They say that there is no replacement for displacement, but a powerful engine is not the only thing that makes a car. Moreover, modern 4-cylinder engines can produce some pretty insane figures, sometimes touching the 400 horsepower mark. Oh, and they are also smaller and lighter, which often translates into better handling.
We decided to celebrate the best 4-cylinder sports cars, including many modern machines. The list will contain pure sports coupes and roadsters, but also hot versions of regular passenger vehicles. Despite their differences, all of them will have something in common, though, and it’s called pure driving enjoyment.
Toyota GR Supra 2.0
Toyota just introduced a 4-cylinder version of the new GR Supra. This trim is certainly not a surprise – the Bavarian twin BMW Z4 already comes with a similar engine. The motor is a 2.0-liter turbocharged unit with 255hp and 295 lb-ft, enough for a 0-60 time of only 5 seconds.
The engine in the 4-cylinder Supra is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission, which is one of the best in the business. More importantly, the lighter engine in the front means that the weight distribution is now 50:50, or in other words, perfect. We still haven’t tried it, but the handling should be sweet.
Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe / Spider
The Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe has a tiny engine with only a 1.75-liter capacity, yet many reviewers consider it as a supercar. The main reason why is the featherlight chassis – at only 1,973 lb (895 kg) dry for the Coupe and 2,072 lb (940 kg) dry for the spider, the 4C is as light as it gets.
The engine is no slouch, either. Thanks to the use of a turbocharger, it develops 240 horsepower, enough to propel the 4C to 62mph in only 4.5 seconds and up to 160mph (258 km/h). The 6-speed dual-clutch transmission is also blazing fast, and the whole car is as responsive as a race car.
Lotus Exige S 260 Series 2
Lotus was the first company that coined with lightness in their sports cars, often giving them a better performance than their higher-powered competition. The Exige is a perfect example of how low weight can be used to the driver’s advantage. The car only weighs 2,077 lb (942 kg), yet it can accelerate to 60mph in less than 4 seconds.
The Lotus Exige interestingly comes with Toyota’s 1.8-liter supercharged 2ZZ-GE 4-cylinder engine, which provides 260 horsepower in this tune. Unlike many competitors, Lotus only equips the Exige with a 6-speed manual transmission, which is the right decision if you ask us. Moreover, the Exige is one of the sweetest-handling machines ever made.
BMW Z4 2.0
The newest BMW Z4 was designed and built in collaboration with Toyota, with the Supra being a close relative. Like the 2020 Supra, the BMW Z4 also comes with a 4-cylinder engine that gets help from a turbocharger to produce some great power numbers.
The 2.0-liter unit develops 254 horsepower, which doesn’t sound like much, but remember that the Z4 is a lightweight roadster. The 0-60 sprint takes only 5 seconds, which should be enough to give you a thrilling ride. Furthermore, the Z4 handles like the best roadsters out there and has a slick 8-speed automatic transmission.
Jaguar F-Type 2.0
The Jaguar F-Type is arguably one of the best-looking modern sports cars. Angry, yet elegant, the F-Type turns heads everywhere it goes. Jaguar offers three different engines on the sports car, one of which is a 2.0-liter turbocharged unit with 296 horsepower and 295 lb-ft (400 Nm).
Even though it’s the entry-level motor, it can still propel the F-Type to 60mph in 5.7 seconds. More importantly, despite the “lack” of cylinders, the engine still produces pops and bangs under acceleration and deceleration. The Jaguar F-Type is only available with an 8-speed automatic transmission. That’s fine, though – the British sports car is designed to offer a combination of luxury and performance.
Porsche 718 Cayman / 718 Boxster
The newest versions of the 718 Cayman and 718 Boxster exclusively come with 4-cylinder versions, except for the track-focused versions. The turbocharged flat-four units in both the Cayman and the Boxster produce 300 horsepower from a 2.0-liter capacity.
