What are Engine Configurations?

When cars were first produced with internal combustion engines, they used a single cylinder. Over time, manufacturers found 3 ways to add cylinders and power to their engines.

Three Types of Engine Configuration

  1. V-Shaped - created by G. Daimler and W. Maybach in 1889
  2. Vertical Inline - created by W. Maybach in 1890
  3. Horizontal Inline - created by W. Maybach in 1896

Engines built over 120 years ago still serve as the basis for most contemporary models. This technology has gone a long way, but the way engines work (pistons, compression, and an ignition source) remains fundamentally the same.

What Is A V-Shaped Engine?

In a V-shaped engine, the pistons cross each other, forming a V inside the engine block. This configuration was developed to make the engine smaller (a V6 with 6 pistons is about half the length of its six-cylinder inline counterpart). Freeing up this space in a car can lower the weight of the vehicle, resulting in better performance.

There are a few disadvantages with the V configuration:

Higher Cost to Produce

V-shaped engines typically require more hardware than inline engines because the pistons run in opposing chambers. For example, instead of one camshaft, you’ll need two. While they might be smaller, their manufacturing cost is higher.

Moreover, the V conformation is less stable than its inline counterpart. The pistons move side to side and alternate the engine’s centre of gravity, which can make the engine vibrate.

V6 and V8 are the most common types of V engines. The latter being the most stable of the two because the firing times are closer together. V8’s still require additional hardware to reduce vibration.

Some manufacturers make V10 and V12 models which are usually reserved for high-end or sports vehicles because of their greater cost, size, and road power restrictions.

What Is An Inline Engine?

In an inline engine, the pistons are positioned in a line either vertically or horizontally.

Vertical Inline Engines

In a vertical inline engine, the crankshaft is placed at the bottom of the engine where it pushes and pulls the pistons up and down. This configuration is the most common in cars today. These engines are very stable, giving the rider a smoother ride than their V-shaped cousins.

Vertical inline engines can be mounted in two different configurations:

  • North-South - Usually seen in rear-wheel drive vehicles.
  • East-West - Most commonly found in front-wheel drive vehicles.

In general, the engine will be mounted in the direction that the power will be distributed. This makes for fewer moving parts and a lower likelihood of breakdowns.

The most inline engines have four cylinders, allowing for better stability and noise reduction. You may see a few inline 6 engines but these are not as common because most manufacturers favour a V6 over an inline 6.

The smaller three-cylinder models are more durable, fuel-efficient, and cheaper. They are usually reserved for high-load vehicles, but 3 cylinder engines are increasingly popular in the Hybrid market.

For example, the BMW i8 houses a 170kW three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbocharged engine and a 96kW electric motor capable of reaching 100kmh in 4.4 seconds - but it comes with a substantial price tag.

Horizontal Inline Engines (Boxer)

A boxer engine is more of a mix between a V and an Inline engine. The pistons are laid flat and move sideways into opposing chambers. The crankshaft is housed in the centre and the piston moves out horizontally away from it.

These engines are not common; the main manufacturers still producing them are Subaru and Porsche.

A boxer engine is very stable and the lower stress on the moving parts reduces wear. However, the engine is much wider and limits the design of the car.