While 3-cylinder engines existed during the ’80s and ’90s, their extreme vibration levels, and low power and torque left much to be desired. However, due to evolving technology during the last decade, automotive manufacturers discovered that they can achieve the same amount of power on, say, a V8 engine, with half the number of cylinders, thanks to turbochargers and superchargers, and powerful hybrid drivetrains.
Due to strict emission standards, car manufacturers are competing toward achieving fuel efficiency and greener engines. This has seen several automakers ditch the larger displacement V12 and V8 engines and adopt the smaller displacement engines. And surprisingly, 3-cylinder engines have proved to deliver reasonably or better power and fuel efficiency, combined with several tricks, including hybrid systems. Moreover, the tiny three-pot engines are cheaper to buy and maintain. Here’s how the best of them stack up when it comes to their power output.
10 BMW 2-Series Active Tourer 225xe – 134 HP
The 225xe Active Tourer has had its niche for years. It’s one of the quickest and best-handling MPV you can buy and is also economical. It was the first plug-in hybrid MPV, rivaling the discontinued Toyota Prius+, which was more of a full hybrid than a plug-in.
The car’s drivetrain is what makes it stand out. There is a range of diesel and petrol options to pick from the 2-Series Active Tourer, but the top-end 225xe is a plug-in hybrid that utilizes a reworked powertrain found in the BMW i8. Here, it pairs a 134-hp 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine with an 87-hp electric motor to churn out a combined 221hp.
9 2023 Mini Cooper Countryman – 134 HP
The second-generation Mini Countryman’s larger size makes it the more useful trim among the Mini models, featuring larger dimensions, increased cargo space, and a bigger rear seat. True, it doesn’t embody the Mini ethos (small and light), but its beautiful interior and distinctive bodywork at least make it look the part.
The new Cooper S E was introduced in 2017, a plug-in hybrid variant combining a 134-hp 3-cylinder engine and an 87-hp electric motor to produce a total output of 221 hp and 284 lb-ft of torque. And even though the Cooper S variant uses a new inline-four, the hybrid model is the quickest but is offset by its extra weight and higher price tag.
8 Volvo XC40 T5 Twin – 178 HP
Volvo XC40 is the brand’s mid-sized premium SUV that represents the best of both worlds, from gasoline engines and plug-in hybrids to fully electric models. The T2 and T3 are pure combustion trims (1.5-liter 3-cylinder engines) that produce 127 hp and 161 hp, respectively.
The more powerful hybrid trim (T5 Recharge) adopts the same 3-cylinder engine uprated to 178 hp. It combines with the electric motor to produce a total of 261 hp. If you factor in the XC40’s competitive pricing as well as the brand’s top-notch safety rating, you are left with one of the world’s best appealing offerings.
7 Ford Fiesta ST200 – 200 HP
The Fiesta might not be as badass as the Ford Focus RS, but it’s still one of the best hot hatches from the Blue Oval. It packs all the goodies in a hatchback – lovable, lively suspension, and of course, thrifty on gas. But the most significant change on the seventh generation Fiesta ST was the company’s move from a four-banger to a 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine that produces 200 hp in the ST200 variant
And while the Fiesta ST is quite affordable, the cut-rate interior and cramped rear seats are carried over from the less powerful base model Fiesta. Nonetheless, the pint-sized hot hatch delivers exhilarating performance, getting from 0-60 mph in a scant 6.5 seconds.
6 Range Rover Evoque P300e – 200 HP
This second-generation Evoque was revealed in 2018, representing the brand’s entry into the electrification era. It featured subtle styling tweaks, albeit maintaining its basic design recipe – an SUV blended in a coupe-like silhouette. The Evoque P300e received improved aerodynamics, interior, and infotainment system.
But the most significant change was the plug-in hybrid powertrain, consisting of a front-mounted 200-hp 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine and a 109-hp electric motor mounted on the rear axle. With a combined output of 309 hp, the P300e is the most powerful Evoque in the brand’s line-up.
5 BMW i8 Roadster/BMW i8 – 231 HP
Sure, the BMW i8 wasn’t the first hybrid car, but it led other sports cars into the hybrid world. And even though the hybrid powertrain could only produce a total of 369 hp, the small, powerful 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine contributed the most power, churning out 231 hp of the total output.
The ICE drives the rear wheels while the electric motor powers the front wheels. The extensive use of aluminum and carbon fiber makes the i8 fast, economical, and fun to drive. Before being discontinued, the BMW i8 was the top-selling plug-in electric sports car in 2020.
4 Toyota GR Yaris – 268 HP
Born from the WRC, this hot hatch delivers an endless, exhilarating driving experience. The GR Yaris is developed by experts from Toyota’s Gazoo Racing division. It is therefore equipped with advanced technology such as the GR-FOUR – Toyota’s first sports four-wheel-drive system in over 20 years.
Since its arrival, the GR Yaris has defied its critics and lived up to its much-generated hype. The GR-Yaris is not your ordinary hatchback. Under the hood is an intoxicating turbocharged 1.6-liter 3-cylinder engine that produces from 257 hp to 268 hp (depending on the trim level).
3 Toyota GR Corolla – 300 HP
Recently, Toyota went on a crusade to add excitement to its car lineup with the sportier rally-inspired GR Yaris. However, the Yaris is only sold in global markets outside the U.S., so Toyota announced the GR Corolla for the American market.
The GR Corolla adopts the turbocharged 1.6-cylinder 3-cylinder powerplant and a six-speed manual transmission plucked from its brother, the GR Yaris. The little triple in the Corolla is amped to produce 300 hp—32 more horses than the GR Yaris. That’s an eye-opening 100 hp per cylinder. And just like the GR Yaris, a standard four-wheel-drive system is also offered in the GR Corolla.
2 1990–1996 Mazda Eunos Cosmo – 300-HP Triple-Rotor Engine
Everyone will agree that the Mazda RX-7 was the best sports car to utilize the rotary engine due to the car’s styling, handling, and a high-revving engine. However, the Eunos Cosmos is often overlooked. While it adopted the twin-turbo 13B in the RX-7, it was also available in a more powerful 20B-REW.
To date, the 20B-REW is the most powerful road-going Wankel-powered sports car. The 2.0-liter twin-turbo triple-rotor engine produced 300 hp and 297 lb-ft of torque. And while the Coupe was limited to a top speed of 112 mph, given a free run, the 20B-REW version could hit 158 mph.
1 Koenigsegg Gemera – 600 HP
Koenigsegg doesn’t disappoint when it comes to high-performance supercars. In 2020, they debuted the company’s first four-seater hypercar—the Gemera. The Tiny Friendly Giant (TFG) made headlines as it packed a hell of a punch twin-turbo 2.0-liter 3-cylinder engine that cranked 600 hp.
Backed by a hybrid powertrain (three electric motors), the Gemera has a total power output of 1700 hp and 2581 lb-ft of torque. This power is enough to propel the hypercar from 0 to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds. With an acclaimed top speed of 250 mph, the Gemera is one of the fastest four-seater family cars in the world.