By on February 20, 2020

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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130 Comments on “QOTD: The Worst American Four-cylinder of the Past 40 Years?...”


  • avatar
    JimC2

    I predict a lot of hurt feelings from these comments.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      There’s so many to choose from, where to begin?

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        Yep. This list can be as long as roll of toilet paper

        • 0 avatar
          Lorenzo

          Make that a double roll: American automakers used a lot of foreign four cylinder engines, especially in the early 1980s. My neigbor had an Omni with the VW 1.6, and dumped it for a Horizon with the Chrysler 2.2.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            nitpick: the VW engine was a 1.7. For like a hot minute they offered a 1.6 liter Peugeot engine after dropping the VW but those are supposedly incredibly rare.

            And there was also the Mitsubishi Astron 2.6. I thought it was funny they branded their balance shaft solution “silent shaft.” Yes, the engine was well balanced but it was still very noisy. And god help you once that Mikuni feedback carb went out of whack.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            And god help you once that Mikuni feedback carb went out of whack…

            One positive to say about the Iron Duke was by 1982 it had TBI. That was likely the most reliable part of the engine in my humble experience. Probably the only part that didn’t need ANY maintenance during the 200,000 mile life of the family’s Chevy Celebrity.

  • avatar
    Jon

    My interest in cars began in the late 90’s so my frame of reference spans only the last 20 years.

    I nominate the Fiat 1.4L NA Multiair. Small power, leaky rear main seal, complicated design and low efficiency were is best traits. It was built by Chrysler, in Michigan, for “American” Fiat 500’s. I think it checks enough boxes to be called American. (shakes head)

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I had some awful 4-banger experiences with Chrysler in the mid/early 80s, so bad I’ve never owned a 4-banger since :(

  • avatar
    randyinrocklin

    I’m not sure about bad 4 bangers. But I know a good one. A 1.6 liter hemi in my 71 Toyota Corolla 2 dr fastback. Loved that car. Previous car a 69 Mustang I could not afford the gas in the 302 V8, so I gave it back to my dad. Since he always bitched about where I went.

  • avatar

    My only experience with a 4 cyl. was the 2.2 in the 84 Shelby Charger I owned. It was a fairly reliable engine with the only weakness – for me – being the aluminum head/iron block setup. The different expansion/contraction rates brought the eventual head gasket leak. I did at least 5 (quite probably more) gasket replacements in the 400K+ miles I drove the car. For me, everything was easy to get to on the 2.2 and I miss the relative simplicity of that engine.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    I nominate the GM 151ci Iron Duke. Power plant to the horrible GM X-body cars, shameful base engine to many models, base engine of the Fiero, which ruined it, found its way into Jeeps, and in 2.8L form was installed in numerous I/O boat drives, making it nearly impossible to slalom.
    It was a plague on wheels and they made way, way too many of them.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      I was going to nominate the Iron Duke too. I was thinking it had ended up in the Vette but I guess the Cali Vette just got a terribly underpowered V8, but they *did* put it in the Camaro, which is nearly as bad.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      The Iron Duke had its roots in the 153 cubic-inch four introduced early 1960s. This engine was a four-cylinder variant of Chevy’s second-gen inline six. It was offered in the original Chevy II (later called Nova). This engine was only offered in the U.S. for a few years but continued to be used in places like Brazil and South Africa.

      I may not be able to pick the worst American four-cylinder engine of the 40 years. But I can pick the worst of the past 50 years: the all-aluminum 2.3-liter OHC powerplant used in the Chevy Vega. The sleeveless cylinder design literally resulted in melted engine blocks and fires. This should have been a great engine for the time. But, as usual, GM gave consumers the beta test version to work out the kinks.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Yup Paint Shaker, I mean Iron Duke IF you want to know one of the worst while it was actually running. Rough little lump of an engine that GM produced to make you regret not paying up for the V6.

        HOWEVER the Iron Dukes one redeeming feature was a tendency to run forever. It ran like $hit longer than most cars run.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          I like how they had the stones to put a “Tech 4” label on the air cleaner of that lump, just because of TBI.

          Car and Driver used to consistently refer to it as the “Lo” Tech 4.

      • 0 avatar
        notinuse

        This link has a good summary of Iron Duke design considerations. It’s a paper presented to the SAE by John M. Sawruck, project manager of the Iron Duke.

        https://gafiero.akroncdnr.com/docs/IronDuke.pdf

      • 0 avatar
        Fred

        Yep a truly bad design. I guess it worked in the lab, but definitely not in the street. It’s own saving grace was Cosworth and it’s use in Midget racing.

