Turbo three-pots are hot these days and even performance cars have them now

Three-cylinder engines are normally associated with city cars whose main brief is to get you from point to point while using as little fuel as possible. Outright performance is not hugely important, nor is the way the engine sounds since all that matters for a three-pot is to be cheap to build, run, and maintain.

But the perception of three-cylinder engines seems to be shifting as more and more powerful units make their way to the mainstream automotive scene. Some of them are even finding their way under the hood of proper performance cars, and if this isn’t a clear indication of a shift in perception of such engines, then I don’t know what is.

This is our list of the seven most powerful three-pot power plants currently available in any car (and one model you can have it in), in ascending power order.

Honda Civic 1.0 VTEC

These are the most powerful three-cylinder engines in new cars
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Honda reluctantly adopted turbocharging for its smaller displacement engines and the smallest one it offers to a worldwide audience is its 1.0-liter VTEC unit. To be clear, it’s not really a traditional VTEC engine. In fact, it only uses VTEC on the exhaust cam, since the turbo provides all the air needed for induction, negating the need for it here.

Even if it’s slightly misleadingly badged, the unit is still impressive alongside other similar displacement engines. It’s even one of the most powerful three-cylinder engines you can buy right now in any car. It makes 120 metric horsepower quite low, at 5,500 rpm, and its torque peaks at 200 Nm / 147 pound-feet of torque, which is about as much power as a non-turbo, four-pot, 1.6-liter from a decade ago.

In the latest Civic hatchback, this 1.0-liter turbo makes the vehicle feel light and willing - it pulls surprisingly hard, achieving the benchmark sprint from naught to 100 km/h or 62 mph in a reasonable 10.9 seconds and a top speed of 203 km/h or 126.1 mph.

And according to the manufacturer, it uses just 5.1 l/100km or 46.1 mpg U.S. on the combined cycle.

Honda offers the engine hooked up to either a manual six-speed or a continuously variable transmission - enthusiasts will obviously go for the former, and they will be rewarded with one of the best feeling manual shifters in the business - one that’s such a pleasure to use, it completely transforms the driving experience (at least that was my impression when I drove several different versions back to back at its Euro launch venue last year).

Its only slight downside is that it doesn’t sound that special - remember, three-pot engines sound a bit like V-6 engines, so getting one to sound good is not hard. There are other cars on this list with better sounding engines.

Read our full review on the 2018 Honda Civic.

Peugeot 308 1.2 PureTech

These are the most powerful three-cylinder engines in new cars
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Peugeot’s 1.2-liter, PureTech, turbocharged, three-cylinder is an engine that majors on refinement and just generally being hushed and not intrusive. You do get a hint of three-cylinder warble when really stepping on the gas in a Peugeot 308 equipped with the engine, but it’s never intrusive, it doesn’t send vibration into the cabin, and it always has plenty of performance on tap.

It’s clearly not designed to be a particularly sporty engine, and its main job is efficiency. Claimed combined fuel efficiency is rated at 5.2 l/100km or 45.2 mpg U.S.

But even so, it can still send a manual gearbox-equipped 308 to 100 km/h or 62 mph in 9.8 seconds and it won’t stop until 206 km/h or 128 mph.

The sub-10-second sprint time is impressive for such a small engined car, but you need to remember the 308 is the lightest vehicle in its class, weighing as much as vehicles from the class above made by other manufacturers.

Therefore the Peugeot 1.2-liter PureTech is not necessarily a sporty engine (although it’s no slouch either) but equipping the light and nimble 308 it provides good performance and, in combination with the hatchback’s good handling, it makes for an enjoyable driving experience (surprisingly so).

Read our full review on the 2016 Peugeot 308 Sedan.

MINI Cooper - 136 ps / 220 Nm

These are the most powerful three-cylinder engines in new cars
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BMW didn’t cut its 3.0-liter straight-six in half in order to create the 1.5-liter three-cylinder that is found in base versions of the 1 and 3 Series, as well as MINI models, but the real story is not that far off. The smaller engine was designed to use existing components, just fewer of them, in order to keep development and tooling costs down for the manufacturer. It makes 136 metric horsepower and 220 Nm / 162 pound-feet of torque.

The resulting engine is a spritely and characterful unit that can send a three-door MINI to 100 km/h or 62 mph from a standstill in 7.9 seconds and on to 210 km/h or 130.5 mph.

It’s also probably one of the most sonorous engines on this list, as well as one of the least refined - I remember my experience driving a MINI with this engine and being shocked by how much vibration makes its way into the cabin through the steering wheel and gear selector (my tester was an automatic).

However, while refinement is below average in this company, there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to sheer performance and the noise it makes. Both are excellent and combined with the MINI’s sharp handling, the driving experience is really enjoyable and involving.

It’s also pretty good on fuel too, with MINI quoting a Cooper with this engine and a manual gearbox at 5 l/100km or 47 mpg U.S. As is the case with all these turbo engines, you can only achieve that figure if you just tickle the throttle and expend a lot of energy and concentration to anticipate a lot and brake as little as possible.

Read our full review on the 2018 Mini Cooper.

