The Most Tunable 4-Cylinder Engines of All Time

honda f20c engine vtec
S2KI Honda S2000 Forums

Sure, you could rock a big displacement V8, roasting tires in your Mustang and making the Earth shake, but you’ll run out of gas! Or you could settle for a V6, the ugly middle child of motors, not quite loud and powerful, not quite cheap and efficient.

But you, you my friend, you’re into something a bit more nimble, a bit more intelligent, you want to build yourself a fast four-cylinder! Well, good news, Ideal fam, I’m here to show you 10 of the craziest, most desirable, and most buildable four-bangers ever!

Honda F20C/F22CThat 9,000 Redline

honda f20c engine

First up, the masters of the mighty little 4-cylinder, Honda, who create some of the most fun cars on the planet. And a large reason they’re so fun is that their engines punch way above their weight, or displacement. The S2000 is arguably the most legendary Honda out there, and one of the only ones appreciating in value, all thanks to its well-balanced chassis and its unorthodox engine.

Taking an already great engine from a mid-90’s prelude, Honda engineers sprinkled in technology used from their racing engines, which competed in Indycar and Formula 1. They’ve even claimed six World Constructors’ Championships in F1! Honda’s got clout! And, in order to squeeze the most out of the little two-liter engine, the engine block was constructed out of aluminum with fiber-reinforced metal sleeves, so you know this thing can handle some serious stress.

Even though the engine only made 240 horsepower, that was all natural, baby! Well, naturally-aspirated, that is. The engine will scream all the way up to its 9,000 RPM redline. That’s a lot considering a Dodge Viper only redlines at 6,200 RPM.

At the time, the engine received some pretty strong accolades, and for good reason, too. The F20 had the highest specific power output for any naturally-aspirated piston engine at an impressive 120 horsepower-per-liter at that time, and held that record until it was passed by the Ferrari 458 Italia in 2010.

Not only has the engine proven to be reliable, but it also handles some power. On a stock block people have seen up to 300 wheel horsepower naturally-aspirated, and over 800 turbo’d. Some fully built examples have shown around 1,500 horsepower! Now that’s a lot of VTEC! The F-series-powered S2000 will always go down as one of the best rear-drive sports cars.

Now, what’s a better testament to an engine’s performance than the super punishing World Rally circuit? Well, nothing! And this next engine was so well designed that it’s powered cars from 1980 until this very day! Mitsubishi’s done well with their legendary 4G63T.

Mitsubishi 4G63T – The Heart Of An Evo

mitsubishi 4g63t engine

Powering Eclipses, Evos, and Eagles, the 4G63T soon became a hot ticket for all tuners to get their hands on. And with a high-flowing aluminum head and a stout iron block, the 4G63T was ready for anything they were willing to throw at it. The engine was so popular, they put it in their cars for 20 years!

And with that long of a production run, tuners have perfected their craft on these motors, easily pushing 1,000 horsepower, and having engines holding over 100 pounds of boost! Yeah, a new Porsche 911 Turbo S doesn’t even make 15 pounds of boost.

And considering this was the engine that powered a bunch Mitsubishi’s championship-winning Rally cars proved that it wasn’t just a pavement-pounder. With decades in use, it was sad to see production of this legendary engine end, soon to be followed by the end of the Evo.

But if you’re not an Evo guy, I bet you’re more of a Subaru guy. And if that’s the case, you know all about the next engine on this list. Oh, and head gaskets.

Subaru EJ25 – It’s What Makes A Subaru A Subaru

subaru ej25 engine
JDM of San Diego

The EJ25 started production nearly a decade after Mitsubishi’s 4G63T, but it’s been in production ever since, and it’s been the heart of the STI for generations. The EJ25 has even won three Manufacturers’ Championships for the Subaru World Rally Team. While people criticize the EJ25 for its dinosaur-age technology and thirsty fuel consumption, we all can’t help but just love the boxer rumble, all made possible by those glorious unequal length headers.

Built to withstand the harsh punishment of the WRC, the EJ25 is strong, letting tuners push these upwards of 600 horsepower! And because of how light and capable the Subarus they’re powering are, they’re able to go like a bat out of hell. Whether it’s an imported 1994 WRX or a new STI, they’re all powered by the same beast.

And these motors are like Legos, cheap cars and cheap aftermarket parts have made unmodified and unmolested ones hard to find, because everyone who has one loves to turn up the power a little bit.