        • 0 avatar
          jrhmobile

          More than Midgets. The same engine served honorably in IMSA Lights and powered the first Fiero Indy Pace Car.

          125 hp wasn’t much in stock form, but with relatively common aftermarket performance parts the Iron Duke could tickle 200 hp and 225-ish lbs-ft of torque. The full-tilt Cosworth setup was worth 320 hp and was effectively bulletproof in Midgets and IMSA applications, superseded by the SESCO half-V8s.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        I agree with @SteveBiro, the 1980 date is too arbitrary. For ‘modern’ engineering and construction GM must take the blame for the Vega engine.

        I saw one actually ‘blow apart’ in the parking lot of the plaza on the SW corner of Bayview and York Mills. The poor teenager driving it was afraid to call his parents. I stayed with them until his father arrived to help explain that it was not his son’s fault.

        Meanwhile Honda in the early 80’s were selling some excellent for the time 4 cylinder engines.

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        The Vega 2.3 engine wasn’t all aluminum.
        It had a cast iron head, which when you removed it to change the head gasket and the valve stem seals at 30,000 miles, you realized that head was heavy as all get out.

        The 2.0 liter Cosworth DOHC variant on that same aluminum block had an aluminum head but those were very low volume production.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        I always thought GM should have lopped off two cylinders from the Pontiac OHC-6 for a Vega Monza Astre etc. four banger. It would have saved them a lot of grief.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Weimer

        Wasn’t the Iron Duke/Tech 4 1/2 of the short-lived and not lamented Pontiac 301?

        Sometimes GM just picks the wrong stuff from which to branch off.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          The 61-63 Pontiac Tempest 153-4 cylinder was a half bank of the 326-V8.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          no, you’re thinking of the “Trophy” 4, which was literally a 389 with one bank lopped off.

          The only “trophy” it qualified for is “Most Unpleasant NVH.”

          • 0 avatar
            MRF 95 T-Bird

            Yes the “Trophy” 4 was a 389 with one bank lopped off. The 326 was the V8 option on the 61-63 Tempest-Lemans.
            I’ll refrain for the My Cousin Vinny description and comparison.
            It also had the torque tube driveshaft with the transaxle and independent rear suspension.

          • 0 avatar
            thornmark

            which gave the Pontiac 50/50 weight distribution

            sorta a pre-BMW

            Porsche later adopted the “rope-drive”/torque-tube

            The Pontiac also had unusually large wheels for the time

            GM spent the money on innovation back then but dialed back when the mediocre Fords – Falcon and intermediate Fairlane got the sales

      • 0 avatar
        ttacgreg

        The Vega motor had Iron head and aluminum block. Not taking the time to research this, so FWIW I remember Porsche used the same sleeveless tech in a V8, and they of course unlike GM did it right.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      Doesn’t the iron duke still work service in mail trucks today? Gutless but doesn’t take much to run them for several hundred thousand miles.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        there may be some left but I think the last run of the Grumman LLV used the 2.2 OHV engine.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        Yes the Iron Duke was used extensively in the LLV, but they never ran several hundred thousand miles. The average mail truck goes 18 miles per day with 96% of them traveling under 40 miles per day. But those 18 miles are hard miles with alternating between flat out acceleration, idling and more idling. In that application they were lucky to last 10 years or 50k.

    • 0 avatar
      Jon

      My FIL has an 89 S15 with the 2.5L. It has close to 200k on it. The computer went out last year but the engine never had a mechanical failure. He says S15’s are S10’s that were assembled on a Tuesday.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      I remember, back in the day, one of the buff mags wondering why Porsche could get 150 HP out of a 8V 2.5 four and GM could only get 92 HP.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Quad Four. I know a lot of people liked them and there was a lot of hype around them, but they were thrashy and the early ones belonged in a hardware store in the paint department. At least all the ones I rode in.

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      Beat me to it… Honda and Toyota had silky smooth DOHC, 16V engines and GM just kind of phoned this one in. The H.O. model did make a lot of power, but the elimination of balance shafts combined with high revving made for just a horrid NVH experience. It made you wonder if they drove the competition’s cars before signing off on this blender full of nails.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        The bigger issue to me is that the Quad 4 debuted with a failure prone head gasket.

