Four-cylinder BMWs in the U.S – a good or bad idea?

Interesting | October 18th, 2008 by 20
bmw 320si engine

Let me start off first by answering the question myself: YES, absolutely a great idea. In times where the world focuses on eco, green and …

bmw 320si engine

Let me start off first by answering the question myself: YES, absolutely a great idea. In times where the world focuses on eco, green and energy savings, offering a smaller, fuel efficient engine in what it used to be a “hungry for power market”, is the right direction for BMW.  

Despite the enthusiasm of many bimmer fans that are looking to have diversified options when it comes to engines, the fellows at BusinessWeek bring up a good point: will the U.S buyers be ready for them? Will it be difficult to convince the picky American buyers that these smaller engines are powerful enough to justify the price for a premium sedan?

In Europe, the BMW four-cylinder engines account for most of BMW’s sales and it has been widely accepted by the European buyers as a viable solution in their bimmers. As some of you might remember, the 2008 Engine of the Year title has been awarded to the a diesel engine. BMW’s 204 hp four-cylinder diesel with Variable Twin Turbo has earned this award due to a unique combination of performance and efficiency. The engine found in the BMW 123d, it’s the world’s first full-aluminum diesel engine and delivers average fuel consumption of 5.2 liters/100 km in an EU test cycle, equivalent to 45 miles/US gallon, and a CO2 emission level of 138 grams per km. BMW EfficientDynamics technology has been used in the development of this engine.

So, here is one engine that could absolutely be introduced in the BMW’s U.S lineup without much fear of failure. Back in May, we exclusively reported that BMW is working on a four cylinder petrol engine as well, that will be offered in two stages with and without twin-turbos. The high-rev four cylinder is expected to output anywhere from 220 to 260 horsepower and it will fully take advantage of BMW’s EfficientDynamics technology. 

Despite the clear pros of such engines, BMW has to overcome one thing, that has been stuck in the U.S buyer’s mind: the unprecedent failure of the ’98 318Ti model. The hatchback 318Ti compact was introduced in 1995 and it was powered by a four-cylinder 1.9 liter engine, but failed miserably, both in Europe and U.S. 

Majority of the Audi’s A4 models are powered by a four-cylinder engine and based on that, the BusinessWeek folks even go a little bit further, by stating that consumers often don’t place the Audi brand in the same class as Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus. This is obviously a statement that I resent and I don’t believe the Audi’s engine selection is the decisive factor. 

We should also keep in mind that the current market conditions are appropriate for the introduction of the four-cylinder engines, but what if down the line, 2-3 years from now, the automakers will become extremely profitable again, the economy will be booming and the gas prices will be lower than now, will all of these factors make the buyers go back to the large, hungry for gas sedans or SUVs? 

I look forward to your comments since this is a topic that allows all of us to expose our point of view.

[Based on a BusinessWeek article ]

20 responses to “Four-cylinder BMWs in the U.S – a good or bad idea?”

  1. Marc says:

    “We should also keep in mind that the current market conditions are appropriate for the introduction of the four-cylinder engines, but what if down the line, 2-3 years from now, the automakers will become extremely profitable again, the economy will be booming and the gas prices will be lower than now, will all of these factors make the buyers go back to the large, hungry for gas sedans or SUVs? ”

    Isn’t that kinda what happened after the fuel shortage of the 70’s? The small engines with better gas mileage, especially the Japanese models, became all the rage. And then we reverted back to big huge gas guzzlers….

  2. Gragop says:

    I’d like to see a BMW with a 4 cylinder that’s in a lighter weight car. I still think a 4 cylinder in a car that ends up moderately specced at $40k is a bit of a bad idea in the US. I’d love to have a 2.0 twin-turbo 1 Series “tii” or whatnot. Something that is light weight, high revving and more performance oriented. The 135i is a good car but it’s still felt to be somewhat overpriced.

    Again, I’d love to see the E90 320Si – mid-mounted for better performance but it is down on power – bump it to the race spec 275 hp and you’ve got a winner!

  3. Clara says:


    Speaking of mid-mounted, isn’t 4-cylinders-for-$40k what happened to the porsche boxter?

  4. Gragop says:

    I believe the BMW 320Si, which doesn’t use the traditional 4 cylinder engine found in other current BMW’s, is pushed back slightly behind the front axle and thus a mid-engined, rear-drive vehicle. I think that’s correct, I’m trying to find something to verify that though.

    I believe that the Porsche Boxster was always a 6 banger though mid-mounted.

  5. Gragop says:

    Actually – I might be wrong but looking at the picture Horatiu posted above is the actual 2.0L 175hp, non-Valvetronic engine for the 320Si. It’s produced in the Landshut plant along side the Formula One engines for the BMW Sauber team.

    Well, at least it looks like the 2.0 with the carbon fiber engine cover :-)

  6. Horatiu B. says:

    @Gragop: Yes, that is the engine for the 320Si. I used it as a generic photo. Sorry for the confusion.

  7. Benny says:

    The picture is showing the engine of the 320si. This engine is installed in exactly the same position as any other 4-cylinder in the E90. And even in the WTCC, where you find the racing-version of this engine delivering around 280 hp, the engine is in the same position.
    I hope that BMW brings some new 4-cylinder-petrol-engines to the market soon. I think that the engines currently offered by BMW (in the 116i, 118i, 120i, 318i and 320i) are not really good.
    But the 4-cylinder-Diesel-engines are king of the hill, no matter if x18d, x20d or x23d, there is no real competition for them concerning fuel consumption and power-output.

