by Tony Whitney

Given the choices available, it’s one of the most challenging problems a new automobile buyer has to deal with – which of the available engines should he or she opt for? Even the most modest 4-cylinder powerplant can now offer performance and refinement only obtained from a “six” a few years back.

In many ways, today’s auto buyers are faced with an “embarrassment of riches’ in that so many manufacturers offer multiple engine choices and all of them have a valid place in one buyer or another’s automotive lifestyle. Many automakers even offer several choices of four-cylinder engine for a specific model – regardless of entry-level price. But for most buyers, it’s having to choose between a four-cylinder and a six or a six-cylinder and an eight that causes the most trouble.

There are several sedans on the market right now, mostly in the hotly-contested mid-size category, that offer buyers the choice between four cylinders and six – and in a couple of instances, five cylinders.

Deciding between a four and a six is really a matter of what the car is going to be used for. Some of today’s four-cylinder engines are surprisingly quiet and smooth and even with my wide experience, I sometimes have to look under the hood to see that there’s not a V-6 under there. Of course, if you opt for a four over a six, you’ll be sacrificing some power, but is this really that important? If the vehicle is going to be used extensively with a full passenger or cargo load, then a six is probably a better choice. On the other hand, if the car is to be used as a commuter or weekend runabout, those four cylinders will get you around in fine style and you’ll make fewer visits to your local gas station.

Remember that today’s four-cylinder engines are a lot more technically sophisticated than they were a few years back. Most of the four-cylinder powerplants fitted to current models have such refinements as four-valve-per-cylinder design, twin overhead camshafts and quite often, variable valve control. These features contribute towards small capacity engines (typically 1.6 to 2.2-litres) that are both peppy and fuel-efficient.

The use of advanced materials and more effective noise control has also meant that engines in this configuration are a lot quieter than they used to be. If you do chose a four-cylinder, you won’t be giving up much by way of engineering features or refinement. If your four-cylinder car is slightly less powerful than its six-cylinder equivalent and has a lower top speed, will this really matter in the “real world” of urban driving?

If your driving chores involve full passenger loads and long runs over rugged territory (and perhaps towing), there’s no doubt that you’ll be better off opting for the six. Like their four-cylinder counterparts, modern V-6 engines feature multi-valve layouts and dual overhead cams in many cases. Often, economy levels have improved to match four-cylinder engines of a few years back. Of course, there are still a few in-line six cylinder engines around, notably from BMW, Chevrolet, Suzuki and Lexus.

With regard to luxury vehicles, the choice is often between a vee or in-line six and a V-8. Some of the aforementioned parameters still apply here. If you really need the torque of the bigger engine, then go for it, but if light duties are on the agenda, save yourself some money and go for the six. For SUV buyers planning to tow a boat or travel trailer, there’s no doubt that a V-8 is the best bet, but for light-duty urban use, the big engine may not be as desirable, especially when considering our unstable fuel prices. Not too many SUV owners get into serious off-road usage, but those who do certainly find the extra torque of the V-8 very handy on steep grades.

Sometimes, it might be transmission availability that dictates engine choice at the luxury level. Some luxury models offer a manual transmission with the six-cylinder option, but only offer an automatic with V-8 versions. It’s worth noting, by the way, that many newer V-8s are far more fuel-efficient than their predecessors – even if they offer more horsepower. I’ve been amazed at the thrifty fuel consumption of many of the V-8 powered vehicles I’ve tested over the past two or three years. I recently drove a V-10 powered BMW M5 in Europe and was surprised that even with its whopping 507-horsepower, it wasn’t a particularly thirsty car on a long run.

My best advice to new car buyers when it comes to engine choice is to try all versions and choose the power unit that best fits the day-to-day demands to be placed on the vehicle. “Power for power’s sake” is not the best policy and a little forethought can save a fair amount in running costs over the long term.

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