        The engine itself is actually still used by some hot rod enthusiasts for midget type cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        They didn’t phone it in…that was the problem. Horsepower on the HO models was excellent, especially for the era (like 180 IIRC), but it is like GM just couldn’t bring themselves to finish it. It was so rough and yes, ours went through multiple headgaskets. They put a ton of R&D into that motor and it was still a steaming pile.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      Wow, I totally disagree. We inherited my mother-in-law’s Olds Alero and it was driven for 18 years. When we first got the car I thought it had a V6, it was so peppy. We did nothing but oil changes and filters. We spent way more on brakes than we ever did on the engine – it was bone reliable for us.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Essentially the Quad 4 design kept evolving and changing names up until at least the last of the Pontiac Sunfires. A classic GM of “we’ll get it right eventually.”

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        They revised the motor by then I believe. The gen 2 got a ballance shaft, fixes to the headgasket issue, and saw output fall to 150ish HP in top trim IIRC (this probably was the headgasket fix). Those were ones prior to that were garbage.

        Incidentally, you can make them reliable nowadays and I’ve always wanted to bulletproof one, build it to like 200hp and drop it in a Fiero. Even though it was crap, the Fiero should have gotten the quad 4 H.O. but the Corvette types wouldn’t allow it.

        But stock, in a Grand Am…Hot…Smelly…GARBAGE!!!

      • 0 avatar
        JREwing

        By the time the Quad 4 made it into the Alero, it got the balance shafts it needed when it debuted a decade prior. I got a fair amount of time behind the wheel of a ’99 Grand Am with that motor, and it was pretty decent. The rest of the car was total junk.

        • 0 avatar
          gearhead77

          Same here. Wife had a 99 Alero and the 2.4 was the best part of the car.

          I worked for Enterprise in the mid-late 90’s and we had some J cars blessed with the 2.4 150hp motor over the awful 2.2. Those J’s with the 2.4 moved smartly compared to the lower ones.

  • avatar
    kosmo

    Whatever came in the Chevette. It was a good snow car, because it couldn’t spin its wheels!

    Might have to go back to 79 for that one, not sure.

    • 0 avatar
      paxman356

      It was the 1.6 L G161Z I4, an Isuzu engine. I was going to nominate it as well. I had an ’83 Civic HF hatch, and while it was even slower, it at least had good gas mileage (40mpg all day long) compared to the Chevette (high 20s… maybe). It was noisy, which is a bad move since they made the Scooter, with less sound deadening material. It was rough. Heh, it clicks almost all the boxes.

    • 0 avatar
      JREwing

      The 1.6L in the Chevette was definitely noisy; only 4 gears in the manual box meant that poor 4-banger was screaming on the interstate. It was dead reliable though; the car rusted out long before the motor was ready to quit.

  • avatar
    Mister_Sterling

    I see a lot of nominations for the Iron Duke. It deserves a lot of hate. But I had forgotten about the GM 122 2.2. I learned to drive in a 1990 Cavalier coupe that had that motor. It felt almost identical to the 1.8 that powered by old man’s E80 Corolla. The only difference was the GM motor was fuel injected. But being nearly a decade later, and being an 8-valve iron block motor in 1990, it only reinforced my feeling that the Americans were a decade behind the Japanese in technology. It would be another 22 years (the current gen Mustang and final gen Viper) before I could say that American cars were my first choice again.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      When we first started dating my wife had a ’88 Cavalier and I had a ’85 Honda Civic. The Civic’s tiny 1500cc shamed the GM 2.2 That poor Cavalier’s engine was attached to an equally terrible slushbox auto where as the Honda had a lovely 5 speed manual that allowed all 90HP to reach the wheels. To this day the only car on par with that pathetic Cavalier I’ve experienced was a 1st gen Toyota Rav4.

    • 0 avatar
      NTGD

      In my experience it was weak but reliable, had it in my 2000 Cavalier and while it was slow as all get out it kept running even during my too broke to maintain it phase. It served me well up until hitting what was somewhere between a pothole and a ditch on a dimly light road that cause a belt tensioner to grenade and trash the engine.

  • avatar
    N8iveVA

    Def the GM Iron Duke. I remember riding around in multiple vehicles with that boat anchor of a motor. Just awful. Slow and loud is what I mainly remember.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      You haven’t lived until you have rocked an iron duke powered third gen Camaro!

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        I once saw one at a shop I used to frequent. Base model with dog dish caps and a 4 speed manual. With the hood open it had gobs of room making maintenance real easy. You could stick a supercharger in there with room to spare. A Quad 4 or Ecotech upgrade would be a neat build.

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          A blown iron duke third gen would probably get you close to 2.8 v6 power levels. The answer to any engine upgrade question in those cars starts with L and ends in S

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Weird how so many nominated the Iron Duke. At least it ran, however poorly that may have been.

