For the average car buyer, only three engine configurations are worth talking about: V6, V8, and four-cylinder, V8s being the most ostentatious-sounding. But very few know of the existence of three-cylinder engines, despite it being one of the most common engines found in modern econoboxes… but that doesn’t meet the three-cylinder engine has to be featured in just boring vehicles.
See, many of these engines we’re talking about today are derived from motorcycles, especially when it comes down to brands that manufacture both motorcycles and cars, like Honda. Those left however are a mix between hot hatches, sports cars, and everything in between that might have been forced to ditch some cylinders, lower their engines’ displacement, and even add hybrid technology in favor of the environment, and to comply with modern emission standards. These are the most outlandish, fun cars to be powered by a three-cylinder engine.
10 Toyota GR Yaris
This list is going to be what we call a Toyota sandwich† in other words, our first entry will be a Toyota hot hatch, and our last one too. The GR Yaris is currently for sale and is the closest thing you’re going to get to a road-legal rally car. It’s powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-three that divides all its horsepower – which varies between 257 and 268 depending on the trim level – to all four wheels.
It’s also worth noting that the GR Yaris is only offered with a 6-speed stickshift, which just adds to its obnoxious personality to ensure you’re always in control.
9 Ford Fiesta ST
The Fiesta ST is considered to be Ford’s greatest hot hatch ever built, well, just behind the iconic Focus RS of course. It doesn’t come offered with four-wheel-drive, but that doesn’t subtract from its nippy personality; it actually enhances it – yes, front-wheel-drive cars can be a joy to drive.
The previous-generation ST had a 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-banger that produced up to 200 hp in the ST200 variant, but the latest Fiesta ST adopts a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine which develops just under 200 ponies, but it still manages to put down a 0-60 time or just 6.5 seconds.
8 BMW i8
Now we’re entering the big leagues, well, almost… Many people believe that the i8 is a fully-fledged electric vehicle, but in reality, it’s a hybrid. Just before the i8 was discontinued, it derived its power from both a tuned 1.5-liter Mini Cooper 3-cylinder engine, as well as an electric motor which allowed for a combined power output of 369 hp.
Some might argue that it’s a pitiful amount of power, but do keep in mind that the i8 wasn’t meant to be a performance behemoth, its only goal was to prove BMW’s future wouldn’t be boring, and we believe it accomplished that mission very well indeed.
7 Volvo XC40
And from an underrated sports car, we jump ship to a subcompact SUV. Not many auto enthusiasts are keen on the idea of small SUVs taking over the world, but at least we have some not-so-bland ones like Volvo’s XC40 that spice things up.
It is worth noting, however, that there are different variants of the XC40 that make use of a three-cylinder engine, five to be exact. Two that are purely powered by the gasoline engine, the 127-hp T2 and the 161-hp T3, but then others make use of a combination of gasoline and electric power called the Recharge, and they wind up to 305 horsepower to all four wheels .
6 Honda Beat
Just to further prove that three-cylinder engines don’t only exist in the 21st century, we have the ultimate kei car that was produced between 1991 and 1996. The Honda Beat was an attack on Mazda’s first-generation Miata, albeit a very small , and very underpowered one.
Tucked in the middle of its body was a 656 cc inline-three that puffed out just over 60 hp to the rear wheels, so there’s no denying it was slow. The Beat reached 60 mph from a standstill only once 13 seconds had elapsed, but that doesn’t mean we love it any less, just look at it!
5 Audi A2
You either love it, or you hate it. We’re still not sure what class of cars the Audi A2 falls into… perhaps it’s a mini man, perhaps a compact SUV, or perhaps a combination of them all three? Whatever it was, it sure was ahead of its time, but never got a successor, unfortunately.
To make matters even more unique, the A2 was powered by some normal gasoline engines, but they all had four cylinders… however, there were a series of three-cylinder diesel engines also offered. The most potent diesel engine was a 1.4-liter TDI that produced around 90 hp, and in return, it could rocket this loaf of bread to 60 mph from 0 in 11 seconds – that definitely gave people more time to stare at you in your ” Audi”.
4 Volkswagen Up! GTI
Not only can Toyota and Ford create hot hatchbacks with three cylinders lurking under their hood, but the German automaker Volkswagen can too. The Up! GTI might not be as radical as a Golf GTI, or even a Polo GTI for that matter, but it’s still a compact checkable piece of driving pleasure.
This GTI’s 1.0-litre engine churns out 116 hp, although it’s not a lot, the Up! weighs just 2,200 lbs, so it might not be the mightiest on a straight road, but you can bet it’ll hold its own when it comes down to tight corners.
3 Daihatsu Copen
Daihatsu is one of Toyota’s many aliases, and most of their products are only sold in Japan, the Copen being one of them – also known as the Toyota Copen GR Sport. It might look like some sort of cool concept car, that will never be mass-produced, but the Copen has actually been in production since 2002, however, only the second generation that started its life in 2014 came fitted with a 658 cc three- pot.
You heard that right, 658 ccs… and because of its incredibly small displacement, the Copen only produces 63 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque, but at least it came offered with a 5-speed standard transmission and had a curb weight or fewer than 1,900 lbs.
2 Koenigsegg Gemera
Koenigsegg is known for producing over-the-top over-engineered hypercars, but what’s good about something if it can’t adapt? Therefore, they unveiled their first-ever four-seater supercar called the Gemera. It was unveiled in 2020 and only 300 examples are to be sold to the public for $1.7 million a pop, but hold on, that price might be justified.
The Gemera will be fitted with the world’s first-ever camless engine, and as a result, it manages to generate 1,700 hp with just three cylinders and 2.0 liters of displacement… of course, the two turbochargers and three electric motors help to boost that number too.
1 Toyota GR Corolla
And we’ve reached the end of our Toyota sandwich with the GR Corolla. Not long ago, we were still wondering if Toyota was going to allow their Gazoo Racing team to have a crack at the Corolla, but thankfully they did, and they have created a monstrosity, and one of the most anticipated cars of 2023.
The GR Corolla has the same 1.6-liter turbo-three engine as the aforementioned Yaris, but only now does it produce 32 more horses leading to a total of 300 hp – 100 horses per cylinder in other words. Also, like the Yaris, the Corolla will have four-wheel drive, as well as a mandatory 6-speed manual transmission, meaning it might not be considered to be a hot hatch, but rather a super one in that respect.