 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X FQ400
Even though Mitsubishi discontinued the Lancer Evo, it's still a legend amongst performance car enthusiasts. The last version, called the Evo X has a 2.0-liter turbo engine that produces 291 hp, but some say the real power figure is around 320 horses.
But there was another Evo X, a 405 horsepower version that did 0-60 in 3.7 seconds - the FQ400.
A UK only model, it was sold through Ralliart, tuned by HKS, and had a plethora of special parts not fitted to any other Lancer Evo models. And the best part? It was covered by a Mitsubishi three-year/36,000 mile warranty. This is the ultimate Evo - by far!
12 Alfa Romeo Giulia 2.0T
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is a performance sedan with 510 wild, stampeding horses that stole all the attention when it was announced. For those who struggle to justify a purchase of such a fine piece of Italian automotive art - i.e. their bank account won't allow it - there's another Giulia available, and we'd love to own one.
The entry-level Giulia Turbo comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 280 horses. It might not be as impressive as the Quadrifoglio, but it can still do 0-60 mph in a mere 6 seconds - and it looks good doing it.
11 VW Golf R
The Golf R is the top of the line Golf and packs a powerful four-cylinder turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive and strong performance for a family hatchback. The 2.0-liter turbo engine delivers almost 292 horsepower, 0 to 60 mph takes 4.5 seconds and it won't stop accelerating until it's doing 155 mph.
The Golf R is perfect for sneaking up on expensive sports cars and frustrating the drivers at traffic lights. Under the skin, the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R are almost the same - the biggest difference is that you can get the Golf with a manual transmission.
10 Subaru WRX STI
The Subaru WRX STI is not only a rally legend, but it's also been doing quite well on the streets as well. Subaru has been one of most powerful four-cylinder cars on the market for decades already, and their latest version of the WRX STI doesn’t disappoint.
Under the hood, you'll find a 2.5-liter flat four engine with a turbocharger. This combo delivers 305 horses that are sent to all four wheels via a six-speed manual - enough power and grip to send the car flying from standstill to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds, along with a top speed of 160.
9 Chevy Cobalt SS
Although it is now discontinued, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS will definitely go down in history as one of the better and more powerful four-cylinder cars to ever emerge from the U.S.
It was available in supercharged, turbocharged or naturally aspirated configurations, with the turbo version introduced in 2008 being the one to go for. The engine delivered 260 horses, which was quite decent by the standards of the day - and more than any of the competition. To make it even better, it had tuning potential and more power could be extracted with relative ease.
8 Jaguar F-Type 2.0 Turbocharged
For 2018, Jaguar installed its new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the F-Type. It delivers 300 hp, which means it's down nearly 50 horsepower compared to the 3.0-liter V6 version, but the trade-off is that it makes the car much lighter over the front axle.
While not nearly as fast or loud as the crazy 550 hp 5.0 SVR version of the F-Type, the smaller, turbocharged sibling packs enough of a punch to not embarrass the rest of the Jag F-Type family... It's just a letdown that it's the only available car with an automatic transmission.
7 BMW Z4
The beautiful BMW roadster came with a selection of four and six-cylinder engines. Most people know the BMW straight sixes are great performers, but we think many would be amazed at how well their four-cylinder engines perform.
The turbocharged, 2.0 liter four-pot engine produces 240 horsepower, which is kind of the sweet spot between decent performance and economy. The Z4 will do 0 to 60 mph in under six seconds and top 155 mph - impressive for an engine that's the size of a soda bottle. An added benefit of the small displacement turbo engine is the weight distribution which is close to perfect.
6 Audi TT
Audi presented its new generation Audi TT in 2016, and it immediately established itself as one of the most advanced, dynamic four-cylinder sports cars on the market. The TT comes with the signature Audi TFSI technology, it packs 2.0-liters of displacement and an advanced turbocharger - resulting in 220 horsepower delivered to all four wheels.
This engine is common in the VW-Audi range and produces from 200 to over 300 horsepower, depending on the engine tune.
It is a lightweight, updated unit that takes the TT from 0 to 60 in just 5.7 seconds. Audi has electronically limited the maximum speed to 130 mph. Rumors have it the TT with this engine will top 150 mph without the electronic limiter.
5 Alfa Romeo 4C
Alfa Romeo needed a halo car – a limited production model that could generate the hype from sports car enthusiasts. In 2013, they introduced the Alfa Romeo 4C - a “junior supercar” with a carbon fiber tub, lightweight construction, a cramped interior, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
The 4C was made as light as possible, meaning no power steering or luxury items. The result was an extremely capable little super sports car weighing in at 2,204 lbs. With the low weight, there wasn't need for a big engine - the 1.8-liter turbocharged unit delivers 238 horses to the rear wheels. The performance numbers are impressive, 0 to 60 mph takes 4.7 seconds and its top speed is 160 mph.
4 Porsche 944 Turbo S
In 1983, Porsche presented the 944, which proved to be an important model for the brand. One of the main features of this new car was a 2.5-liter four cylinder that could deliver 170 hp at first. This may not be an impressive number today, but it was potent by the mid-80s standards.
Evolution of the Porsche 944 included increasing the 2.5-liter four to 3.0-liters, which produced 211 hp in the S2 form. But the best version was the 944 Turbo S. It had a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine that produced 250 horses. Its low weight, solid transmission, and effective aerodynamics made the 944 Turbo S a fast car. 0 to 60 mph took only 5.5 seconds and it could top 162 mph - that's better than some of today's sports cars.
3 BMW E30 M3
When most people think of BMW performance, they think of the “M” cars, of which the E30 M3 is the most iconic and a legend in four-cylinder car history.
The heart of the E30 M3 was the S14 inline-four engine with 2.3-liters of displacement and 195 horses, later increased to 215 hp. Due to its low weight, powerful engine, and great handling the M3 turned out to be the most successful racing car in touring car racing history. Later the engine displacement would become 2.5-liters and power output increased to 238 horses - quite respectable for a 30-year-old car with a small four-cylinder engine.
2 Mercedes-Benz 190E Evolution II
In 1984 Mercedes introduced the Cosworth - the aim was to compete with BMW’s M3 in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, though in production form the car is best known for the driver who won a publicity race at the new Nurburgring Grand Prix circuit – a young Ayrton Senna.
2.3 liters expanded to 2.5 in 1989 with the first Evolution-badged car, a production run of 502 vehicles enabling homologation for its DTM entry. The Evolution II followed in 1990, touting a body kit with wide arches, chunky 17-inch, six-spoke alloy wheels and a rear wing to both reduce drag and increase downforce. Power increased from 205 to 235 hp in the roadgoing Evolution.
1 Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth
The Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth is as British as a car can get, and just like the British empire conquered the world, the RS500 conquered racing. From 1986 until 1990, the Ford Sierra dominated the British Touring Car Championship for outright wins. It also took victories across Europe and in Australia.
The RS500 might look like a regular Cosworth, but was a pure homologation special - it had 227 hp, modified spoilers, extra brake ducts, a larger intercooler, bigger brakes, and an additional fuel rail. Big power could be had in the road cars without major upgrades to its structure, which meant it could take on performance car royalty such as Ferrari and Porsche – and win.
Sources: Top Gear, Road & Track, Car & Driver & Jalopnik