With Porsche’s Sport Chrono Package and dual-clutch transmission, the engine can propel the sports cars to 60mph in only 4.7 seconds, and it won’t stop until it reaches 170 mph. The best thing about these sports cars, though, is how they handle. Right now, every other sports car uses the 718 Cayman and 718 Boxster as benchmarks in the design process, and that tells more than enough.
Audi TTS Coupe
Audi is mostly known for its 5-cylinder engines, but they have some excellent 4-cylinder units in the lineup. Our favorite is the TTS Coupe, which employs a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 with 288 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque (380 Nm). Paired with the super-fast dual-clutch automatic transmission, the engine can accelerate the small coupe to 60mph in only 4.4 seconds.
Only ten years ago, that was supercar territory. The Audi TTS is also equipped with a Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which helps with traction and stability. The short wheelbase and light body additionally help with handling and responsiveness – the TTS is one hell of a fun car to toss around.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
The MX-5 Miata is by far the best-selling roadster of all time and for a perfectly good reason – it’s affordable. But it’s not only that – the MX-5 Miata is also one of the most enjoyable vehicles to drive in history, thanks to the light and nimble chassis, and excellent weight distribution.
In the latest generation, the MX-5 Miata is equipped with a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated unit that sends 181hp to the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual transmission. This combination should be enough to give you thrills on a twisty mountain road, especially with the roof down.
Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ
The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins proved so popular that it’s hard to omit them from any list of sports cars, let alone one with 4-cylinder models. The 2.0-liter flat-four unit in these lightweight coupes produces 200 horsepower, enough for a 0-60 time of around 7 seconds.
Yes, we know that those numbers aren’t exceptional, but the 86 and BRZ tell the whole story only after you sit behind the steering wheel. The balanced chassis, responsive engine, and excellent 6-speed manual transmission provide the driver with a tonne of fun. The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ are so nicely balanced that even a beginner can drift in the corners without any issue.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300 Roadster
Mercedes’s only roadster in the lineup isn’t designed for outright performance. In true Mercedes-Benz fashion, the SLC provides the driver with a mix of a luxurious and sporty drive. Not that it’s slow – even in the entry-level 4-cylinder model, the SLC 300, there is enough power to give you an exhilarating drive on a twisty road.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 produces 241hp and 273 lb-ft (370 Nm) of torque and is paired to a 9-speed 9G-TRONIC automatic transmission. This engine and transmission combo can propel the SLC 300 to 60mph in 5.8 seconds. In our book, that’s enough for a thrilling ride, especially when paired with the agile handling of the SLC 300.
Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Fiat’s latest roadster is all about Italian design and engineering, with a tiny bit of Japanese spice. If you didn’t know already, the 124 Spider Abarth is based on the MX-5 Miata, but it has a slightly different body and a new engine.
Unlike its eastern twin, the 124 Spider Abarth has a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine with 164hp and 184 lb-ft (250 Nm) of torque. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s still enough for a 0-60 sprint of 6.8 seconds. More importantly, the Italian roadster comes with excellent 6-speed manual transmission, which inevitably intensifies the driving pleasure. It doesn’t hurt that the chassis is nicely balanced and the handling agile.
The Honda S2000 is a car that takes everything that makes a driver’s car good and amplifies it to eleven. Let’s start with the inline-4 engines because both the 2.0-liter and 2.2-liter versions are an engineering marvel. Honda decided not to use turbochargers for better responsiveness, yet managed to extract almost 250hp from both units.
The best thing about the motors is that they rev to the stratosphere, producing almost motorbike-like sounds. Moreover, the 6-speed manual transmission is easily one of the best in history, while the chassis is outstandingly well-engineered. The Honda S2000 is a genuinely exceptional driver’s car, and if you can get your hands on one, you are a lucky person.
Much like the closely-related Exige, Lotus’s roadster is all about lightness and nimbleness. The dry weight of the 3rd generation Cup 260 model is only 1,900 lb (862 kg), which transforms the Elise into one of the finest-handling cars on sale today.
