Car engine sizes: What you need to know

Last updated March 04, 2022

A key area to consider before purchasing a new car is engine size; the size of a car engine will have a large impact on the performance, economy and value of a vehicle. But what does engine size mean and how should it affect your willingness to purchase a car? Here, we’ll take a look at what engine size means and why size doesn’t always matter!

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What does car engine size mean?

Engine size is the volume of fuel and air that can be pushed through a car’s cylinders and is measured in cubic centimetres (cc). Car engine sizes are normally specified in litres, which is rounded up to the nearest tenth of a litre. For example, a car that has a 1390cc engine would be described as a 1.4 litre.

Petrol engines are divided into four groups: under 1.0-litre, 1.0 to 2.0-litres, 2.0 to 3.0-litres and 3.0-plus. Engines of 1.0-litre or less usually feature three or four cylinders, with many using turbochargers for an extra boost.

Traditionally, a car with a bigger engine would generate more power than a car with a smaller engine. However, some modern cars have turbocharged engines, which allows them to be more powerful than they used to be. The amount of power an engine produces can be established by looking at the horsepower, also referred to as bhp.

  • Small engine cars

Smaller engines, often ranging between 1-litre and 1.9-litre, tend to be the most economical as there is less fuel to burn to create power. However, this can often result in less power compared to a larger engine. They are usually more efficient if used for their purpose, which is most commonly city driving. If the car needs to reach high speeds, it may need to work harder to produce the power, increasing its fuel consumption.

  • Large engine cars

A larger engine, for example, a 2.0-litre engine and upwards, may be more powerful than a 1.2-litre, but will more than likely burn more fuel. A more powerful engine can accelerate quicker and reach higher speeds, however, more fuel will need to be pumped into its cylinders in order to create this power, which can make them less eco-friendly.

  • Turbocharged engines

The size of the engine doesn’t always indicate how powerful it is. Cars featuring ‘turbocharged’ engines can benefit from increased power and fuel efficiency without needing a higher engine cc. This will often allow them to match a higher cc car that does not have a turbocharged engine. For example, a Ford 1-litre EcoBoost turbo engine can produce nearly as much power as a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine.

Car engine sizes, economy and insurance

As you can likely imagine, larger engines with an increased capacity for fuel and air require more fuel than smaller engines. This is especially true if you’re quick to accelerate or drive at maximum speeds on long motorway journeys.

For drivers who are conscious about the amount of fuel they’re using, and ultimately the money they are spending, then a model with a large engine and cc may not be the best choice for them.

The engine size you choose should not compromise your car insurance. However, it’s worth noting that cars with larger engines are often deemed ‘higher risk’ vehicles in the eyes of insurers and can commonly result in owners getting stuck with higher insurance premiums.

On the flip side, the increased performance and power provides an exhilarating driving experience for those who appreciate a car that packs a punch.

Which car engine size is best for me?

When it comes to engine sizes, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what you really need from a car. If you’re financially secure enough to spend a little extra on the vehicle as well as higher fuel and insurance costs, then higher-cc cars are likely less of a burden.

Similarly, for those who prioritise a more exciting driving experience over a more ‘standard’ vehicle just to help them navigate their daily commute, then cars such as the executive Audi A5 or sporty ‘hot hatches’ like the Ford Focus ST could rev your engine.

On the other hand, those who prioritise money saving through lower fuel costs, cheaper insurance premiums and even lower payments on the vehicle itself would likely be better suited to a more lightweight car with a lower cc. New models of city car such as the Peugeot 107 are short on space, top speed and acceleration, but are significantly more affordable to purchase and run than the cars mentioned previously.

Eco-conscious drivers may also want to explore the possibility of purchasing a car with a hybrid engine, which combines the power and range of a conventional engine with the environmental benefits of an electric motor. These cars reduce fuel consumption and exhaust emissions in several ways, such as only running on electric power at take-off, or when driving at low speeds. The car’s kinetic movement returns energy to the battery during petrol engine use, recharging the car for when it returns to electric engine usage.

For middle-of-the-road buyers who are conscious of fuel economy and performance in equal measure, then you may want to find a car with a moderate engine size that has a turbocharged engine. These can offer improved performance without sacrificing too much in the way of fuel economy and affordable insurance premiums.

Whether you’re looking for power or affordability of eco-friendliness, researching the engine size of each car you consider buying to see if it lends itself to your needs in a car is always worthwhile! You can check the engine size of any car by using our free car check tool - simply visit the page and enter your registration plate.

Frequently asked questions

The easiest way to check your engine size is to consult your owner’s manual – it should be listed in several places, including ‘Specifications’ or ‘Mechanical Information’. Alternatively, your car’s VIN (located on the driver’s side of the dashboard) contains the relevant information. Give the car manufacturer a quick call with your VIN, and they’ll be able to decode your car’s engine size.

When you pass your driving test, you’re permitted to drive any road-legal car. However, you must have an insurance policy that covers your vehicle and allows you to drive without supervision. As a rule of thumb, cars with smaller engines will be cheaper to insure than cars with larger engines.