Anyone who still tells you that “There ain’t no replacement for displacement” clearly hasn’t taken a good look at the auto world lately. As technology evolves, engineers continue to find ways to achieve incredible feats with less and less. These days, four-cylinder engines come in a myriad of different sizes and configurations, and they’re beginning to propel some of the most surprisingly powerful cars on the market. From the budget-minded consumer to the luxury lover, people everywhere are falling in love with the four-banger.
Four-cylinder engines have evolved to the point where they can routinely hit speeds of more than 150 miles per hour, and automakers like Ford have started to use these smaller motors to breathe new life classic models, like the EcoBoost Mustang. Most buyers don’t seem to mind the smaller displacement engine, as typically these cars are never truly pushed to their limits, but for gearheads, the idea of a desirable four cylinder engine may still take some getting used to.
You’ll notice that these compact motors come in different variations (such as inline-four and flat-four configurations), and that many of the cars on this list come equipped with turbochargers; a technology that’s bringing some much-needed excitement into the equation.
Top speed is what we’re looking at today. We weren’t as concerned with zero to sixty times and power numbers (though we’ve listed them), as we were in seeing who holds the crown for highest mile per hour numbers. But with so many cars with an electronically limited 155 mile per hour cap, we decided to not list every car programmed to reach that mark. Instead, we highlighted some of the more interesting offerings, to show just how crowded the field of performance four-bangers is getting.
Now don’t start thinking that we don’t drool over twelve cylinder engines and supercharged screamers like the Dodge Hellcat twins over here; we’re gearheads through and through. But biggest doesn’t alway mean best, and this collection of cars is plenty impressive regardless of cylinder count.
10. Subaru BRZ — 145 mph
While most Subarus are known for their capabilities both on and off the road, the BRZ is a tail-happy, corner-carving, asphalt-only machine. With its 200 horsepower 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine, the BRZ (and the identical Scion FR-S) can hit 145 miles per hour, earning itself a welcome place on this list. It’s hard to get something more lightweight and nimble than the BRZ, but like many Subie fans, we’d love Subaru finally slap a turbo on it and release something like the BRZ STI Concept.
9. Ford Mustang EcoBoost — 145 mph
A good Ford Mustang with a four-cylinder engine? Yeah, you heard us. In 2015, Ford did the near-impossible and found a way to make it’s classic muscle car appealing to both gearheads and the eco-conscious crowd. Featuring a 310 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, this Mustang variant at just over $25,000, and can be outfitted with a performance package for just a couple grand more, thus making it one of the best bang-for-the -buck cars out there. Like it or not, we’re living in the era of the socially acceptable four cylinder muscle car.
8. Ford Focus ST — 154 mph
The Ford Focus has come a long way since its American introduction in the late 1990s. The model has been spun-off into a variety of different styles and trims to accommodate drivers around the globe, and with one notable exception, it was never really built for speed(at least, not in the U.S.). But the Focus ST is the real deal; its suspension has been upgraded, it’s only available with a six-speed manual transmission, and its four-cylinder engine is a turbocharged, direct-injection EcoBoost unit that produces 252 horsepower and hits a top speed of 154 miles per hour. This isn’t a tarted up hatchback, it’s a $24,000 track beast that’s practical enough to use as a daily driver.
7. Mercedes-Benz SLC — 155 mph
When you’re talking about quick German machines, you should remember that virtually all of them – coupe, sedan, SUV, whatever – are electronically limited to 155 mile per hour top speeds. So instead of filling this whole list with Germans, we’ll highlight just a few. The new SLC-Class replaces the SLK in the Mercedes lineup for 2017, but for now, it’s little more than a facelifted version of the outgoing car. The SLC’s base engine is a capable 241 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making it one of the most powerful four banger convertibles you can buy. Top out at the 155 miles per hour mark, and with sport suspension at the ready, this sporty little convertible really is a high speed threat to engines twice its size.
6. Chevrolet Camaro 2.0t – 155 mph
Not content to cede the four-banger market to Ford, a turbocharged 2.0 liter four is available in the all-new 2016 Camaro. And like its rival the 2.0t doesn’t dissappoint; with 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, the car was designed to feel lighter than the V6 and V8 powered counterparts. Thanks in part to being over 200 pounds lighter than the Mustang, zero to 60 comes in 5.1 seconds with the manual transmission, and it hits a top speed of 155 miles per hour. Not bad for a $25,000 entry-level car.
4. Volkswagen Golf R — 155 mph
What to the Volkswagen Golf R and BMW M3 have in common? A 155 mile per hour top speed. And even in all the trouble it’s in, Volkswagen can rest assured that it still has one of the best practical performance cars in the world. The $35,000 all-wheel drive superhatch uses its 292 horsepower 2.0-liter motor to scramble from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds on its way to that magic 155 mile per hour mark. For everyday livability, world-class handling, more than enough power, and looks that wouldn’t make most traffic cops look twice, the Golf R could be the closest thing we have to a perfect car.
3. Subaru WRX STI — 155 mph
For those of you looking to stray from the beaten path, Subaru’s WRX STI may be just the ticket. The WRX has long been known for being a powerful and capable little sedan, and the newest variants come packed with a 305 horsepower 2.5-liter turbo four, allowing it to match ze Germans and reach top speeds of 155 miles per hour. The WRX STI also keep pace with the world’s best as it rockets from zero to sixty in just 4.5 seconds. But unlike the competition, its rally heritage means you can drive the $35,000 Subaru like a hooligan almost everywhere. Run out of roads? Blizzards? No problem. Take the STI.
2. Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG — 155 mph
With cars like the S3 and the upcoming M2, we know that Audi and BMW can do compact performance. But Mercedes’ entrants are often lost in the shuffle, and with its CLA-Class, the company is looking to blow past the competition. A fast and lean luxury car, the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG makes 375 horsepower from a 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo four cylinder – a crap-ton of power for a four-cylinder sedan. The $49,500 CLA45 is a cert ified jaw-dropper for any passenger brave enough to ride along, and the potent little sedan can rocket from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in a mere 4.1 seconds on its way to the 155 mile per hour mark.
2. Alfa Romeo 4C — 160 mph
While we’re still waiting for the Alfa Romeo Giulia to hit the showrooms, we can take solace in the fact that we already have the Alfa Romeo 4C, one of the best driver’s cars in the world. The mid-engined 4C reaches an impressive 160 miles per hour thanks to its 240 horsepower mill. The engine itself is a 1742cc turbocharged four-cylinder, coupled with a dual dry clutch six-speed automatic transmission for seamless shifting. For American Alfa Romeo fans, the 4C has been a long time coming, and for fans of fast, sleek cars loaded with sporty dynamism, the $53,000 carbon fiber 4C is arguably the best exotic car bargain out there.
1. Ford Focus RS – 165 mph
While the mid-engined supercar should be the likeliest candidate for the fastest four cylinder car you can buy, the top honor goes to another Ford Focus. At $35,000, the RS is mighty expensive for a Focus, but for what it is, it’s a bargain. The all-wheel drive superhatch is powered by a 2.3 liter turbocharged four that makes an incredible 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. Zero to 60 comes in 4.7 seconds, and it tops out at a sports car-friendly 165 miles per hour. By the end of 2016, we expect this one to make everyone’s “best-of” list, engine size or horsepower be damned.
Additional Reporting By James Derek Sapienza.