Being able to own a sports car with Rally history sounds cool to me, andhe EJ25 is the engine of choice for sliding through the dirt in the WRC. As for sliding across the pavement at your local drift event? You’re probably going to see a lot Nissans powered by our next engine, the SR20DET.

Nissan SR20DET – Catch A Premium Before Race Wars

nissan sr20det engine
JDM King Motors

The SR20DET is the de facto choice of drifters everywhere! They’re so good, in fact, that Adam LZ runs one of these bad boys in his cream 240SX. The proven reliability banging off the rev limiter makes it a great choice for entry level drifters.

Now, here in the USA, Nissan sold the 240SX,which was an affordable, lightweight rear-drive sports car from Japan. Unfortunately, unlike Japan, our 240SX’s were powered by a lackluster pickup truck motor, the KA24DE. Luckily, the American 240SX is the same as the JDM Silvia and 180SX. So, everything, including the SR20DET turbo motor, could be swapped into a USDM 240 with relative ease.

And tuners all across the world were able to get their hands on these motors and tune them to their heart’s content. The SR20DET was factory turbocharged, and with some bolt-ons, it can double factory power before even building the block.

There are two generations of SR engines, commonly identified by their valve cover. The red top came in S13’s up until 1994, after which they changed to the black top used in S14’s and S15’s.

They’re not the most reliable engines on this list, but with a little bit of patience, and a lot of cash, you could have an SR20 knocking on 1,000 horsepower’s door, enough power to go head-to-head with any Formula D competitor.

Thanks to the SR20, the 240SX became a JDM classic. And thanks to this next engine, Honda’s Type R cars also became tuner classics.

Honda B16/B18 – VTEC, Yo!

honda b16 engine

Yeah, that’s right. These engines powered the mighty Honda Integra Type R and the Civic Type R. Known for their reliability and their look-at-me exhaust notes, Honda B-series engines screamed way past 8,000 RPM, baby!

Now, stock they weren’t known for making crazy horsepower, but if you put some money into some parts, you could have a stupid fast car. And if you stuffed them back into the Hondas they came in, you’d be setting some crazy low quarter mile times.

But that wasn’t why these cars were known. They won the game in the handling department. Because of how light these Hondas were, it didn’t take much power to make them go wildly fast. These engines have been screaming since 1988, and are still a tuner’s dream.

Well, at least among us old folk. The four-cylinder for the Zoomer generation? Well, that’s coming from Ford with their 2.3-liter EcoBoost.

Ford 2.3 EcoBoost – The New Kid On The Block

ford 2.3 liter ecoboost engine

Powering front, rear, all-wheel, and four-wheel drive vehicles, pairing it with manuals and autos of all kinds, Ford has gone all out with this engine. Powering their ultra fun, ultra fast hatchback the Focus RS, putting down an impressive 350 horsepower and an identical torque figure, the EcoBoost engine turns a grocery-getter into a tire-shredder!

But that’s not all, the guys at mountune USA have gotten one of these up to 684 horsepower! Yeah, that’s more power than a McLaren F1 or a Viper ACR. But if it sounds too good to be true, well, it just might be, because the Focus RS is notorious for failing head gaskets.

With Ford being relatively new to the game, I only imagine bigger and better things. And sure, they still have a few kinks to work out, but they’re just getting started on their EcoBoost engines, pumping out more powerful and more efficient engines and stuffing them into just about all their cars. It’s nice to see a once old and boring brand like Ford making bold moves like powering Mustangs with their EcoBoosts.

One brand that might want take a tip from them is Toyota. Toyota has been building reliable, relatively boring cars for years. And no, the next engine on this list doesn’t come from the Supra, or even really anything exciting. But it’s on this list because of one man, a man that pushed this engine to 1,000 horsepower.

Toyota 2AR-FE – Not A 2JZ

stephan papadakis toyota 2ar-fe engine

The Toyota 2AR-FE is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder developed by Toyota for use in their economy cars, powering the Camry, the RAV4, and Scion tC. None of these cars were praised for their performance, and in its most powerful factory spec, the engine coughed out a measly 180 horsepower. So, you’re probably asking how a random guy made over 5 times that power? 

