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Odd Ones Out: Best 3-Cylinder Cars

You’ve got your typical 8, 6, and 4-cylinder engine options to choose from, but what about 3? We looked at some of the best 3-cylinder cars ever made!

3-Cylinder Engines in Cars

1997 Daihatsu Hijet Deck Van – carsforsale.com
1997 Daihatsu Hijet Deck Van – carsforsale.com

Engines come in a bunch of different shapes and sizes. You’ve got your standard V configured engines, inline engines, horizontally opposed boxer engines, and some crazy looking W engines. All these engines are different ways an engine can position its cylinders, but all of them work with an even number of cylinders for the most part. 4, 6, 8 are the most common amounts of cylinders found in an engine with even 10 and 12 showing up for some models.

However, there is an engine setup that comes up from time to time featuring a unique number of cylinders. 3-cylinder engines were once just a quirky engine found in Japanese kei cars like the Autozam AZ-1 or Daihatsu Hijet, but 3-pots have become more prevalent over here in the states now too. This 3-cylinder car trend is due impart to the need to make cheaper, more compact vehicles. While the obvious disadvantage of a 3-cylinder car is that they are underpowered, these unique engines do have their benefits.

Ford 1.0L EcoBoost 3-cylinder engine – media.ford.co
Ford 1.0L EcoBoost 3-cylinder engine – media.ford.co

The small size of a 3-cylinder engine allows it to fit neatly in a smaller engine bay, meaning more cargo or passenger room for designers to work with. On the performance side of things, having one less cylinder moving around than your typical 4-cylinder engine helps with friction losses. Add in the smaller displacement size and you’ve got a nice little platform to generate good fuel economy ratings. 3-cylinder cars also benefit from a cheaper price as these engines use less components, use less materials, and cost less to produce than your standard 4-cylinder engines.

Just because these 3-cylinder cars feature tiny engines doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun, exciting, or luxurious too. We went ahead and tried to prove that point by bringing together some of the best 3-cylinder cars you can find for sale today. Do you think you’ll pick up one of these 3-cylinder car oddities at your local dealership?

Used 3-Cylinder Cars

Some 3-cylinder cars have already come and gone on the American market, but just because these 3-pots haven’t stuck around doesn’t mean that you should take a look at them. Each of these used cars can be had for a bargain and their 3-cylinder engines are still capable of some commendable fuel economy numbers even after being some years old.

Geo Metro

1994 Geo Metro - carsforsale.com
1994 Geo Metro - carsforsale.com

Yes, there are still some Geo Metros kicking around out there for you to get your hands on. These ‘90s Suzuki subcompacts were rebadged by GM in an attempt to market a cheap econo-box while not disparaging their other major brand names. During its 13-year stint, the Geo Metro was available as either a hatchback, sedan, or even a convertible. The Metro carried a 3-cylinder engine throughout its two generations before the model was canned in 2001. Those engines were capable of achieving 40 mpg combined, with some owners claiming well past that estimate.

Honda Insight

2002 Honda Insight - hondanews.com
2002 Honda Insight - hondanews.com

While the Honda Insight is still around, it hasn’t had a 3-cylinder engine for a long while now. When the Insight first came on the scene back in 1999, the 3-cylinder hybrid was well ahead of its time. It featured an interesting exterior design that focused on aerodynamics to reduce drag with items like rear wheel spats. The entire thing was also super lightweight coming in at just over 1,800 lbs. All this aided in the terrific fuel economy the Insight could achieve with its hybridized powertrain. The 1.0L 3-cylinder engine was paired with a 10-kW electric motor which allowed this little Honda to reach an EPA estimated 53 mpg combined. Unfortunately, Honda decided to drop the 3-cylinder car design after 2006 and the Insight has carried a 4-cylinder hybrid setup since.

Smart Fortwo

2016 Smart fourtwo - carsforsale.com
2016 Smart fourtwo - carsforsale.com

Smart Fortwos were a weird trend in the USA for a while. The super compact two-seater made its North American debut back in 2008 and eventually quit sales here in 2019. The Fortwo could only really hold two moderately sized individuals in its passenger seats and cargo space was only enough for about two bags of groceries, but it could pretty much park anywhere it wanted at its size. Powering this car was the only engine large enough to fit in it, a 3-cylinder of course. While the 1.0L is the most common displacement size, 0.9L 3-cylinder engines can be found I later models. Fuel numbers vary between years, but over 30 mpg is pretty much guaranteed in this small 3-cylinder car.