  8. Artmic says:

    I predict BMW does the following:

    1) 328 will get a bump of HP to 270 next iteration of the car.
    2) 335 will get a bump of hp to 350 next iteration ….
    3) this will allow for a 4 cylinder 250hp car, to be priced maybe 3K lower than the 328.

    I could see a 4cyl – 260hp BMW, but i just can’t see people paying more for it than the current 328-230hp one… so by default i believe they have to bump the power of the 328/335.

  9. mathis says:

    BENNY made a good point with regards to the relation between 4 Cylinder Petrol and Diesel engines.

    The problem the 4 Cylinder Diesel engines would face in the US is:
    A) Diesel is a LOT more expensive than Petrol in comparison to Europe where the difference is not big and thus the better mileage of the Diesel cars more than makes up for the small price difference.

    B) Our dear American friends are still looking at Diesel powered cars as if there must be something wrong with them ;-)

  10. Lee says:


    I HATE the idea of returning the 4cyl to the lineup.

    Is there a market for gas and diesel 4 banger BMWs? Sure there is. I’m sure they’ll sell quite a few of ’em…

    Does that mean they should make them? No. I hate this idea of the one-stop-car-maker; the car company that makes something for everyone. What happens when Joe Public buys a 4-banger diesel because he’s cheap/can’t afford the 6 cylinder, runs out of warranty and takes his car in to a shop or the dealer for repairs? What’s likely to happen?

    Answer) Same thing that happens with the old 318’s: nothing. The customer is told what all is wrong with his/her car; they fix the one or two small things that are making noise or keeping it from driving. The rest falls by the wayside because a cheaper MSRP got them into a car they truly couldn’t afford.

    So be ready to have a bunch of really poorly-maintained Bimmers on the road.

  11. Mathis says:

    @ Lee

    If BMW would introduce 4 cylinders to the US lineup, it would not yet make them a car company that makes something for everyone ;-)

    No, worries it will still be a BMW, and it will still have a premium price in comparison to other cars. If they will be poorly maintained will be more a question of how the owner cares for his/her car.

    And Jeez, I mean who really thinks it only makes sense to drive a car with more than 200 Hp? A modern 118i is for example a very good car, with 143 Hp, its more than enough to drive to the mall, or to work and to pick up the kids from school…

  12. Lee says:


    It doesn’t make sense to drive anything with more than 200hp? Hell, around here it doesn’t make sense to drive anything with less… For some reason TX only seems to give you about 100 feet of highway on-ramp before it spits you out onto the highway, where you’ll have to assimilate with traffic that’s already cruising at 80mph. It’s either haul ass to get up to highway speed or risk having an F-350 shoved up your backside when you attempt to merge at 50mph.

    The 4cyl BMW thing is a lot like the Mini issue; a lot of people are buying these moderately cheap cars because the car itself fits into their budget whereas they would normally be looking towards Japan for their next car. What they don’t understand is that their cheap-o $20k econobox requires the same technicians as the $75k+ Execu-sedan 7 series. You just can’t swing a BMW product on a Toyota budget. Doesn’t work that way.

  13. Gragop says:


    My 325Ci has 184 and it’s pretty peppy but only if I shift right to keep revs high does it help with merging into higher speed traffic. There was a noticable difference driving my mom’s E60 528i this week when trying to merge onto I-95. I’d say with Audi’s 2.0T producing 210+ HP a naturrally aspirated 4-cylinder engine from BMW shouldn’t be below the 210HP mark – if only for marketing purposes.

  14. Clara says:

    (going back a few)
    The boxster was originally going to have a flat-4, which would have differentiated it more from the 911 and been lighter (etc), but it was a difficult sell at $40k, esp in the US. So, the final design scrapped it, even through the performance gains of the 6 were offset by the extra weight (as you’d expect).

  15. George says:

    The Volkswagen Group engines in the 1.8 lt and 2.00 lt have more torgue than the N/A BMW engines. It is worth mentioning that the 1.4lt TSI has more( or equivalent) torgue with the 2.00 lt engine found in the 120 hatchback and 320i !

    It is evident that in the future BMW will use the 1.6 turbo engine found in the Mini Cooper S (PSA Group) to the next 1 series generation and also a twin turbo 2.00 lt like you have mentioned. I don’t think there will be any room for a 325i. Fuel economy and more power!

  16. Mathis says:

    @ Lee

    So you admit that the only reason you need more than 200 hp is that sprint to get on the highway/interstate? Fascinating! I mean I did not even say that an engine that has more than 200 hp is not needed. I simply wrote that you don’t need that much power for everyday driving.

    And you even confirmed it in a way, your onramp accelerations means you probably only need the power of your car for 5% of the time you drive the car, the rest you swim in traffic or sit in a traffic jam anyways

  17. Lee says:

    Oh yeah, I’ll regularly admit that the times you “need” a significant amount of power are pretty slim. Merging onto the highway, getting out of a bad situation if you need to power out… That’s pretty much it.

    That being said, I don’t just use my cars on the street. I typically track my cars as well (road and drag strip). I’m nowhere near dillusional enough to consider these to be “needs”, though. These are my hobbies; it just happens that I enjoy being able to use my daily to do these things.

  18. Ron says:

    Four cyl turbo diesels available in the 1 and 3 series is an excellent idea. We will enjoy the best of both worlds: driving a BMW and decent fuel mileage!

  19. BmwM5Fan says:

    i think it is really a great idea and not only for USA but for other countries, i really prefer 4 cylinder to 6th ones, they are more efficient, less weight, and very reliable! and with a pair of turbos it will be a great engine. still gotta admit that i hate small engines because of their sound, and i really prefer to be honest v10 m5 but that an other opera. Anyways great idea, i would really buy an xdrive 3 series with a 4-cylinder engine

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