The Lotus Elise has a mid-engine configuration for better weight distribution. In the middle, there is a Toyota-sourced 1.8-liter inline-4 with a supercharger. In the Cup 260 configuration, the motor produces 250 horsepower, enough for a 0-60 time of only 3.8 seconds. Like most Lotus cars, the engine is mated to a 6-speed manual, which certainly adds to the appeal.
Ever since Toyota launched the first MR2 in the 80s, the car was known as the “Ferrari for the masses.” The mid-engined sports car provided the driver with balanced and agile handling, had a rev-happy 1.6-liter 4A-GE naturally-aspirated engine, and a lightweight body. On a twisty mountain road, this recipe provided 99% of the thrill of driving a Ferrari but at a fraction of the price.
Toyota launched two new generations of the MR2, both of which improved on the driving dynamics front. The second-gen model is the most desirable, though, especially when equipped with the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 with 218hp.
Honda Integra Type R
Some people often disregard front-wheel-drive sports cars due to inadequate handling. Sure, that’s true on some vehicles, but wait until you try the Honda Integra Type R. Regarded by most as the best front-wheel-drive vehicle of all time, the Integra Type R is a pure joy to drive on a twisty road.
Part of the reason why this quirky-looking Japanese coupe is so good to drive is the engine. The naturally-aspirated 1.8-liter unit produces 195hp, enough for a 0-60 sprint of around 6 seconds. Honda also employed several weight-saving measures on the Type R model, which resulted in a dry weight of only 2,400 lb (1088 kg).
BMW M3 E30
One cannot talk about 4-cylinder sports cars without including the first-gen M3. For some people, the E30 is the best M3 in history, largely thanks to the excellent engine under the bonnet. The rev-happy unit in the first version has a 2.0-liter capacity and 200hp, but later models had up to 215 horses.
Like every M3 that succeeded it, the E30 had a rear-wheel-drive configuration. Thanks to the light engine in the front and the light body, the M3 E30 is a joy to drive on a twisty road. The excellent 5-speed manual transmission inevitably makes the whole driving experience even better.
Lately, Porsche produces only two mid-engine and rear-engine sports cars – the 718 Cayman and Boxster and 911. However, they coined with front-engine models in the past, and the 944 is their best example. The elegant sports car from the 80s had a selection of 2.5-liter, 2.7-liter, and 3.0-liter 4-cylinder engines, with or without a turbocharger.
The power ranges from 160hp to 250hp, which was pretty good for the time – the most potent version achieved the 0-62 sprint in only 5.7 seconds, and it didn’t stop until it reached 164mph. The car is also known for its excellent driving dynamics, largely thanks to the perfect 50:50 weight distribution.
The Nissan Silvia, also known as the 240SX in some markets, launched at a time when drifting just started being popular. Designed to be affordable yet great to drive, the Silvia immediately caught the attention of drifters around the world. Thanks to the 55:45 weight distribution, the Silvia is a very agile car with excellent driving dynamics.
The best thing about the Silvia, though, is the gem under the front bonnet. The legendary SR20DET has a 2.0-liter capacity and a turbocharger, producing 205hp in the S13, and 217hp in the S14 and S15 generations. The motor is also known for the excellent tuning potential – you can easily extract over 300hp with small modifications.
Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX
Even though the Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX is now over 20 years old, it still looks modern, especially with a crazy tuning kit installed. Like most Mitsubishi sports cars from the era, the Eclipse GSX comes with an all-wheel-drive system. Thanks to that, the car is effortless to drive fast in the corners, even when you tune the engine to the teeth.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged unit has 210hp and 214 lb-ft from the factory, but you all know that those numbers can quickly grow with an ECU tune. And even if you don’t tune it, the Eclipse GSX can still sprint to 60mph in only 6.8 seconds, an excellent result for the era.
Toyota Corolla AE86
The Nissan Silvia might’ve popularized drifting as a sport, but it was the Corolla AE86 that started it. Originally developed to be affordable and fun to drive on a twisty road, the AE86 quickly became synonymous with precise driving, largely thanks to the excellent chassis engineering.
