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What is the Difference Between a 4 and 6 Cylinder Engine?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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In a four-stroke engine, a series of movements causes fuel to be converted into forward motion. All else being equal, the difference between a 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engine is that the latter produces more power. This is due to the two extra cylinders that create additional piston thrust.

In a basic engine design, pistons travel down cylinder sleeves or chambers, allowing intake valves to open. Intake valves let fuel and air enter the cylinders, while rising pistons compress these gasses. Spark plugs ignite the compressed gas, causing explosions that drive the pistons back down. The next rise of the pistons coincides with exhaust valves opening to clear the chambers. The timing of the pistons is staggered so that one pair rises while another falls. Pistons are connected to rocker arms, which turn a crankshaft; then the driveshaft turns the wheels, thereby converting fuel into motion.

In a 4-cylinder engine, there are four pistons rising and falling in four chambers. A 6-cylinder engine features six pistons and produces a theoretical 50% more power than the same 4-cylinder engine. While a 4-cylinder engine might hesitate when you press on the gas, a 6-cylinder will tend to be more responsive, with greater get-up-and-go. The 4-cylinder engine is standard in smaller cars, as the relatively light weight of the vehicle makes it an economical choice with plenty of power for average motoring needs. Many models include a 6-cylinder engine upgrade option.

The 6-cylinder engine is standard on passenger cars, vans, small trucks and small to midsize sports utility vehicles (SUVs). Some of these models may also offer alternate engine designs as options. Standard trucks and larger SUVs commonly feature an 8-cylinder engine. These heavier vehicles are used for towing and carrying substantial weight.

Though more cylinders equal more power when comparing the same engine models, there are exceptions when comparing different engines. Improved engine designs over the years have resulted in substantial gains. This has made 4-cylinder engines more powerful than they were a decade ago, and 8-cylinder engines more fuel-efficient than they once were. In short, a 6-cylinder engine from 1993 that’s still running strong might nevertheless have less power than a recently designed 4-cylinder engine. In addition, a new 8-cylinder engine might get better gas mileage than the older 6-cylinder engine.

If deciding between a 4 and 6-cylinder engine on a new vehicle, there are a few considerations. The smaller engine will be less expensive and should get slightly better gas mileage. The disadvantage is a lack of power that might factor in more for commuters and travelers. For hilly or mountainous areas, the 6-cylinder engine would likely be a better choice. If interested in towing substantial weight, such as a powerboat or house trailer, consider an 8-cylinder motor.

Note that not all 4-cylinder engines are created equal. Differing technologies can make one engine feel gutless and another peppy. Differences also exist in larger engines of differing designs. The only way to tell if a particular engine will suit your needs is to give it a fair test drive.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By fidoodaa — On Mar 08, 2014

I am looking for a SUV/Van to pull my 1,500 pound pop-up trailer with the crew (two adults, two teens, one child) and usually driving long distance rides (between 500km/800km) on the highway across mountains. I was looking for a four-cylinder 2014 Santa Fe or a six cylinder 2014 Grand Caravan.

Should I consider the four cylinder for the task or that will be too much?

The Santa Fe specs say the towing capacity is 2000 pounds. My pop-up plus crew plus luggage would be about 2400-2500 pounds. We do this ride two or three times per year.

I am interested in the fuel economy of the four cylinder, but concerned about our vacation needs. --Frank

By anon132220 — On Dec 06, 2010

What is the difference between the old six cylinder motor and the new four cylinder motor having the same hp or even more (the four cylinder). is it how big the piston's diameter?

By anon116831 — On Oct 08, 2010

how can we know the capacity of the diesel in 6 cylinder engine?

By anon56822 — On Dec 17, 2009

Just a quick one for Joseph and the curious.

as discussed in the article above, the BHP differences in 4 and 6 cylinder engines with identical capacities can depend on the tech inside the block but as a 4 cyl motor usually revs higher, it can produce more BHP per ltr as BHP and torque are indirectly related. However, due to the fact that 6 cyl engines have their con-rods spaced at shorter intervals on the crank shaft, the duration between each 'push' from a piston is shorter and therefore the supply of torque is more frequent and therefore stronger. so off the line you should bake the 6 cyl block but over 1/4 mile the 4 cyl block would most likely have the legs.

hope this helps, Tambo.

By anon41256 — On Aug 13, 2009

Great article. Can someone please kindly tell me ASAP which is better. A 4 cylinder 2009 Hyundai Sonata or a 6 cylinder one.

Thank you in advance. :)

By anon36826 — On Jul 15, 2009

i want to know about "engine run by water" in detail...please help

By anon15250 — On Jul 06, 2008

which is better: Toyota Prado 4-cylinder or

Toyota Prado 6-cylinder and why. please advise.

By anon15247 — On Jul 05, 2008

My question is in a 4 cylinder and 6 cylinder engine of similar capacity ( cc) which will be more powerful ( means bhp) and torque ( nm). Which is good ? what is the advantage? Awaiting your response. Thanks & Regards, Joseph

By anon5098 — On Nov 13, 2007

By watching an automobile, how can we know whether it runs on gasoline or diesel?

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