I have this weird misconception that the engine size is related to the amount of fuel being burned in one cycle(4-stroke engine). I know this is stupid but how does engine size relate to the amount of fuel being burned in one cycle. For example I drive a Ford Ka with a: 1.3i Endura-E engine OHV 1.3 L I4. So I thought that in one cycle 1.3L of fuel is burned, but this is not the case so can someone please explain how they are related.

  • 4
    The 1.3 L number is the volume of the cylinder, not necessarily how much fuel is being burned. So basically, you could fit 1.3 Liters of fluid in the cylinder.
    – Annath
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 20:55
  • Why are engines shown in this way?
    – Dean
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 20:58
  • 4
    @Dean, engines are sized in terms of the air volume to which fuel is added primarily because air is the dominant factor. Fuel is an additive to the air, not the other way around.
    – Bob Cross
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 22:27
  • Thats where i've been going wrong then.
    – Dean
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 22:47
  • 2
    Litres are a measure of volume of any type, not just liquid quantity. People used to use cubic centimetres for engine size, but "litres" is easier to say and the number is the same anyway (albeit with a decimal in a different spot).
    – staticsan
    Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 0:29

3 Answers 3


With regular driving the Air/Fuel ratio is kept constant at 14.7:1. So if a larger engine needs more air (more swept volume) per cycle then yes it will require more fuel.

So the question boils down to which engine has more friction per cycle, and which car has more weight to carry around. The friction is measured in FMEP (friction mean effective pressure) which gives you the pressure required in the pistons to keep the engine spinning at a constant rate. FMEP times volume = Power per cycle needed to fight friction.

Note that most of the mechanical losses come from the friction between the piston and the bore. The more pistons you have (V6 vs. I4) the more friction you will have. Note that the #of camshafts, #of valves and #of journal bearings also affect friction.

  • A few notes here A/F ration on cars can actually vary a lot 12:1ish for maximum power to 18:1sih in lean cruise modes.
    – draksia
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 20:40
  • 1
    @draksia, For emmisions sake when operating in closed loop, the A/F ratio is very controlled. A narrowband O2 sensor tells the ECU if it is over or under stoichiometric mixing and it will adjust instantly. At 18:1 you likely to get lots of NOx emssions and it 12:1 you get lots of unburned gas and other pollutants (see here ). Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 23:52

This is more complicated than a simple ratio. I present as evidence exhibit A: the comparison between the BMW M3 and the Toyota Prius on the Top Gear test track.

In short, the Prius was driven at its top (not very high) speed and the M3 remained right behind it for ten laps. The resulting fuel economy results were:

  • 17.2 mpg Prius
  • 19.4 mpg M3

That's the comparison between a 1.5 liter 4 cylinder vs. a 4 liter V8 and the bigger engine was significantly more efficient.

The money quote from Jeremy Clarkson was "It isn't what you drive that matters, it's how you drive it."

In short, if you're trying to compare efficiency between two engines, size is not the deciding factor.

  • 1
    The difference there being the Prius was being driven flat out, way past what it was designed to do efficiently whereas the M3 was cruising along because it has the power and gearing to go much faster. If they did the test 20MPH slower it'd been a different story.
    – ManiacZX
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 20:03
  • 2
    @ManiacZX, exactly. The size of the engine was insufficient to say "big = bad, small = good." Even with the hypothetical 20 MPH, it becomes a question of apples vs. oranges. Is the Prius running on battery? If so, its MPG = infinity for a while (i.e., not a good comparison).
    – Bob Cross
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 3:05
  • Also of note is that there's a lot more to factor in when considering the fuel economy of a car, than just the drivetrain. There's the weight and aerodynamic profile of the whole system, tire pressure and design, additional running accessories, etc.
    – Iszi
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 19:55

All other things being equal- same car body shape, mass, road, tires, cylinders, strokes, fuel/air system and ignition etc, a larger engine operating at middling RPM and power will require slightly more fuel to overcome friction than a smaller engine also comfortably operating at middling rpm and power. For example a Triumph Herald with inline 4 cylinder, 949 cc motor, versus the same car with an 1149 cc motor. Compare to a Vittese with a straight 6 of larger displacement, they're going to be comfortable at two different speeds.

Clarkson was and is an entertainer. A Prius howling along at 80 MPH with unknown hybrid system setup (no regenerative braking? Topped up battery to start?) following a course of hard acceleration, turns and braking, can be driven to a crap MPG. A BMW throbbing along at a similar speed, driven perhaps not so hard because it would go faster or slower given the same inputs, will produce a happier MPG.

If you need to magnify the effect, let some air out of the Prius tires and pump some into the BMW's. Sand bags and water bottles could also have a role.

My 2.8L 6 cylinder Corrado was sleeker, heavier and vastly more powerful than my 1.8l 4 cylinder VW Golf. At a steady 55, driven gently, the Golf delivered 35-40 mpg in California's Central Valley. The Corrado could touch 30 mpg under the same conditions, but only with constant attention to never having fun. 65mph and < 27mpg was more typical. At 65, 30-35mpg for the Golf.


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