The last rear-wheel-drive Corolla is super-fun to toss around a corner – it’s very nimble and playful. The popular 4A-GE 1.6-liter inline-4 naturally-aspirated engine further enhanced the driving experience with its revvy nature, while the slick-shifting manual transmission is the icing on the cake. It’s no coincidence that mint AE86 samples today cost more than when they were new!
Lancia Delta HF Integrale 16V
Rallying in the 80s produced some really legendary sports cars, most of which saw their street versions. One of the most popular cars from that era is the Lancia Delta HF Integrale – a sporty hatchback with neck-cracking performance numbers.
Under the bonnet, the Italians installed a 2.0-liter engine with 16 valves and a Garrett T3 turbocharger built for responsiveness. The motor produced 200hp, enough to propel the angry-looking hatchback to 62mph in only 5.7 seconds. More importantly, the Delta HF Integrale is known for the highly-engineered all-wheel-drive system with 47-53 torque split (front to rear), which made it drive like on rails in the corners.
Fiat 500 Abarth
When Fiat first launched the 500 in Europe, they probably weren’t thinking about launching it over the pond as well. Fortunately, after merging with Chrysler, the Italians brought the tiny charming hatchback to North America. Moreover, they introduced the hot Abarth version, similar to M-Performance and AMG from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The Fiat 500 Abarth employs a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that produces 160hp and 170 lb-ft. Yes, that isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to propel the lightweight Italian to 60mph in under 7 seconds. Like in a true driver’s car, the 500 Abarth comes with a 5-speed manual transmission that further intensifies the experience.
Toyota Altezza RS200
The Toyota Altezza RS200 is a version of the first-gen Lexus IS200, built for the Japanese domestic market. However, even though they look similar on the outside, the Altezza has an inline-4 engine, compared to the inline-6 in the Lexus.
And if you thought that the Lexus had the better engine, think again. The naturally-aspirated 3S-GE motor with BEAMS (Breakthrough Engine with Advanced Mechanism System) is an absolute gem. Toyota managed to extract 210 horsepower from the 2.0-liter engine without the use of a turbocharger, which was a pretty good number for the time. The Altezza R200 is also known for the excellent driving dynamics and transparent Lexus-style rear lights.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X
Dial the clock ten years back and the most popular rally-inspired sports sedan in the world was the Lancer Evo X. Sadly, Mitsubishi won’t produce a new version, at least not shortly. Nonetheless, the latest generation of the Evolution series is still a hell of a car, even when compared to more modern machines.
Under the bonnet, the Evo X has a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that develops 295hp in the basic tune, and up to 400hp in factory-tuned versions. Moreover, the S-AWC (Super All Wheel Control) 4WD system literally glues the car to the road in the corners, making it a well-rounded driving machine.
Subaru WRX STI
Fortunately for rally enthusiasts around the world, Subaru still produces its excellent lineup of WRX models. The latest WRX STI follows the same recipe as all previous versions, including a symmetrical all-wheel-drive system and a flat-four turbocharged engine for lower gravity. This arrangement gives the WRX STI outstanding traction and drivability, even on slippery surfaces.
Straight-line performance is covered as well. The 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four engine develops healthy 310hp and 290 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel the sedan to 60mph in less than 5 seconds. Moreover, Subaru decided to keep the 6-speed manual transmission in this generation, which is always the right decision in a sports car.
Toyota Celica GT-4
Toyota was a powerhouse in the World Rally Championship at the start of the 90s. Inevitably, their success brought some pretty astonishing cars to the street, like the Celica GT-4, for example. The Japanese manufacturer managed to launch three generations of the vehicle, all of which are characterized by excellent engineering and performance.
Our pick of the bunch is the last ST205 model, which employed the popular 2.0-liter turbocharged 3S-GTE engine with 255hp, which propelled the Celica to 60mph in 5.9 seconds. Toyota used several technologies to make the engine more responsive, such as a twin-entry turbocharger. The Celica GT-4 is also equipped with an advanced AWD system for better traction on slippery surfaces. It’s a rally car, after all!
