Jargon Buster – How Many Cylinders Do you Have?

In this series of posts the aim is to clear up some of the jargon used in car reviews, news and road tests. It is also to help you understand some of the basics of car spec so when you look at buying a new car you know more about what is actually on offer. First up; cylinders. Without them the engine would not be an engine, but most people don’t even know what they do or how many they have.

The Engine

Depending on what you like about your car and what you like about driving the engine is likely to be one of the most, if not the most, important part of a car. However, so many people politely nod and buy a car when they have no idea what is under the bonnet. You are not expected to know the inner workings of an engine, but to know the type of engine you have or you may want is important. There are many different types of engine and each can offer different benefits depending on your needs. Getting it wrong could mean you are driving around in a very costly car when you never needed to, or it could mean you don’t have the power or capability to suit your needs and end up blaming the car.


There is always a great deal of talk about V8s, in line 4s and even W12s these days, for the petrol heads among you this is all very normal and makes a lot of sense, but for many people even the number of cylinders is a mystery. A cylinder is the part of the engine where the fuel and the air mixes and explodes, this explosion in turn pushes a piston up. This force coming from each cylinder makes the crankshaft turn and after some complex gearing and mechanics eventually turns the wheels.

The number of cylinders in the engine directly effects the amount of turning power available, as does the size of these cylinders. So an 8 cylinder engine will generally have more power than a 4 cylinder engine. But, with every extra cylinder comes the need for more fuel to put in it, so it is fair to say more cylinders will mean more fuel consumption and, in turn, more cost.

The Common 4

Most cars you are likely to see on the road will have a 4 cylinder engine with the cylinders in a straight line. This is called a straight or “inline” 4, a common, versatile and economical engine that is more than capable of doing most day to day jobs. Sometimes a straight 4 is used in sportier cars but only with some extra tuning or perhaps a turbo, most really sporty cars will use larger engines. There are now also a number of 3 cylinder options in smaller cars that offer great economy figures and can be very fun to drive.

To “V” Or Not To “V”

The V you hear so much about is a simple way of referring to shape the cylinders are set up in, a V6 or V8 engine has two banks of 3 or 4 cylinders respectively and these banks a leaning outwards in a V formation. You can get engines with 6 cylinders lined up in a straight line to form a straight 6 engine but any more than 6 cylinders would make the engine far too long for general use. The V formation was essentially used in order to fit more cylinders into an engine without taking up too much space. The rare W formation is basically two V8 engines set up like a giant W and it is really only ever found in very serious cars like the Bugatti Veyron and some Bentleys.


Once you understand what a cylinder does, and how many cylinders are commonly used you should be able to easily grasp what sort of car you are looking at. If you need an economical car then looking lovingly at a car with a big V8 might not be the way to go. However, if you are looking for more power or a bigger car then the odds are a 6 or 8 cylinder engine might well the one for you. The point is, being aware of what you have and what you need will help when you are car hunting.