Get a Hot 4-Cylinder Engine

With gas hovering around $3 per gallon, motorists are once again pondering ways to trim the fat

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When gas prices spiked in the 1970s, many car buyers traded in their all-American V-8 engines for six- and four-cylinder models that turned out to be underpowered, noisy, and highly unsatisfying. Little surprise that V-8s came roaring back as gas prices fell over the next 25 years.

Now, with gas hovering around $3 per gallon, motorists are once again pondering ways to trim the fat—and this time, shedding a few horsepower is a smart option. While hybrids get the headlines, carmakers have also been producing a new generation of smaller engines with nearly as much muscle as the V-8s of yore—and far better gas mileage. Spacious vehicles like the Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu, and Toyota RAV4 now come with thrifty four-cylinder engines that provide plenty of pop on the highway and mileage in the mid-20s. And unlike hybrids, there's no price premium, so buyers save at both the dealership and the pump.

Four-cylinder engines used to be an automotive afterthought, dropped into bland econoboxes while the automakers pitched every self-respecting driver a V-6 or a V-8. But automotive purists these days are heaping praise on nimble bantamweights that offer an appealing mix of performance and efficiency. "Four is enough," declared Car and Driver when reviewing the 2008 Accord, which comes standard with a 177-horsepower four-cylinder engine that averages about 25 miles per gallon. "We were in love." There's an optional 268-horsepower V-6, but Car and Driver fretted that it might actually be too powerful for a family sedan.

Some automakers are even infusing muscle-car characteristics into thriftier offerings. The standard engine on the new Malibu, for example, is a 169-horsepower four-cylinder that actually rumbles a bit: "It was designed to provide good induction and exhaust noise, which always complements cars that are fun to drive," says James Bell, publisher of the car-research website IntelliChoice. In addition to the Malibu, Accord, and RAV4, his favorite four-cylinder engines are those in the Nissan Altima sedan and Honda CR-V crossover.

Dual savings. On many midsize cars, there are compound savings from choosing a smaller engine. For one thing, more powerful engines aren't always available as an a la carte option; often you have to upgrade to a more expensive trim line first. The four-cylinder Accord, for instance, starts at about $21,000; opting for the V-6 raises the starting price to more than $26,000. In addition to $5,000 in upfront costs, going with the smaller engine will save a typical driver about $250 a year in gas.

More efficient engines also let buyers trim costs without necessarily downsizing their car. Data from J. D. Power show that the proportion of large cars on the road—about 28 percent of the total—has barely changed in recent years, but there are fewer eight- and six-cylinder engines and more four-cylinders. The biggest trend is the shift to more versatile crossovers, which ride like a sedan but sit high like an SUV and require few trade-offs. Models like the Mazda CX-7 and new Nissan Rogue offer sleek styling, lots of cargo space, and a zippy base engine with decent mileage.

There are still some clunkers out there, so bargain shoppers should steer away from cars that have below-average ratings for mileage or horsepower, take uncomfortably long getting up to highway speed, or shift abruptly. The Chrysler Sebring four-cylinder gets decent mileage, for instance, but ranks low in the U.S. News car rankings on account of "lethargic" performance and other flaws. And people with big families or other heavy hauling needs can benefit from smaller engines, too. The RAV4, for example, comes with an optional V-6 engine that's so muscular it makes the crossover one of the fastest vehicles in Toyota's entire lineup. "That's completely unnecessary," says Bell. "If you need such power, get it in a bigger SUV that has more towing and utility." And save a few bucks along the way.