Ford Fiesta

2014 Ford Fiesta - media.ford.com
2014 Ford Fiesta - media.ford.com

The Ford Fiesta nameplate briefly returned back in 2014. Ford tried to push the subcompact car to be a fun, affordable choice for a younger audience through their commercials and even having Ken Block perform stunts with it, but it was eventually discontinued here in the states after 2018. During the Fiesta’s short return though, it introduced a new Ecoboost 1.0L inline-3 engine. This turbocharged 3-cylinder made 123 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, which is actually pretty good for a car of this size. Fuel economy numbers came in at 35 mph combined, making this a nice daily driver choice.

Ford Focus

2018 Ford Focus SE - carsforsale.com
2018 Ford Focus SE - carsforsale.com

While most Ford Focus fans are looking for a ST or RS model featuring some turbocharged inline-4s, but the Focus also provided an economical 3-cylinder too. The British engineered compact unveiled a 3-cylinder engine during its final generation in North America that it shares with the Fiesta. The EcoBoost 1.0L I3 engine was available on the SE trim level and achieved identical specs to the Fiesta. Fuel economy came in at 33 mpg combined since the Focus is a larger car than its subcompact sibling. That fuel economy may not be any better than many of the previously mentioned cars, but the Focus can at least comfortably fit more than two people inside and carry a full load of groceries in the rear.

BMW i8

BMW i8 - bmw.com
BMW i8 - bmw.com

Now for a fun 3-cylinder car you can find on the used market, the BMW i8. The plug-in hybrid sports car was discontinued in 2020, but it proved that a 3-cylinder hybrid could be both efficient and exciting. The i8 featured a mid-engine 1.5L turbocharged inline-3 engine paired with a 98-kW electric motor to generate 369 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. When fully charged, the all-wheel drive i8 could sprint from 0-60 mph in just 4.4 seconds and reach a top speed of 155 mph. Not only was this 3-cylinder car fast, it made for a great fuel saver too. The BMW i8 was capable of an all-electric range of 20 miles and could achieve an EPA estimate of 69 MPGe.

New 3-Cylinder Cars

New 3-cylinder cars are growing in numbers as companies are working to find a happy medium of fuel efficiency, cost, and profit. While some of these new 3-cylinder cars boil down to your typical lackluster base models, others find a way to stand out in terms of design or performance. There’s some luxury, some off-road capable, some sporty, and one that takes the 3-cylinder platform to a whole other level. Here are some of the best new 3-cylinder cars you can find on today’s market!

Nissan Rogue

2023 Nissan Rogue - usa.nissannews.com
2023 Nissan Rogue - usa.nissannews.com

Nissan introduced an all-new 1.5L turbocharged 3-cylinder engine in their 2022 Nissan Rogue model. The Rogue is Nissan’s best-selling vehicle, so giving it an economical edge can only further its success. While the new engine is smaller in size than the previously available 2.0L 4-cylinder, the turbocharged 3-cylinder actually helps make the 2022 Nissan Rogue one of the most powerful ever. It generates 201 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to outdo some of its direct competitors like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Not only is this a powerful little 3-cylinder engine, it also allows the Rogue to get an EPA estimated 33 mpg combined rating.

Ford EcoSport

2022 Ford EcoSport - media.ford.com
2022 Ford EcoSport - media.ford.com

The Ford EcoSport has been around since 2003 internationally, but only recently hit the American market in 2018. The subcompact SUV is essentially a slightly raised Fiesta and even features the same EcoBoost 1.0L 3-cylinder making the same amount of power. However, the EcoSport doesn’t reach the same fuel economy numbers as the Fiesta though, as it comes in at 28 mpg combined. While the EcoSport may have stopped providing the 3-cylinder for 2022, there are some brand-new 2021s still out there waiting to be scooped up for a low price.

Ford Escape

2022 Ford Escape - media.ford.com
2022 Ford Escape - media.ford.com

Another Ford, another 3-cylinder engine. This time though, Ford dropped a slightly larger 3-pot into the Escape SUV. The turbocharged 1.5L 3-cylinder engine found in the 2022 Ford Escape makes 181 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque. Ford then allows customers to choose either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive to be paired with this little engine. Power to the front wheels achieves the best fuel economy at a rating of 30 mpg combined. A little extra room over the EcoSport for a loss of only about 3 mpgs isn’t too bad.

Ford Bronco Sport

2022 Ford Bronco Sport - media.ford.com
2022 Ford Bronco Sport - media.ford.com

Being directly derived from the Escape, the 2022 Ford Bronco Sport also carries the same turbocharged 1.5L 3-cylinder engine. The 3-cylinder makes the same horsepower and torque numbers, but with the Bronco Sport being slightly heavier and having only four-wheel drive available, fuel economy numbers drop down to 26 mpg combined. That loss in efficiency is overshadowed by the gains you get from having an SUV that’s prepared to tackle some light off-roading. It may not be considered a full-fledged Bronco by the car community, but it’s about as rugged as you can get with the 3-cylinder in the United States.

