Very small car engines – which we’ll define as those up to one litre, or 1000cc – have been making a comeback in recent years.
Until the 1970s they were all over the place. Back then, cars were much lighter than they are now (mostly because they weren’t weighed down with safety equipment) and expectations of performance were low, so a one-litre engine provided all the power most people needed.
As cars became heavier and people wanted to go faster, the average size of an engine increased, to the point where one-litre units became extremely rare.
But then came concerns about fuel economy and exhaust emissions. Manufacturers realised that by ‘down-sizing’ (building smaller engines and turbocharging or supercharging them) they could offer the same power as a larger engine along with – on paper, at least – much better economy and CO2 figures.
The CO2 issue was particularly important, because the less of it the car produced on the official test, the less Vehicle Excise Duty the owners would have to pay.
Eventually, things got to the point where one-litre engines became quite common. There are no fewer than 21 mainstream manufacturers currently offering them in the UK, and over the next few minutes you’ll see who they all are.
Small but powerful: cars with one-litre engines
The MiTo is the smallest Alfa Romeo, and also the only one currently available with an engine under 1000cc.
It’s an unusual unit in two ways. First, it really is extraordinarily small at just 875cc, and second it has only two cylinders rather than the three which are more common for a sub-1-litre engine.
If you know anything about the Italian motor industry you’ll be aware that this is actually a Fiat unit known as the TwinAir.
Most car brands within the Volkswagen Group (with obvious exceptions of Bentley, Bugatti and Porsche) use a 999cc three-cylinder turbo petrol engine.
In Audi’s case, it appears – in both 94bhp and 114bhp forms – in the A1 and A3 hatchbacks, and in Audi’s smallest SUV, the Q2.
In 2018 this engine won its category in the International Engine of the Year awards, bringing to an end a six-year run of success for the similar Ford EcoBoost.
BMW is one of several manufacturers which hasn’t paid much attention to the up to 1000cc revival. The only it car it builds with an engine this small is the i3.
Actually, all i3s are driven entirely by electricity, but some also have a 647cc two-cylinder which acts as a generator (or, to use the industry term, ‘range extender’), firing up only when the battery needs to be recharged.
The only car Caterham currently produces the Seven, and the best-known versions of that are generally the ones with the most power.
A few years ago, however, Caterham sprang a surprise by introducing a new variant called the 160. Its 660cc Suzuki three-cylinder engine was the smallest ever fitted to a Caterham, and although it had twice the power of the very first Lotus Seven it was still the slowest of the modern cars by some margin.
However, with this unit, steel wheels and skinny tyres, the 160 really caught the spirit of the original Seven, and it has proved to be very popular.
The 160 in the title follows Caterham’s policy of naming its cars after their approximate power-to-weight ratio in bhp per tonne. The Suzuki engine produces a maximum of 80bhp and the whole car weighs around half a tonne. (Actually its official kerb weight is 490kg, but that’s close enough.)
One of Citroen’s most famous cars was only ever available with engines well under one litre. The 2CV had a two-cylinder unit which started out at 375cc and never got further than 602cc in 42 years of production.
There is nothing like this in Citroen’s current range. The company’s smallest-capacity car is the C1, which is very closely related to the Toyota Aygo and uses a Toyota engine.
Although Dacia is a Romanian brand, it’s now a subsidiary of Renault, and its cars are made almost entirely of Renault parts.
These include two three-cylinder petrol engines, a 74bhp 998cc one without a turbocharger and a smaller but more powerful 89bhp 898cc one with a turbo.
Both are available in the Sandero hatchback and Logan estate, but not in the Duster SUV.
Fiat’s TwinAir engine, which as we’ve already seen is fitted to the Alfa Romeo MiTo, also appears in Fiat’s own 500 and Panda.
It was the first engine designed from scratch to use the brilliant MultiAir technology, which had previously been used retrospectively on an existing engine.
With its distinctive purring sound, the TwinAir is not only a very advanced piece of technology – it also makes the 500 in particular as cute as a basketful of kittens.
Ford was one of the first manufacturers in the modern era to develop a one-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, though many others have followed since.
