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Getting to grips with common engine terms

“So has your new car got a 1.6 or 2.0 engine?”
“It’s the 2.0 16V Sport model”
“But don’t you wish you had bought the V6?”
“No way, the turbo gives me plenty of power!”

Does this conversation have you feeling a little lost? Well don’t fret, many people find these technical terms meaningless without some basic mechanical knowledge. You may have even seen similar terms displayed on car badges, engines or even car descriptions. But have you ever pondered as to what these letters and numbers actually mean? Luckily after reading this simple guide you may just surprise your friends with your newfound knowledge of car engine terms.

Engine Capacity

The engine’s capacity refers to the specific volume within the engine where combustion of fuel takes place, thus raw power to drive your car is generated. Larger engine capacities allow for increased power to be output by the engine. This usually comes at the expense of fuel economy, as more fuel will be required to feed the engine. The volume in question is measured in cubic capacity (cc) but since most cars are over 1000cc it is stated in litres. For example, a“1.2” badge would signify a 1.2 litre engine, 1200cc to be precise. 

Engine Layout

All engines will have a number of combustion chambers. Each of which contains a moving piston to harness the explosive power from combustion. Different internal designs or layouts will provide drastically different characteristics for power delivery and efficiency.  The vast majority of cars use a simple inline-4 design. This is because 4 separate chambers in a line allows for reasonable performance with good fuel economy. 

An example of one alternative is the V-engine layout. If you spot a V6 badge it indicates the engine has 6 cylinders mounted in a V formation. This design has been utilised by many sports cars as it provides a favourable performance boost. Supercars and racecars can often be seen boasting bigger V8, V10 or even V12’s.


Valves mechanically control the flow of fuel and air entering and leaving the combustion chambers. Average economy 4-cylinder engines usually have 2 valves per cylinder making a total of 8 valves (8v). But higher performance machines often use more valves per chamber, for instance sporty 16v models.  The biggest and most powerful engine used in exotic cars can be 24V or even higher.


A turbo charger system can be thought of as a highly efficient fan held within a robust metal housing. This housing allows waste exhaust gases from the engine to pass through and spin up the fan. Once up to speed the fan will forcefully draw air into the engine, as a result far more power can be generated. Although, all this extra power comes at the expense of fuel efficiency, when boosting more fuel will be used. If you see a “TDI” badge it signifies Turbo Diesel Injection. Diesel engines often use a small efficient turbo to up their power whilst still remaining quite economic.

published: 01/10/2014 15:58:17

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