Ford Fiesta ST Line 1.0 EcoBoost 140 PS / 180 Nm

These are the most powerful three-cylinder engines in new cars
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Ford has had a 140-horsepower, 1.0-liter EcoBoost on offer in the Fiesta for a few years now. In fact, Ford was the first major manufacturer to start fitting its cars with a small, downsized, three-pot turbo. And, while at first buyers were skeptical of its low displacement but comparatively high output, it’s proven to be a good engine over the years.

It doesn’t have as much torque as some rivals, only 180 Nm /132 pound-feet, but in the light Fiesta, it allows for a 0 to 100 km/h / 62 mph sprint time of nine seconds and a top speed of 202 km/h or 125 mph.

With the standard factory exhaust system, the engine is not particularly loud, and with the improvements and refinement brought about by the latest Fiesta, you could almost call it hushed compared to other three-cylinder engines. It, for instance, sends considerably less vibration into the cabin than the three-pot in the MINI Cooper, although the BMW engine feels a bit more muscular thanks to its extra torque. In terms of power, there’s only a difference of 4 metric horsepower, so in that respect, they’re evenly matched.

Read our full review on the 2018 Ford Fiesta.

Volvo XC40 1.5-liter T3 - 156 PS / 265 Nm

These are the most powerful three-cylinder engines in new cars
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So far Volvo has only equipped the XC40 with its new 1.5-liter three-cylinder with 156 metric horsepower and 265 Nm / 195 pound-feet of torque. But, even in this application, where it has to motivate a tall, nearly 1,800-kg / 3,970-pound vehicle, the unit still posts admirable performance numbers.

The XC40 with the new three-pot T3 sprints from standstill to 100 km/h or 62 mph in 9.4 seconds and has a top speed of 200 km/h or 124.2 mph.

Reviewers who have tried the car say it feels surprisingly muscular - the new T3 has no problem motivating the XC40, but it will probably feel even more spritely once Volvo adds it to the engine roster for the V40 hatchback. In that application, it should provide eight-second sprints to 60 mph and feel even better in gear.

We’ve heard a lot of good things about this new T3, an engine Volvo will be using a lot more of in the near future. It’s a shame that the Swedish manufacturer doesn’t have a city car or supermini, an application where this unit would grant the vehicle warm hatch performance.

Read our full review on the 2018 Volvo XC40.

Ford Fiesta ST 1.5 EcoBoost 200 PS / 290 Nm

These are the most powerful three-cylinder engines in new cars
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Believe it or not, there are actual three-cylinder hot hatches these days. Well, only one so far. I’m talking about, of course, the Ford Fiesta ST with its 1.5-liter EcoBoost engine that pumps out an impressive 200 horsepower and 290 Nm / 213 pound-feet of torque. It also provides a very unique soundtrack for a hot hatch, with its throaty thrum accompanied by the occasional turbo whistle and blowoff.

Performance is impressive - Ford claims the Fiesta ST equipped with this new engine sprints from 0 to 100 km/h / 62 mph in 6.5 seconds and its top speed is 232 km/h or 144.1 mph. Being a Fiesta ST, it blends its strong straight line performance with unrivaled cornering capability and suitable hot hatch looks that make it quite a unique proposition in the segment.

It is officially the most powerful three-cylinder engine fitted to any new car, although, technically it isn’t, because BMW makes one that’s even more powerful; it’s just that you can’t get it separately - it has to be part of a plug-in hybrid system.

Read our full review on the 2018 Ford Fiesta ST.

BMW i8

2015 BMW i8 Drivetrain
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Standard AWD:Two motors in the rear and one in the front

Of course, I’m referring to the BMW i8, one of the world’s first serious plug-in hybrid performance cars, whose powertrain is comprised of electric motors and the same 1.5-liter three-cylinder that powers the MINI Cooper. However, in this application, its power output has been considerably boosted to a point where it even surpasses the output of the Fiesta ST.

Without any form of electric boost, the 1.5-liter, three-pot turbo makes 231 metric horsepower and 320 Nm / 236 pound-feet of torque.

With the extra shove provided by front- and rear-mounted electric motors, the i8 has a total power output of 354 horsepower and a whopping 550 Nm / 406 pound-feet of torque. These numbers enable it to sprint to 100 km/h or 62 mph in a mere 4.4 seconds, considerably faster than any car on this list.

But it doesn’t really count since it has extra aid from its electric motor, but then again, even in isolation (without the electric boost) its internal combustion engine still makes enough power to place it at the very end of our list. Maybe BMW will use this high-powered version of the 1.5-liter in the next Cooper S. It would replace the 2.0-liter engine that car still runs, a comparably big unit that’s not excessively powerful for its displacement (it doesn’t even make 200 horsepower right now).

Read our full review on the 2019 BMW i8.

Final thoughts

2019 Audi E-tron Quattro
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There are definitely a few three-pot turbos that are worth your attention because they are genuinely good engines that power good cars. However, only very few of them are actual performance units - in fact, the only two performance engines on this list power the Fiesta ST and BMW i8; all others featured here off just a bit more power compared to other three-pot turbos from other manufacturers.

Three-cylinder engines will continue to gain popularity within coming years, and we’ll start seeing them in larger and larger cars. Remember, Ford was initially planning to offer the 1.0-liter EcoBoost in the Mondeo/Fusion and even though it didn’t, the fact that the idea was even considered I think shows how the industry will progress in this direction in the near future.

Andrei Nedelea
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