    Any Chrylser/Dodge powered by a Mitsubishi 4 pot was doomed. It was note above the domestics were far behind the Japanese in terms of 4 pot tech, perhaps. Except for Mitsubishi, who were spectacular in making engines work great, until they didn’t..at all.

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      Really? I had a ’76 Dodge Colt (Galant) with the 2.0 engine, ran it for 5 years without any significant engine issues. A neighbour had a ’75 Plymouth Champ with the 1.6 engine – he was a process server, so ran up over 120,000 miles in 3 years. Without incident.

      My wife had a later Lancer-based Colt for about 5-6 years, which mt sister bought from her when we moved to the country (and her daily drive became a Ford F-250 Supercab – a bit of a change). Neither she nor my sister experienced any significant issues with that Colt.

      So far as I was ever aware, the Mitsubishi cars that Chrysler sold had a good reputation for reliability.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The Ford 2.3 OHC, which went from ~1974 to well past 1980.

    I had two of them in Pinto/Bobcats. They were hard on gas, rough, and not very durable. The floating rocker arms limited their ability to rev up.

    On the plus side, they had a cast iron head and block, and weren’t terribly hard or costly to rebuild.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      I think this was the good 2.3. Turbo versions from the SVO and the Thunderbird can make some power and I’ve never heard about many issues with them. A rare bright spot of the era IMHO.

      Now there was that Ford 2.3 “HSC” or whatever it was that was in the Tempo and Ibbelieve some Tauruses for a while. IIRC it was derived from the Escort’s 1.9 but somehow as they made it larger, they made it worse. Even a manual trans couldn’t save it.

      • 0 avatar
        Pig_Iron

        IIRC the Ford 2.3/2.5 HSC was a 4 cylinder variant of the Ford I6.

        The Chevrolet 153 Four, Pontiac Iron Duke, and Jeep 2.5 Four were similarly designed and developed from their straight six predecessors.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          yep, the miserable HSC was the old Falcon “Thriftpower” six with two cylinders lopped off and some other changes.

        • 0 avatar
          Flipper35

          I remember the Escorts in the 90s having a lot of cracked heads. Don’t remember which four pot it was though.

          • 0 avatar
            eng_alvarado90

            It was either the 1.9 or the 2.0 Split Port that was also used on the 1st gen base Focus. 2.0 was thrash, my aunt’s 2000 Focus went through a head.
            The 2.0 Zetec was much better

          • 0 avatar
            jrhmobile

            This is my vote. I had an ’81 Escort with the 1.6 CVH. That engine was slow, noisy and fragile.

            Went through three cylinder heads in nearly 100,000 miles. Cooling was WAY inadequate and the heads would crack around the exhaust port, giving you short notice it was damaged by sending up enough white smoke to usher in the new pope.

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          You are correct. I had forgotten thats where it came from. It was terrible though.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      Those 2.3 Pinto engines were much more polished through the 80s and beyond. You can’t kill a Ranger powered by those Lima, OH built 2.3

  • avatar
    JimZ

    It’s down to two for me.

    1) the Iron Duke, specifically the years they built the oil filter into the oil pan in FWD applications, and IIRC for the first couple of years of that they didn’t have a regular drain plug. Unscrewing the filter cap sent oil spewing everywhere.

    2) the Opel OHC engine used in the J-cars. Head gasket eating trash.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      We had a Pontiac Sunbird with the 2L OHC. We drove it for 22 years. It was still running strong when we donated to the local high school auto shop. Like our Alero with the Quad-4, it needed nothing but oil changes.

      • 0 avatar
        NTGD

        I guess its a YMV engine, had a hand me down 88 Sunbird that was 12 years old and well maintained to my knowledge (it had been pass around to various family members who needed a cheap but reliable car). It was fine for short trips but drive it more than 30 minutes and at the next red light it would shut off if I didn’t keep reeving the engine a bit.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    To round this out, you really need a “worse American v8” article. Seeing all of the hate on the iron duke and what not (all deserved no doubt) made think back that were you to opt for the V8 back then you’d likely get a 305 that couldn’t match my modern 1.6 performance wise (the good old 110 HP 262 small block that GM didn’t deserve to survive). There are some truly miserable motors back in those days of all displacements and cylinder counts.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      We might get pi$$y about the “American” part.

      As an example the small V8 (3.9 ltrs?) that Ford used in the LIncoln LS and retro-Thunderbird was pretty terrible but it was a shrunken Jaguar design.

      American or Not?

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      early nominations- the Ford 255 Windsor and the 1974-76 Cadillac 500.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Technically, it was a 4 cylinder as well as a V6, but the Cadillac V8-6-4 would have to get a mention. At the end of the day though I would give the nod to the Olds 350 Diesel!

