Ever heard the saying "There's no replacement for displacement"? People should stop saying it - just like big engines, that saying is now obsolete. Technological advancements have made it possible for engineers to achieve incredible things with small capacity engines.
Today, four-cylinder engines have 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 as the base for their performance machines. Not only do they deliver bucketloads 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.
Here we've compiled some of the fastest four-cylinder cars, from 1980s homologation specials to new cars that are in showrooms and available for purchase today.
20 Ariel Atom
There's no wonder the Atom is quick - there's no windshield, doors, or bodywork. In fact, it makes a Lotus Exige seem luxurious. What it has, however, is a 300-hp, 240 lb/ft supercharged 2.0-liter. Those are respectable numbers regardless of the car. Considering that each of those ponies needs only to move 4.9 pounds it's easy to understand why the Atom is likened to race cars, sport motorcycles, and go-karts.
19 Toyota Celica GT-Four
In the mood for some WRC-style action? Toyota's oft-forgotten turbocharged Celica could be just the ticket. There was much to like about Toyota's WRC-bred ST205 Celica Gt-Four. Its '3S-GTE' engine produced 240 hp and 223lb/ft, which was dispatched to all four wheels via a five-speed transmission, letting the Celica sprint from 0-60mph in just 5.9sec. Flat out, it could touch 153mph. Want more? It could easily be tuned to 300 hp.
18 Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth
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. It might look like a regular Cosworth but was a pure homologation special. 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.
17 Porsche 944 Turbo S
In 1983, Porsche presented the 944 with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder. 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 250 hp, 2.5-liter turbocharged engine. The 944 Turbo S was fast - 0 to 60 mph took only 5.5 seconds and it could top 162 mph, that's better than some modern sports cars.
16 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, usually a sensible car brand, has really squeezed every ounce of efficiency out of the 4-cylinder 2.0-liter. There's no lag from the supercharged and turbocharged engine - just press the pedal and hang on for dear life.
15 Lotus Esprit
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. It churned out 264 hp with 280 hp being 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!
14 Porsche 718 Cayman/Boxster
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 and the S gets an extra half-liter of displacement and 50 more horsepower. For its most powerful 718 models, Porsche gave the 2.5-liter single-turbo flat-four a whopping 365 horses, just five horsepower shy of a base 911 Carrera.
13 Mercedes-AMG CLA/GLA/A-CLASS 45
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.
12 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 turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder high-performance engine that produces 306 horses. The Type-R does 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, on to a top speed of 170 mph. It smashed the Nürburgring front-wheel-drive lap record, clocking 7 minutes and 43.8 second lap time.
11 Ford Focus RS
The 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 that finishes off the sculpted rear-end rather nicely.
10 Ford Mustang Ecoboost
Some Mustang purists will dismiss the 2.3-liter turbocharged model, however, the 1980s Fox Mustangs had small engines that delivered decent performance. 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.
9 Chevy Camaro 2.0
Muscle car purists may wonder why Chevy would produce a four-banger Camaro, but with modern technology, the new Camaro turbo has better performance than those classic V8 powered models from the past. Sure, it may lack the glorious soundtrack of the V8 engine, but the 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 275 wild horses - enough to propel the Camaro from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds, and to a top speed of 155 mph.
8 Audi S3
The Audi S3 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 get to 60 mph in a highly competitive 4.7 seconds. Sadly there's no manual transmission available, only a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic, however, it does feature a launch control mode that will make you the king of traffic light getaways.
7 Cadillac ATS
Looking for some class to go with your four-cylinder power? The Cadillac ATS premium sedan and coupe range would make a good choice. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine has a decent amount of power - with its 272 wild horses and 295lb-ft of torque, it should be possible to break traction and get into some sideways action. Too civilized or grown-up for that kind of behavior? There's an all-wheel-drive version available.
6 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X FQ400
Long after Mitsubishi discontinued the Lancer Evo, it's still a legend amongst performance car enthusiasts. The last version, the Evo X, had a 2.0-liter turbo engine that produced 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. Sold through Ralliart, tuned by HKS, and fitted with a plethora of unique special parts.
5 Alfa Romeo Giulia 2.0T
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, with its 510 wild, stampeding horses stole all the attention when it was announced. However, there's a cheaper 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.
4 VW Golf R
The Golf R packs a powerful four-cylinder turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive and strong performance for a family hatchback. The 2.0-liter turbo engine delivers 292 horsepower, 0 to 60 mph takes 4.5 seconds and it won't stop accelerating until the speedo needle is pointing at 155 mph. This makes the Golf R perfect for sneaking up on expensive sports cars and frustrating the drivers at traffic lights - and it's available with a manual transmission.
3 Subaru WRX STI
The Subaru WRX STI is not only a rally legend, it has also been doing quite well on the streets. Under the hood, you'll find a turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four that delivers 305 horses, sent to all four wheels via a six-speed manual. There's enough power and grip to send the car flying from standstill to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds, and on to a top speed of 160.
2 Audi TT
The TT comes with the signature Audi TFSI technology, 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. 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.
1 Alfa Romeo 4C
The Alfa Romeo 4C is a lightweight “junior supercar” with a carbon-fiber tub, cramped interior, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. To keep it as light as possible there's no power steering or luxury items. The result was an extremely capable little super sports car weighing in at 2,204 lbs. Its 1.8-liter turbocharged unit delivers 238 horses to the rear wheels, 0 to 60 mph takes 4.7 seconds and its top speed is 160 mph.