Buick Encore GX

2023 Buick Encore GX – buick.com
2023 Buick Encore GX – buick.com

While the Encore GX is the slightly larger brother of the Buick Encore, only the Encore GX carries a 3-cylinder engine. In fact, it offers two different 3-cylinder options. The first is a 1.2L 3-cylinder engine that makes 135 horsepower that’s paired to a continuously variable transmission and exclusively front-wheel drive. The other option is a 1.3L 3-cylinder engine that makes 155 horsepower that’s paired to a nine-speed automatic and can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive. Either option will do fine at the pump though, with both versions able to get a 30-mpg combined rating when paired with front-wheel drive. The inside is where the Encore GX separates itself from economy classed subcompacts as it features leather upholstery and a moderately luxury designed cabin space.

Chevrolet Trailblazer

2023 Chevrolet Trailblazer - media.chevrolet.com
2023 Chevrolet Trailblazer - media.chevrolet.com

A GM cousin to the Encore GX is the Chevrolet Trailblazer, a subcompact featuring a return nameplate that aims to attract a younger audience than Buick. The Trailblazer gains both the 1.2L and 1.3L 3-cylinder options from the Encore GX, but with moderate spec differences. The 1.2L engine is bumped up 2 horsepower over the Buick and while the 1.3L makes the same 155 horsepower, it’s able to achieve 1 mpg more than the Encore GX version. The interior of the Trailblazer may feature a lot more plastics than Buick, but there’s no denying that the Chevy is more alluring with a $4,000 cheaper base price and a cooler looking exterior.

Mini Cooper

2021 Mini Cooper - miniusanews.com
2021 Mini Cooper - miniusanews.com

Mini Coopers have a long history of being economical, compact cars with a bit of British flair. The small rally legend has always carried small engines, but they’ve only recently taken on the 3-cylinder kind. Current models feature a turbocharged 1.5L 3-cylinder engine on base models that make 134 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. This small unit isn’t just reserved for the standard 2-door hardtop Coopers though, you can also find the 3-cylinder engine under the hood of the Mini Cooper 4-door, convertible, and the Countryman crossover SUV. 32 mpg is the highest fuel economy rating across all the Cooper variants, with the Countryman being the lone exception topping out at 29 mpg combined.

Toyota GR Corolla

Toyota GR Corolla and Toyota GR Supra – toyota.com
Toyota GR Corolla and Toyota GR Supra – toyota.com

We may not be getting the GR Yaris hot hatch with the turbocharged 3-cylinder engine and rally inspired GR-Four all-wheel drive system, but Toyota did give GAZOO Racing the Corolla to mess with in the same manner. GR put a 1.6L turbocharged 3-cylinder into the Corolla that makes 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Couple that engine with the GR-Four AWD and you have a modern performance compact that’s ready to tear up mountain passes like the AE86 had. Be on the lookout for this fun 3-cylinder car in 2023.

Koenigsegg Gemera

Koenigsegg Gemera – koenigsegg.com
Koenigsegg Gemera – koenigsegg.com

Koenigsegg decided to make the Gemera with a unique difference to your typical hypercar, it has a 3-cylinder engine. Koenigsegg made the Gemera a four-seater hypercar that aims to be both ridiculously fast and very fuel efficient. The TFG (Tiny Friendly Giant) is a 2.0L twin-turbocharged 3-cylinder that works in unison with 3 electric motors to generate 1,700 horsepower and 2,581 lb-ft of torque. That’s enough power to send the Gemera from 0 to 60 mph in just 1.9 seconds. Granted, most of that power comes from the electric motors, but that tiny engine is still pushing more power than any other 3-cylinder on this list.

Koenigsegg Gemera TFG 2.0L twin-turbocharged I3 – koenigsegg.com
Koenigsegg Gemera TFG 2.0L twin-turbocharged I3 – koenigsegg.com

The whole plug-in hybrid setup is capable of an all-electric range of 30 miles or a full 621 miles when working in unison with the 3-cylinder engine. While hybridization obviously aids in the fuel efficiency of this model, the engine actually uses cylinder deactivation too. That means you may be only running with actually less than 3 cylinders out on the road when you aren’t pushing this car like an F1 racer. Koenigsegg is only making about 300 examples of the 3-cylinder Gemera and they’re all going for over $1.7 million.

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Jesse McGraw

Jesse McGraw brings his life-long car obsession into his writing. A fun childhood that involved growing up around race tracks, working on a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, and collecting Hot Wheels developed into a strong appreciation for automotive history. If there is an old, obscure, or rare car, he wants to know about it. With a bachelor's degree in Web Development & Design from Dakota State University, Jesse can talk shop about car or computer specs, focusing on classic cars, imports, and car culture.

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