        V6? Ford 3.8 all day

    • 0 avatar
      ldl20

      Well, if we’re going with a V8 nominee, the HT-4100 in my dad’s 85 Sedan De Ville was awful. It was painfully slow, and as a bonus, you could see the single-digit MPGs on the digital trip computer as you tried to accelerate in that turd.

      As for a 4-cylinder, whatever engine was in the Renault Alliance, like the 84 Motor Trend Car of the Year version my mom had, was another POS. Full of sound and fury, and not much else!

    • 0 avatar
      pale ghost

      I bought a new 1980 Caprice of sh1t with that motor. Man was it slow but you couldn’t hear it at idle. Very comfortable highway car as long as you didn’t have to go uphill. If I remember right the V6 had more guts.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    No hate for heat gasket-eating Subaru engines?

  • avatar
    someoldfool

    Dating myself, in the 70s (more than 40 years ago? maybe, can’t recall when exactly) we wanted to trade cars and test drove a VW Dasher automatic. IIRC, it had a 1.7L 4 cylinder engine. It was rough and slow but at least it was noisy too. This was one of those cars where you regret taking it on a test drive of a mile or more.

    A friend had a Saturn coupe. The accelerator pedal was a volume control. Pressing on it increased the noise but not the speed.

  • avatar
    Crosley

    I get nostalgic when I see a round air cleaner cover like that.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      On the weekend we would ‘flip’ our’s over to allow for more air intake and that louder carburetor noise. Of course it also meant changing the filter more often.

      However unlike in today’s vehicles that was a job that could be completed in less than one minute, using one hand and no tools.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    Iron Duke for sure. Did you ever hear one run? Ugh.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    If you went a decade earlier, it would be no contest: the 2.3L aluminum block in the Chevrolet Vega. Which is probably why you cut it off at 1980.

  • avatar
    Zoomers_StandingOnGenius_Shoulders

    The original Quad 4. Loud, unrefined and tons of problems.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I have zero experience with 4 bangers of the era. The ’84 Ranger I owned had a 2.8 litre V6 and a 1990 5.0 F250 after that.

  • avatar
    slap

    The 2.5L engine that Ford put in the early Taurus. About 90hp.

    I test drove a Taurus wagon with that engine and a manual transmission “MT-5”. So slow that it was scary trying to merge it into traffic.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      To Ford’s credit that option didn’t last long – “Standard V6” was pretty quick to find its way as a part of Taurus production.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        You could get a four-cylinder Taurus sedan for six years. They weren’t making many of them by the end, though. First they killed the MT-5, then they made the six standard in the mid-level GL, and then they started including the six in most of the low-level Ls actually built.

        The only four-cylinder Taurus wagon was the MT-5.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          @dal, I was never actually aware there was a 4-cyl Taurus even growing up within 30 min of the Lima, OH Ford Engine Plant. American cars were thick on the ground but I don’t think any of my “Ford Plan” friends and neighbors were ever cheap enough to by one.

          (Not disputing facts just saying the 4-cyl Taurus was near non-existent in my area.)

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            I saw too many of them for sale when I was looking (pre-internet, obviously) for the six-cylinder ’87 I ultimately bought for a first car.

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          Was there an MT-5 Wagon? I saw a few MT-5s when I was in H.S., typically driven by some dreamer that “knew of a wrecked SHO that he was gonna buy the motor from andd swap it in.” They were terrible. A wagon version would almost be so bad as to be worth owning. Make mine Signal Red please.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Yep, there were a few MT-5 wagons in ’86 and ’87.

            Still not sure why they only sold the stick with the four, given that it was basically the same transmission they later used in the SHO. There were still enough manuals being sold then that I think a Vulcan/MT combination would have sold some copies.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      if we’re going to go with the worst implementation of the worst engine, then it’d have to be the Iron Duke in a Camaro or Firebird with an automatic trans.

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      Is that related to the 4 cylinder that was offered in the Aerostar for a time? I read on Wikipedia that originally there was a 4 cylinder in an Aerostar and was gobsmacked. With the 4 litre V6that moose got along fine, but I couldn’t imagine it having any less than the 160 hp from the 4 litre.

      Perhaps another article idea is the worst vehicle to have a 4 cylinder. What was the vehicle, and what was the engine? Why that small or underpowered an engine in something that ‘mungous. Four cylinder Astros and Aerostars as an example.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Pretty much every one is a decent candidate. I still don’t like the sound of fours, even today’s refined, smooth, powerful ones, because of experience with these engines.

