QOTD: The Worst American Four-cylinder of the Past 40 Years?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
qotd the worst american four cylinder of the past 40 years

It started with a quip delivered in the TTAC chatroom, in which yours truly equated his computer’s speed to that of a base Chevy S-10. Naturally, any mention of low-rent vehicles from the 1980s and ’90s sent the crew into a frenzy of nostalgia.

Seems the long-gone crop of compact General Motors pickups went through a number of entry-level mills before settling on the 2.2-liter unit that carried penny-pinching buyers through the model’s second generation. Which leads us to the question: What, in your opinion, is the worst four-banger fielded by an American automaker since 1980?

We’ve selected 1980 as a starting point because it seems right. A 40-year span allows us to peruse the end of Malaise, the FWD revolution, and all that came after. If you’re wondering whether the engine in question needs to be American in origin, it doesn’t. Any four-cylinder mill dumped in a domestic vehicle will do.

Personal experience will undoubtedly play a major role here. Your author’s past contains many four-cylinders, but his childhood does not. It was a V6 and V8 bonanza, as the vast majority of inline-four cars back in those days were gutless slugs — at least on the American side. Yes, turbos proliferated through the industry in the ’80s, but those were uplevel offerings.

The only one worthy of mention was dad’s 2.3-liter Fairmont, a vehicle he revered for its gas mileage and reliability, despite its lack of passing power. Adam mentioned this motor as a relative bright light in an otherwise bad 4-cyl era.

It’s hard to have fun in a friend’s borrowed Tempo when it lacks a V6 — that’s something I later learned in high school. A Cavalier missing a 3.1-liter was a bad Cavalier, yet GM saw fit to keep those eight-valve OHV mills in production nearly for eternity.

While this writer’s entry into adulthood coincided with the appearance of a well-used base Plymouth Sundance, at least that 2.2L had low-end torque going for it. Many other el-cheapo offerings couldn’t blow the fluff off a dandelion. How else to explain the considerable acclaim heaped on Chrysler following the arrival of the Neon and its notably potent DOHC 2.0L?

Flaccid power bands, melodious NVH, porous head gaskets, plastic timing gear — there’s many reasons to hate the afterthought four-cylinders of yesteryear. There’s also plenty to choose from. Which one above all others earns your scorn?

[Image: Murilee Martin/TTAC]

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  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Feb 29, 2020

    I don't have a nominee, but I recall a conversation that happened at a training class. Another attendee worked at a engine overhaul/machine shop. He said, this was the late 1980s, that 80% of their work was the Chrysler/Mitsubishi 4 cylinders. He described how the balance shafts and cams tried to make their way out of the engines. The shop had devised procedures to repair this. He also mentioned that they had rented the building next to them as they did not have space for all the engines coming in for repair/overhaul. He said much of this was warranty work for dealers. Also, not so much engine itself, but VW/Audi in their wisdom to save a few $$ did away with the expansion tank on the cooling system on their cars around 1980. That meant that any loss of half a cup of coolant led to engine overheating and failures. Usually head gaskets. A few years later the expansion tanks returned.

  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Apr 09, 2020

    Can Nissan's 2.5 four count since it's made here? It's not as awful as an Iron Duke or Ford HSC 2.3, but above 4000 rpm, it's awful sounding and thrashy. I had a 2010 Altima with it and the later version of the engines are better, but still not what Honda can do with a four in terms of NVH.

  • Dave M. I think I last listened to AM after 9/11, but the talk radio cesspool took its toll on my mental health. Prior to that I last listened to AM in the '70s....I'm a 20-year XM subscriber; Apple Music also has me in its grip. For traffic conditions I use Waze, which I've found to be highly reliable.
  • Art Vandelay Install shortwave so I can get numbers stations
  • THX1136 Radio World has been talking about this for a few years now. The public perception of AM has done much to malign it. As some have pointed out, there are parts of the country that work well with AM, especially when considering range. Yes indeed, there are options. To me that's what this is more about. The circuitry for AM is probably all on one chip now - or close to it. It cannot be a matter of cost - even at the inflated manufacturer asking price. Making what appears to be an arbitrary decision and reducing choice seems unwise in the area of radio in vehicles.Some have commented that they never listen to AM 'so I'm not missing it'. I'm guessing that many folks don't use ALL the features their many devices offer. Yet, they are still there for those occasions when one wants to avail themselves. Bottom line for me is it should still be an available option for the folks out there that, for whatever reason, want to access AM radio. Side note: Top 40 radio on AM was where all the music I listened to as a youth (55 years ago) came from, there were few (if any) FM stations at that time that carried the format. FM was mostly classical and talk and wasn't ubiquitously available in a portable form - AM was. FYI, the last I knew all stations - AM & FM - still have to have an EAS system as part of their broadcast chain. It's tested by the FCC at least once a year and all stations must be able to pass along the alert messages or face action from the FCC to correct the situation.
  • Robert I don't know why they don't use a knob for the gear shifter on the console like in the Ford Fusion. Takes up a lot less space than a shifter on the console and looks a lot better than a stalk on the steering column.
  • David S. "Stellantis" a woke company showing off evil ICE trucks!?! Bernie Sanders is having a stroke!!