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How Does a Car Engine Work?


Ever wondered what happens under your hood?
Let’s find out how a car engine works.

The word engine comes from the Latin word, ingenium, which means “ingenious.” And we can’t disagree. Engines, or motors, powered people, goods, and more, over centuries, allowing us to move faster and safer than ever before. Without the engine, it would take us hours to get where we need to go every day, with the engine we’re able to live a more fast-paced life. But not everyone who drives a car knows how an engine works which is why we’re here to give you the lowdown so you can impress your friends and family. 

What Does an Engine Do? 


It’s easy to hop in the car, turn the key, and go about your day. But what does an engine really do?  

In short, an engine takes the fuel you pump into it and converts it into energy which powers your car. There’s a lot more to it than just that simple answer, but that’s the main concept to understand before we dig deeper. 

Common Gas-Powered Automotive Engines 


There are several types of engines used in cars today such as a boxer engine or rotary engine, but the most common is an internal combustion engine.  

Internal Combustion Engines 


Internal combustion engines convert your fuel into motion. Inside the engine, small explosions inside cylinders with moving pistons create the power you need. The gas created by these explosions expands, causing the pistons to move. Your engine will generate hundreds of controlled explosions every minute to keep you rolling down the road. 

The Process 


A four-stroke combustion cycle is most common and involves intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. 

First, the intake valve opens and the piston inside the engine moves down. Then compression begins as the piston moves back up, pushing the air and gas into a much smaller area. The spark plug then creates a spark and ignites the gas creating an explosion. Due to the explosion, the piston is pushed back down, waiting for the next cycle to start. But before the cycle is over, the exhaust valve opens up to allow any wasted gas to be released. The “dirty” gas will move to the catalytic converter where it will be cleaned and sent through the muffler and the tailpipe before leaving the vehicle. 

Boxer Engine 

When you think about boxer engines, you probably think about Porsches, but Carl Benz, the founder of Mercedes-Benz, patented the boxer engine. Known as the Contra Engine, now and today, this engine features horizontal alternating pistons that “punch” like a, you guessed it, boxer! This engine continuously has pistons firing opposite of each other to keep explosions going and the car running. Boxer engines are flat engines that are more stable and have a lower point of gravity equating to better handling. A smooth ride is expected from boxer engines at high speeds, too, hence why they’re used in Porsches. Boxer engines are also great engines for mid-engine body styles but can be difficult to fix with their endless parts. And last, but not least, the boxer engine is a little noisy, which can be good or bad depending on the driver. 

Rotary Engine 

Rotary Engine
Rotary Engine @mazdacanada

Designed by Felix Wankel in 1951, the rotary engine isn’t your standard internal combustion engine. Instead of a fourcycle four-stroke combustion, the rotary engine is a two-cycle four-stroke combustion motor. The triangular rotor spins inside a circular housing continuously to create energy while expending any wasted gas. No pistons are needed to make this motor work. Only two rotors and an e-shaft are needed to do its job. Rotary engines aren’t always ideal as they use a lot of fuel and can sometimes produce flames from the tailpipe. But for some, a rotary engine is pretty cool for extra revs and a little spark. 

The Electric Motor 

2020 Tesla Roadster
2020 Tesla Roadster on netcarshow.com

Electric motors will soon be more common than gasoline engines in new vehicles, but you’ll have to wait to learn more about electric engines. Between hybrids and fully-electric vehicles, we’ll need an entire article to give you the details. Stay tuned for our electric motor article next month! 

What engine does your car use? Pop open the hood and let us know in the comments below. 

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Erin Maxson

Erin loves nothing more than a good road trip. To her, getting behind the wheel is one of the biggest adventures you can take because it can lead to anywhere. Alongside her Toyota Tundra, you'll find her co-pilot pup, Rory, and a 1976 Airstream Argosy in tow. Her motto: Life is a scenic road, take your time and enjoy the ride.

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  1. Avatar
    Ronan david October 30, 2019

    This is very informative blog that give very helpful information. Reconditioned Engine Specialist

    1. Carsforsale.com Team
      Carsforsale.com Team October 30, 2019

      Thank you!

  2. Avatar
    Timothy J. Ahern September 16, 2020

    Wonderful informative and educational website. Glad I found it, keep up the great videos!

    1. Carsforsale.com Team
      Carsforsale.com Team September 16, 2020

      Thank you Timothy! We appreciate that so much!

  3. Avatar
    Autopartsmiles April 9, 2021

    This is a great blog! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Carsforsale.com Team
      Carsforsale.com Team April 12, 2021

      Thanks for reading!

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