    But there is a winner.

    It’s not the Iron Duke, because that one was too durable and tolerant of abuse.

    It’s not the Lima, because that one was too strong and easy to modify.

    It’s not the Chrysler 2.2/2.5 used in the K-cars, because that one was actually reasonably refined by 1980s standards and formed the basis for some mental turbo variants.

    I don’t think import engines from Isuzu or Mitsubishi should be included, as completely and totally awful as the Mitsubishi 2.6 was.

    I think all of that leaves two solid candidates: the Ford HSC and the GM “122” OHV four used in some J-bodies. I think on balance the 122 was more prone to breakage, and it made less torque, so it’s the winner.

    • 0 avatar
      JREwing

      I will say the Chrysler 2.2L (non-turbo) was a decent motor, but not hitched to the Caravan. Even with the 5-speed manual, it was utterly gutless. Woe becomes the poor soul hauling anything near its rated payload in any kind of hilly terrain. In a smaller K-car, it was fine.

  • avatar
    eng_alvarado90

    The 2.3 HSC was derived from the 200 CID I6. My dad used to own the “H.O” version on a 86 Tempo GLS coupe. He owned it from 93 to 2000 and it took quite a beating but refused to die. It sure was underpowered but a reliable cast iron pushrod design with timing chain. The next owner drove the Tempo back home in Baja, 1000 miles southbound w/o issues.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Posting above reminded me, but can the Cadillac V8-6-4 take the crown for the worst 8, 6, and 4 Cylinder all at once?

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      nah; snip one wire and it was back to being just a normal 368.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Actually you could even install a switch on the dash to decide if you wanted the system on or off. Some guys turned it off around town and let it do it’s thing on the highway.

        I have some lust for the 1979 to 1981 Eldorado. In 79 you could get an Oldsmobile 350 V8 and in 1980-81 you could get the 368 V8.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    JimZ:

    I also was an unfortunate owner of a first gen Mitsubishi Montero a.k.a. Dodge Raider.

    You are correct about the horrible Astron engine and its faulty beyond belief carburetor.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    The Mitsubishi sourced 2.6 “silent shaft” 4 cylinder was a pos at least in the Chrysler products of the 80’s. Starting off with 92 hp it was barely any quicker than the Chrysler designed 2.2 and it’s replacement rate at the dealer was more than double. Seeing an Aries or other such Mopar on the side of the dealer with the infamous 2.6 Hemi fender badge with the motor missing was a very common site in the 80’s and 90’s. Oil smoking, head gasket blowing and, an outrageously expensive and non-serviceable Mikuni carb, rattling balance shaft chains that eventually broke, cracked or warped heads due to the design of the jet valves were all reality for many customers from this mill and to add insult to injury they stuck the “Hemi” label to this turd starting in 1981 which must have been a huge slap in the face to 60’s and early 70’s Mopar fans. The one good thing going for it was it’s smooth quiet operation compared to other large displacement 4 bangers of the time

    Early Iron Duke 2.5 engines. The 70’s and early 80’s Iron Dukes suffered from noisy pistons, noise in general, lack of refinement due to GM’s cheapness in not fitting balance shafts and it only made 87 HP until 1979 when it was upped to 90 and considerably redesigned into the more familiar “crossflow” design. Later in 1982 the engine was revamped with TBI and rebranded Tech IV. This engine received a plethora of updates with slight power and efficiency improvements along the way, balance shafts by 1988 and by 1989 got the new higher flowing heads, increased RPM capability and 110 HP on certain applications. During 1990 this engine lost the gear drive setup and went over to a timing chain which reduced noise further. Therefore the best Tech IV’s were the 1990-93 variants.
    Problems with this mill included the usual oil leaks at the valve covers, the gear losing a tooth and a no start engine condition and a few drive-ability woes related to the EGR system. Later year Tech Iv’s from around 1985 on up were far better and I have seen a lot of them with 200-300K miles still running.

    Chevrolet 1.8 carbureted J-body engine- This miserable one year only mess of an engine started the J-body brigade and was heavily criticized for being underpowered with merely 100 LB FT of torque available, very noisy, had a weak head gasket and suffered drive-ability woes with the Vara-jet carb. GM quickly semi-corrected these issues in 1983 with larger displacement, TBI and improved quality and running behavior but noise was still an issue and this engine didn’t really like to rev with it’s OHV design so it gets an honorable mention.

    GM Quad 4- pre 1995 engines were without a balance shaft and were very loud and crude sounding and rough. Head gasket issues were the norm too. Power output was very good though, especially the 180-190 Hp versions. it took GM until 1995 to get the 2.3 version right and then in 1996 the larger 2.4 debuted which overall was a much better, smoother quieter engine.