Mercedes A45 S AMG
When it comes to four-cylinder engines, the M139 unit is the most advanced and powerful in the world right now. Even though it only has a 2.0-liter capacity, Mercedes-AMG managed to extract 416 horsepower and 369 lb-ft in the “S” version of the A45 AMG model, which is mind-blowing.
In the A45 S AMG, the turbocharged gem is mated to an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission for fast shifting times. Inevitably, the Germans also equipped the sporty hatch with an all-wheel-drive system, as the standard FWD configuration couldn’t cope with that much power. The car finishes the 0-60 sprint in only 3.9 seconds, faster than some supercars. North America will probably get this motor in the A-Class sedan shortly.
Ford Focus RS
Ford was the first company that flirted with an obnoxiously powerful engine in a small hatchback with the Focus RS. The first RS was a particularly interesting beast because it had a front-wheel-drive configuration. However, our money would go on the second-gen model, which gains an all-wheel-drive system with a Drift mode for more enjoyable handling.
The 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost engine in this model develops healthy 350hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel the car to 60mph in only 4.5 seconds. Fortunately, Ford offers the Focus RS only with a 6-speed manual transmission, which further intensifies the experience.
Volkswagen Golf R
Volkswagen used a tried and true recipe of all-wheel-drive traction and a powerful four-cylinder engine to create the Golf R. Still, unlike the Focus RS, the most powerful version of the Golf is more focused on a premium driving experience on the street. Close your eyes while driving and you’ll probably mistake it for an Audi.
Not that it lacks in the performance department. The 2.0 TFSI four-cylinder engine develops meaty 288hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, enough for a 0-60 sprint of under five seconds. The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system will take care of the grip and traction, while the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic or 6-speed manual are there to give you a choice between performance and involvement.
Audi’s “S” family of models isn’t the highest-performing in their lineup. Nonetheless, these cars still offer outstanding performance and drivability, especially on the street. The Audi S3 from 2015-2016 is our favorite one, simply because it is effortless to live with, yet it can put your heart on fire every time you step on the gas pedal.
Like every other Audi performance model, the S3 comes with a Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which makes it usable in all weather conditions, including rain and snow. Moreover, the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 engine develops 292hp and 280 lb-ft, enough for a 0-60 acceleration of under 6 seconds.
Chevrolet Camaro 1LS
When muscle cars started roaming the streets across America, it was unthinkable to equip them with a 4-cylinder engine. Still, advancements in technology and engineering made that possible. The Camaro 1LS is a perfect example that a small engine can work in a sporty muscle car.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged unit in the Camaro develops 275hp and 295 lb-ft, enough for a 0-60 sprint of less than 6 seconds. Moreover, the lighter engine gives the entry-level Camaro a more agile handling and better responsiveness. Finally, the 6-speed manual transmission is great news for enthusiasts that want a pure driving experience.
Ford Mustang EcoBoost
Chevrolet isn’t the only company that makes a 4-cylinder muscle car. Ford also offers such an engine in the Mustang. The EcoBoost unit is the same from the Focus RS – a 2.3-liter motor with 332hp and 350 lb-ft. That’s enough for a 0-60 time of only 4.5 seconds, close to some supercars.
Inevitably, the lighter engine also improves the handling of the entry-level Mustang, making it easier to toss around a corner. Ford offers a 6-speed manual on the EcoBoost model, which is welcome, but you can also opt for a 10-speed automatic, and we welcome the choice here.
Volvo S60 / V60 Polestar
Volvo recently announced that they would only use four-cylinder engines in their future cars, which was unavoidably met with suspicion among enthusiasts. However, after they introduced the Polestar version of the S60 sedan and V60 wagon, things quickly changed in their favor.
The hot versions of their most popular sedan use a hybrid powerplant. The internal-combustion engine has four cylinders and only a 2.0-liter capacity, yet it develops 316hp with the help of both a turbocharger and a supercharger. The electric motors push the power up to 415hp, which is enough for a 0-60 time of fewer than 5 seconds.