Well, this isn’t just a random guy. Oh no, this is Stephan Papadakis, so decorated a driver that we could do an entire video on this guy. So why put a 1,000 horsepower in a Camry engine? Well, to go drifting, of course, where four-figure horsepower is sort of the norm now.

Stephan Papadakis is the owner of Papadakis Racing, the most winningest team in Formula DRIFT history. And to keep winning, he built the 2AR-FE up to 1,000 horsepower and stuffed it into a small Corolla hatchback. Because why not? Not only is it crazy and badass, this engine is the only 4-cylinder to be competing in Formula DRIFT today.

From one motorsport to another, drifting to drag racing, one engine has made the fastest quarter mile pass of all 4-cylinders, and that’s the Chevy 2.2-liter Ecotec.

Chevy 2.2 Ecotec – Quarter Mile Legend

2.2 chevy ecotec engine
Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

America, known for their large, loud, fuel-drinking V8’s. But as of the last few years, they also know a thing or two about fast four-cylinders. The 2.2-liter Ecotec motor is most known for powering the Cobalt SS Supercharged.

The SS Supercharged is a fun car nonetheless, but you could throw some serious cash at it, and you’ll be able to outrun supercars. Some cars have seen upwards of 1,200 horsepower. That’s a hell of a lot more than, say, a Dodge Demon, and with half the cylinders!

And they can be made faster too. The 4-cylinder quarter mile record was done in under 6 seconds, and it hit 230 miles per hour in just that short distance. So, I bet with a longer runway it would be knocking on the door near 300 miles per hour!

The Cobalt SS that this 4-banger monster powered was made as rival the unexpectedly fast Dodge Neon SRT4. And The Dodge Neon SRT4 was powered by the 2.4-liter A853.

Dodge A853 – An Unexpected Masterpiece

dodge neon srt4 a853 engine
New Old Cars

In 1998, higher-ups of Chrysler went to SEMA, the world’s largest car show, and they noticed sport compacts with performance modifications. This got their gears turning, and soon, they went into action to put these ideas into their sport compact, the Dodge Neon.

As they recognized an opportunity to build a sporty car to appeal to the younger auto generation who grew up on tuner cars, and to build that fan base, they needed an engine, 4 cylinders, and the strength to handle some real power mods.

Stock, the A853 that powered the Neon SRT4 was rated at 230 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, and catapulted the Neon to 60 in just 5.6 seconds, an impressive feat considering they used a beefed-up motor out of the standard PT Cruiser. Which is on our list of the worst cars ever made!

And even though production ended in 2005, the Neon SRT4 continued to be relevant in racing for years to come, with many SRT4’s known for crazy half mile stints. And some are just used for casual autocrosses, while others stay preserved waiting for their values to skyrocket. Whatever it is, the A853 is known to be easily upgraded to handle more power, and do some crazy burnouts.

Dodge took a chance, bringing themselves to the forefront of a new market. Now, Honda has been keeping the same formula for years: reliable, fun, and fuel efficient. That’s the motto Honda engineers used for the K20.

Honda K20 – Honda’s Bread And Butter

honda k20 engine
JDM of San Diego

The K20 powered the almost forgotten Acura RSX. The RSX was a great car, the sequel to the legendary Acura Integra. And as with all famous Hondas, most of the reason we loved it was the engine. Not only was the K20 great stock, it made tuners tremble too.

It was easy to make power in the RSX, but it was also a simple swap into most other Hondas. And, man, did people swap them like Legos. The RSX’s K20 is so easy to modify. Stock, they make around 200 horsepower, but with some work  you could be making 400 horsepower naturally-aspirated. And some people have even pushed them to 500 naturally-aspirated ponies.

But, once you add a turbo. Oh, once you add a turbo! 1,000+ horsepower is within reach! So, it’s reliable, fun, and fast. What’s not to love about a good old Honda?

In my opinion, if you want to rival V8’s and turbo inline-6’s, but you want the economy and reliability of a 4-cylinder, you’ve got to go with one of these engines. As time goes on and emissions and economy standards continue to rise, I expect more and more mighty 4-cylinders to rival the big guns. But if I had to choose an engine, I would pick the F20C out of the Honda S2000. And I wouldn’t say no to the S2000 that it came with either! There’s just something about that VTEC paired with that 9,000 RPM redline.

Brad Danger
Mr. Danger loves cars, finance and living the Ideal Lifestyle!
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