    Chrysler 2.2/2.5 engines- Yes certain years seem pretty good and there are plenty of stories on how people got 200k out of them but I remember from about the mid 80’s to about 1990 that suffered from head gasket leaks, warped heads, piston pin knock and oodles of drive-ability issues. The early ones also suffered camshaft issues and the carburetors were quite cantankerous to dial in properly.

  • avatar
    Hydromatic

    So, no mention of the 1.8-liter that debuted with the 1982 Cavalier? Not an Iron Duke, but just as gutless and noisy.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The first generation Ford Escort with the 1.6 CVH. My sister owned one. The head gasket blew at a fairly low 60k. Under manufacturer recommendation required using new head bolts because of stretching.
    The later 1.9 CVH was vastly improved.
    I had a coworker who owned a Tempo with the 2.3 HSC. While not powerful it endured because it was based on the old Thriftpower 6.

  • avatar
    Metallicat

    In the early 90’s I had a friend with a 1984 Firebird 2.5 / 3spd auto and a cousin with a similar vintage Camaro 2.8 / 3spd auto. I, myself, had an ’84 Tempo with a 5 spd manual. That Tempo was by far the quickest of the 3 vehicles. My cousin brought his Camaro to the drag strip for some HS event in 1990 and it ran low 20’s in the quarter mile. Ford Aerostar vans were blowing it away. I think it was actually slower than the 2.5 ‘Duke. The carbed HSC engine in my car was, however, the thrashiest and noisiest 4 banger I have even been in. The later fuel injected cars were much better, but that ’84 was horrible. I always short shifted it because it sounded like it was going to blow itself apart at higher rpm. They were reliable engines, however, and actually made more hp than the 200 I6 that they were based off of.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    I think every 4 cylinder plonker Detroit made has been mentioned, so it’s up to me to pick my worst out of a dodgy bunch of rubbish. No effort seemed to be made to make an actual decent four cylinder. Nope, just so long as it worked and didn’t grenade, the execs gave these things the green light for production. If some of the American people wanted nasty cheap cars, they decided, without even trying the foreign competition to find out what was acceptable and actually being purchased by consumers, then the cheapest possible garbage would be foisted on them, so they could do appropriate penance and choose at minimum a six next time. It was cynical horse manure from our “betters”. There wasn’t a one of the Detroit engines for the next 35 years that even came close to the 1962 Volvo B18D, a non-balance shaft 1.8 liter with 90 hp. Drove many of them. It roared through two small pancake air filters at high rpm, but was always smooth in my experience. And it was dead-boring straightforward in design, and probably cheap to make, all myths and fanciful notions about Swedish steel put aside. Later bigger displacement versions of the engine were lumpier and more vibratory. Holy Bat Physics, Robin! What a surprise.

    So it’s a tossup for sheer badness between the two Detroiters that startled me most at their sheer lack of refinement when I first experienced them.

    In 1962, Chevy brought out the Chevy II because Ford was running away with Falcon sales over the Corvair. I got my first experience of the 153 cube four that later was called the Iron Duke in a Chevy II. Could not believe it, especially when you got in a Chevy II with the new 194 cubic inch six for $70 extra. Night and day. GM’s Vauxhall fours from England were far, far superior to the Iron Duke. The Chevy II six was a smoothy and morphed into a 230 cuber for the ’64 full size Chev. The four felt like it wanted to leave the chassis – apparently nobody had spent even five minutes working out the secondary imbalance forces such a big four caused, so making it for $80 was all that counted. It later had such a distinguished career, it became a legend for awfulness as has been described in the comments. I rented a Citation shortly after they appeared and was as amazed at the smoothness. Opened the hood, and there was the 2.8 V6. Not even Hertz or Avis (I cannot remember which – there was only two choices then) in the Canadian hinterland was handing out Iron Dukes to their customers.

    The second buzzer and gross rasper was the Tempo’s 2.3 HSC Sawzall Edition of the perfectly fine Ford 200 cubic inch straight six with two cylinders lopped off. They went to the trouble of remaking the casting for transverse duty. Why? They had a head-nodding barely adequate 2.3l Lima engine clattering away in Mustangs and Fairmonts which wasn’t total rubbish, but instead invested money in making a noisy uncompetitive remake of the old six, speaking to a three speed auto and undergeared at that, so the noise was omnipresent at any speed. 30 mph in the city was a strain. What a useless car and engine. Give me a K-Car any day.

