Dec. 07, 2021
Knowing how something works is not only satisfying but also makes it easier to diagnose and fix problems when they do occur.
The simplicity of turning the key to start a car means that the car engine is often taken for granted. Few drivers consider all the technical marvels that happen under the bonnet as they drive from A to B, but the engine is actually an impressive feat of engineering.
The engine relies on internal combustion; a small, controlled explosion that produces energy. This is the effect of igniting the fuel-air mixture in the car's individual cylinders, a process that happens thousands of times a minute and helps move the car.
The process that powers the car engine is called the combustion cycle. In most cases, the cycle has four steps or 'strokes' (hence the name four-stroke engine). These include intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. Below, we look at how these individual strokes affect the combustion cycle of a car engine.
Intake: During this stroke, the piston moves downwards and the intake valves open and release the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber. The valves are opened and closed with the help of the camshaft. The piston moves upwards/downwards with the help of the crankshaft.
Compression: As the name suggests, the piston moves upwards during this stroke and compresses the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber.
Combustion (power): The spark plug creates a spark and ignites the compressed hot air-fuel mixture during this stroke. It causes a small explosion and the energy generated pushes the piston downwards. This shop provides the power to propel the vehicle. For this reason it is also known as the power stroke.
Exhaust: Once the piston has moved downwards, the exhaust valve opens. As the piston moves upwards, it expels the gases produced by the explosion through the exhaust valve. This cycle is repeated thousands of times per minute and provides power to the vehicle.
There was a time when the more cylinders a car had, the better its performance - but this is no longer the case. The development of powerful fuel injection systems and turbochargers means that cars with fewer cylinders can compete with larger engines. Here, we take a look at common engine cylinder configurations and what types of cars they might be found in.
Twin-cylinder engines are very rare because of their low power output and capacity. However, some manufacturers are now using turbochargers to create smaller, environmentally friendly twin-cylinder engines.
Three-cylinder engines are used in smaller cars, although the introduction of turbochargers has meant that they have started to appear in larger family hatchbacks, such as the Ford Focus. Three-cylinder engines produce a distinctive buzzing sound and are known for their chattering vibrations, a result of the odd number of cylinders that affect the balance of the engine.
Easily the most common configuration, four-cylinder engines are used in most small to medium-sized cars and are almost always set up in an inline layout. Four cylinders provide a large amount of vehicle engine output and can be made very powerful by the introduction of a turbocharger.
Five-cylinder engines are very rare and have a similar vibration feel to three-cylinder engines. Volvo is a manufacturer that often uses five-cylinder engines, as the comfort and refinement of the car counteract the vibration effect.
Six-cylinder engines are found in high-end performance and sports cars and are usually set up in a V-shaped or straight engine layout. Historically, six-cylinder engines were not considered as powerful, but now, thanks to turbochargers, they are fitted to some of the most powerful cars in the world.
Cars with eight or more cylinders usually belong in the supercar bracket because of their enormous capacity and power output. They are usually set up in a V-shape and are therefore called V8, V10, or V12.
In the simplest terms, engine layout refers to the arrangement and number of cylinders in an engine. There are many different engine layouts, but three car engine layouts are commonly used.
The most common layout is the Straight or Inline engine layout. As the name implies, the cylinders are arranged vertically, i.e. one after the other. This type of engine can be placed in the car either parallel or vertically depending on the number of cylinders. When placed parallel to the car the engine layout is called a straight layout, when placed perpendicular to the car it is an inline layout.
Inline/in-line engines are widely used because of their simple and inexpensive manufacturing and installation process. In-line engines can be seen in entry-level family cars such as hatchbacks because they are compact and can accommodate other car parts around them. In-line engines, on the other hand, can have more cylinders and therefore have more power. Luxury cars, such as those from BMW or Mercedes, have inline engines under the bonnet.
Unlike inline engines, the Flat engine has cylinders placed horizontally. It is also known as a boxer engine because the piston movement mimics that of a boxer punching before a fight. A boxer engine is a balanced engine, by balanced we mean low vibration due to the forces generated by the piston movement.
Another aspect of the Flat Engine is its low centre of mass, which improves the handling of the car. In addition, due to the large surface area, all cylinders are air-cooled. Compared to inline engines, the Flat Engine is expensive to manufacture and is not preferred by many car manufacturers due to its wide shape. The only car manufacturers to have boxer engines in their line-up were Porsche and Subaru.
The V-engine is a very popular engine layout that can be found in almost all high-performance vehicles. The cylinder banks, i.e. the chambers in which the pistons move, are arranged in such a way that they represent a V-shape when the engine is viewed from the front.
This layout differs from other engines in that more cylinders can be accommodated in a smaller space. Meaning more power while still maintaining the aesthetic appearance of the car. v-shaped engines are more prone to vibration than straight engines and are more complex to construct and therefore costly to maintain. However, this layout produces more power because all the pistons achieve their power strokes at shorter intervals.
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