BMW 230i Coupe
The 2-Series Coupe is perhaps the best driver vehicle in BMW’s lineup, apart from maybe the Z4 roadster. Small and light, the entry-level Bavarian coupe provides the driver with balanced handling, excellent performance, and luxurious interior.
The best thing about this coupe is that you can get a thrilling drive in the relatively inexpensive 230i version. Equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the 230i Coupe is a joy to drive on the street or track. The motor in this trim develops healthy 249hp, which is enough for a 0-60 sprint of only 5.8 seconds. The 230i Coupe can be purchased with an RWD or AWD configuration.
Alfa Romeo Giulia 2.0
Look, we know that you think that the entry-level Giulia isn’t an outright sports car, but wait until you try it. The Italian sports sedan is competing against the likes of BMW 3-Series, and Lexus IS, both of which are known for their excellent dynamics. Well, the Alfa Romeo Giulia manages to out-drive them – that’s how good it is.
From the super-responsive and fast steering to the outstandingly well-balanced chassis, the Italian sedan is a joy to drive in the corners. The 2.0-liter turbocharged unit with 280hp is no slouch, either, taking the car to 60mph in only 5.5 seconds. Alfa Romeo offers the Giulia in RWD configuration for more engaging handling or AWD configuration for better stability.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Have you ever heard about the term hot hatch? Well, it was invented when Volkswagen launched the first generation of the Golf GTI. Initially sold in Europe, the GTI quickly became a sports car icon. People around the world loved the affordability, performance, handling, and ease of use of the practical Golf GTI.
Every generation of this car has a four-cylinder engine under the bonnet. The latest, 7th generation uses a 2.0 TFSI turbocharged unit with 228hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel the hatchback to 60mph in only 5.9 seconds. Volkswagen offers the GTI with a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Mini Cooper Works Hardtop
Every car in the Mini lineup is built to be fun to drive, but it’s the John Cooper Works versions that amplify the fun to eleven. The Hardtop version with three doors is our favorite, simply because it is super agile and responsive in the corners.
The John Cooper Works Hardtop is equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 228hp and 235 lb-ft, which is more than enough for the small and light hatchback. The 0-60 sprint only lasts 5.9 seconds when equipped with the lightning-quick dual-clutch transmission. Purists can soon put their hands on a 6-speed manual in the Knights Edition, which is the model we would go for.
Hyundai Veloster N
The Veloster is one curious coupe. On the driver’s side, it has one large door, like in all other coupes. On the passenger side, though, the Veloster has two doors, just like in a compact hatchback. Hyundai reckons that this configuration helps with practicality, and we can certainly confirm that.
Fortunately, the Korean company also offers the Veloster in a sporty “N” guise. The Veloster N is equipped with chassis modifications and a more powerful engine for a joyful and spirited driving experience. The 2.0-liter turbocharged unit has 250hp in the standard model, or 275hp in the performance model, enough to propel the funky-looking coupe to 60mph under 6 seconds.
Chevrolet Cobalt SS
American sports cars are almost always equipped with V6 or V8 engines. Still, General Motors tried to change that with the Chevrolet Cobalt SS. Designed to be a driver’s car, the Cobalt SS embarrassed many Japanese and European vehicles from that era.
Initially, the car was offered with a 2.0-liter supercharged engine with 205hp, but General Motors later replaced it with a more potent 2.0-liter turbo with 260hp. Both engines are easily tunable – Chevrolet even offered tuning kits from the factory. This made the Cobalt SS an icon among car enthusiasts, especially those that value aftermarket enhancements.
Ford Fiesta ST
Ford’s European sports car division produced some pretty amazing vehicles in recent years. One of those automobiles is the Fiesta ST – a hot version of a city car that’s mostly built for affordability and low fuel consumption.
The Fiesta ST sits on a front-wheel-drive platform, but Ford still managed to make it drive like a genuine sports car. The front end is very responsive, and there is no hint of understeer like on other FWD vehicles. The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine with 197hp certainly adds to the experience with strong acceleration and meaty sound. Moreover, the Fiesta ST is equipped with a 6-speed manual, which is always the right decision in a sports car.