    Honorable mention for outright thrash goes to the first gen Quad fours. The rules don’t allow the Vega engine to be nominated, but my parents’ one was a startling vibratory experience after their Pinto 2.0l, which died of rust a mere 52 months into its career before the squashed cam lobes brought an end to the proceedings. But I wasn’t surprised at the Vega’s tractor engine – I’d read about its uselessness before I sampled it. On balance and after due consideration, I think GM handily wins the trashy four cylinder contest going away.

    • 0 avatar
      Metallicat

      Assuming your experience with the Tempo HSC engine was from an ’86 or above model, you would not believe how much noisier the original carbed engine was. They likely had better sound deadening insulation in the later models. Mine had no tach, but the owner’s manual stated max speedo readings for each gear. 1st gear was 35mph, 2nd was something crazy like 55 or 60, third gear I do not recall. I don’t know if they specified 4th through 5th, likely not as those would have been waaay past posted speed limits at the time. I never took 1st gear past 25mph. It was just all noise and harshness and vibrations….bad, bad, bad. But that engine did make a lot of low end torque, at least with the mtx option.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    My family has pretty much always driven 4 cylinder vehicles with a few rando V6s thrown in for flavour, mostly all domestic – mom had a late 80s Volvo brick in the early 2000s. As such we never really experienced premium motoring, and any characteristics of an unpleasant vehicle were chalked up to engines doing engine things and we moved on.

    The 4 cylinder that soured my parents on GM forever was the one in a late 80s or early 90s Corsica. I can’t recall if there were particularly unpleasant things about the engine since I was a baby at the time, but I’ve heard tell that my parents had the Corsica for all of 6,000 miles. The engine was replaced twice in that 6,000 miles, meaning in roughly 6 months they’d had 3 engines. If I recall from the stories there were leaks that were undiagnosable.

  • avatar

    Ford’s first attempt at a turbo four, in the 1978-79 Mustang. We got a shiny new Cobra, with TRX (!!!) wheels. The car itself handled well for a detroit effort of the era….and the styling was also period appropriate.
    The car was “powered” by a blown four cylinder and a four speed trans. The four had a carb, and long passages between carb, turbo and intake. No intercooler. It didn’t make much power, but what it did make, was totally wasted by the four speed. First and Second gear were OK. Third was what fourth should be, and Fourth was an OD gear. The only way you could drive it would be to redline it hard in each gear, with a bonus “buzzzzz” from the dash it you got it to “overboost”. The hard redline would let you get it … just ….to the very bottom of the boost/torque curve for the next gear. Driving gently meant that you had to be patient for the rpms to get back up to boost-which took a while.
    This is NOT the engine that was SVO, or put into the Merkur or T-Bird.
    Lastly, in hot August stop and go, it would stall in NYC traffic, because fuel would pool in the long passages of the intake tract, and the engine would flood. You kids with your fancy injection don’t know that pleasure.

    How Ford ever signed off on this engine for production is a mystery. It wasn’t ready for prime time, or any time….

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    My experience with GM 4 cylinders has been a positive one. The 2.2 I4 I had for 21 years in my 99 S-10 has run strong for over 120k and still continues to run strong for my nephew not burning oil and not leaking any as a matter of fact I never had to add any oil in 21 years. My brother had an 82 Buick Skylark with a 2.5 Iron Duke ran for over 300k miles without burning or using any oil but it did have fuel injection and a 4 speed manual and most of the mileage was highway. The body gave out before the engine. Agree early Vega engines were bad. I believe many of the early GM engines were not good but it seems that over time they improved them. If the 2.2 I4 in my 99 S-10 is considered bad then I will take another one just like it–I had zero issues with that engine. My 2012 Buick Lacrosse has the 2.4 essist and it seems to be very reliable. With GM as with Ford and Chrysler it is always better to wait a number of years before buying a new model or one with a newly designed engine to give them time to work out all the bugs.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Unreliable engines:
    – Reduce traffic congestion (on balance)
    – Save lives (on balance)
    – Save fuel (if we can’t drive it, fuel consumption = zero)
    – Act as a catalyst for the evolutionary process, weeding out uncompetitive carmakers more quickly
    – Support the vehicle sales and service industries

    Side note: 8-cylinder engines are losing badly at evolution (see the bottom half of the second chart here):
    https://www.experian.com/blogs/insights/2019/05/4-cylinder-engines-continue-to-gain-market-share-providing-drivers-with-a-combination-of-fuel-economy-improved-performance/

    Proposed QOTD: What powertrain will be dominant in 2060?

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    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.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    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.

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