The 999cc EcoBoost has been highly praised. In the International Engine of the Year awards, it won its class every year from 2012 to 2017, and was rated first overall from 2012 to 2014.
Ford uses it in the Fiesta, Focus, EcoSport, B-MAX and C-MAX. Until very recently it even appeared in the Mondeo, which at nearly 4.9 metres long must be one of the largest cars ever fitted with a one-litre engine.
Oddly enough, Ford’s smallest car, the Ka+, doesn’t have it. Engines of this type are costly, and a Ka+ fitted with one would probably be too expensive for its target market.
Engine choices for the Honda Civic launched in 2017 included a 988cc three-cylinder turbo petrol which had not previously been seen in any European Honda.
This is the only engine of its type currently used by Honda in this country. The smaller Jazz has a larger, but less complex and therefore cheaper, four-cylinder non-turbo 1.2.
Hyundai has a 998cc three-cylinder petrol engine which may or may not be turbocharged depending on what car it’s fitted to, and is therefore available in a wide range of power outputs.
If you want to experience it, you can do so by buying a specific model in the i10, i20, i30 or Kona ranges.
The same engine just referred to in the Hyundai section is also used by Kia, which is not at all surprising since the two brands belong to the same company, with a head office in South Korea but a European base in Frankfurt.
Kia fits the engine to the Picanto and Rio hatchbacks and the Stonic compact SUV.
Apart from a six-year gap earlier in this decade, Nissan has been building Micras with engines under one litre since 1982.
Today, it uses two of them – an 898cc turbo and a 998cc non-turbo. Both were developed by Renault, which became an Alliance partner of Nissan in 1999.
Peugeot has a three-cylinder engine which it uses extensively, but it doesn’t fall within the scope of this article because, at 1.2 litres, it’s too large.
The only one-litre Peugeot currently available is the 108 city car. Like the Citroen C1, this is almost exactly the same thing as a Toyota Aygo, and the engine was developed by Toyota, not Peugeot.
As we have already seen (and will see again), Renault has two engines under one litre which are also used by other manufacturers.
Renault fits the 898cc turbo version to the Twingo city car, the Clio supermini and the Captur compact SUV. The Twingo also gets the larger 998cc non-turbo.
The Volkswagen Group’s one-litre turbo petrol engine already mentioned in the context of Audi is also used widely by SEAT.
The Spanish brand’s sub-1000cc models are the Arona, Ateca, Ibiza, Leon, Mii and Toledo, though all expect the Mii are also available with larger engines.
VW’s smallest engine naturally appears in several Skodas. The Czech cars fitted with it are the Citigo (which uses nothing else), Fabia, Karoq, Octavia and Rapid.
smart is yet another manufacturer which uses Renault’s smallest engines.
The 898cc and 998cc units feature in the fortwo and forfour, which were developed in conjunction with the third-generation Renault Twingo.
One of the two engines offered in the Suzuki Baleno when it was launched in 2016 was a new one-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo called Boosterjet, which was very appromixately three-quarters of an existing 1.4-litre four-cylinder.
It was received very well right from the start, and Suzuki has since used it in the Swift and SX4 S-Cross. It will also become available in the Vitara very soon.
The Celerio city car also has a one-litre three-cylinder engine, though not a turbocharged one, but this is of an older design and is not related to the Boosterjet.
As you’ve read twice already, the 998cc engine found in the Citroen C1 and Peugeot 108 also appears under the bonnet of the Toyota Aygo, which was developed alongside them as part of an arrangement between the French and Japanese companies.
Toyota also uses this engine in the slightly larger Yaris.
A few years ago, Vauxhall developed a one-litre three-cylinder engine which first came to the UK market in the ADAM and subsequently appeared in the Corsa.
It has since been withdrawn from both ranges, and for the moment is sold only in the Viva.
To round things off, here’s another mention of the little VW Group engine which, as we’ve seen, is fitted to three Audis, six SEATs and five Skodas.
Naturally, Volkswagen itself uses it too. In ascending order of car size, it features in the up! city car, the Polo supermini, the Golf family hatchback and the T-Roc SUV.
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