Is a Bigger Engine Better or Just a Waste of Money?

When you go to buy a new car, truck or SUV you will often be presented with different engine options that also mean you’ll have to pay as the size and power of the engine increases. But in this day and age, is a bigger engine better or would it make more sense to get a smaller engine and use the extra money in another way?

Infiniti V 6 Twin Turbo
Infiniti’s compact and lightweight 3.0-liter V6 twin-turbo engine

Our roads and highways are so busy these days that it’s often impossible to drive anywhere near as fast as speed limits allow, which is why it’s probably pointless spending extra money to get a bigger, more powerful engine that you’ll never use to its full potential. There are better ways you could be spending that extra money, such as a higher trim level with more standard features and equipment.

Do you want a bigger engine?

If you’re anything like me if you had the choice and the price wasn’t a worry of course you’d want the biggest engine in your car you could have. My issue is when your budget might stretch to the most powerful engine available for the car you want, but to have it might mean missing out on some other features that might be more useful that you’d actually get to use now and again.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between wanting a larger engine and needing the bigger and more powerful engine option in the vehicle you’re looking to buy. A lot depends on the type of vehicle you’re buying, but even more depends on what you intend to do with it.

Do you need a bigger engine?

If you’re shopping for a new vehicle for the daily commute and family duties, and you don’t need more than five seats, unless money isn’t an issue for you there’s no point going for anything other than the base engine. Any modern engine is perfectly adequate for driving around the town or city, and a smaller base engine will probably use a lot less fuel than a bigger one you don’t actually need.

You’re not going to be driving at speed in built-up urban areas – or at least you shouldn’t be – and even when you venture out onto open roads and highways the official speed limits will still probably appear more like aspirations than limits due to the amount of traffic.

Does your new car need the biggest engine available?

Once again, whether that new car you’re looking at justifies going for the biggest, most powerful, and most expensive engine option depends on the type of car it is. If I’m going to be honest here, the rapidly dwindling number of new sedans and hatches that are still available don’t tend to give you the option of having a bigger engine without going to one of the higher, or the highest trim level.

To get the bigger engine you have to pay more to get a higher-spec car and there’s rarely the option to have a base model or a relatively low trim and pay to have a more powerful engine as an available option.

It’s a different thing altogether when it comes to sportier cars such as the Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro which are both available with a variety of engines. Let’s take the Camaro as a prime example of what I mean.

You can 2022 Chevrolet Camaro 2LT for a starting MSRP of $28,695 before any options such as metallic paint. The standard engine you get is a 2.0-liter turbo-four that develops a healthy 275 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, but if you want to upgrade to the 3.6-liter V-6 with its 335 horsepower and 284 lb.-ft. of torque, the basic price rises to $30,290.

The extra $1,595 it costs for the engine upgrade would allow you to add the Technology Package that would give you a larger 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, a Bose premium audio system, and SiriusXM with a 360L 12-month trial subscription. You could also get upgraded from solid paint to premium paint as well and you would still pay $300 than it would cost just to upgrade the engine.

I could perform a similar exercise with other models, but I think you get the idea.

2020 Chevrolet Corvette LT2
2020 Corvette Stingray’s 6.2L Small Block V-8 LT2 engine

Does your new SUV need a bigger engine?

A lot of new SUVs are only available with one engine across the entire lineup so this argument doesn’t apply in many cases, but there are still a few where this issue does arise. However, it’s a more nuanced situation with SUVs as these are bigger, heavier vehicles that are designed to do more than most cars are expected to do.

Take the 2022 Cadillac XT5 for example. The mid-range Premium Luxury has a starting MSRP at the time of writing of $49,840 in its standard front-drive format with the 2.0-liter turbo-four engine that develops 235 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. The alternative engine is a 3.6-liter V-6 that puts out 310 horsepower and 271 lb.-ft. of torque that costs $1,000 more.

But instead of that, you could choose to stick with the standard engine and upgrade to the Cadillac user experience with navigation that adds a Bose Performance Series 14-speaker audio system and interior lighting accents.

Now, you might prefer a more premium sound system, but what if you are intending to tow something with your new Cadillac XT5? A thousand bucks extra for an additional 75 horsepower and 12 lb.-ft. of torque from a 3.6-liter V-6 could sound pretty reasonable.

If you’re going to be hauling a full load of people and cargo or you’re going to be towing the maximum of 3,500 pounds regularly, you might prefer the V-6. However, I’d like to point out that the XT5 can still tow up to 3,500 pounds even with the 2.0-liter turbo-four.

I have an SUV that’s not available in the U.S. because it’s a Peugeot, and you can read more about why these superb vehicles are not sold in America in this article.

The most basic version (not the one I have) with its 1.2-liter, 130 horsepower engine costs from £30,285. The more powerful powerplant is a hybrid system based around a 1.6-liter gas engine and the lowest price for that is £37,345 which is the same trim level with the same features as the base 1.2L, apart from the powerplant.

If you stick with the 1.2L you can go up three trim levels to a top-of-the-range GT Premium trim level and still only have to pay $36,285, which is still £1,060 ($1,484) less than the most basic version with the more powerful powerplant.

I pondered my decision for a couple of hours and chose to go for a top trim level with the base engine rather than a fairly basic model with a more powerful engine. I can honestly say that I haven’t regretted that decision for a moment and I’ve never felt that I should have gone with the more powerful version.

Does your new truck need a bigger engine?

Whether your truck needs a larger powerplant comes down to whether you use it as a truck or as just a cool-looking family or commuter vehicle. A lot of trucks hardly ever tow a trailer, and a lot of the time the base engine will probably be rated to tow more than enough for the average retail user. This is especially the case if we’re talking full-size trucks, and even more so with heavy-duty models.

If you are going to be towing very regularly, and especially if you are going to be towing anywhere in the same zip code as the vehicle’s maximum towing capacity, then a bigger engine is a much wiser investment than fancy paint, a premium sound system or massaging leather seats.

It’s a little different with midsize trucks like the Chevy Colorado or the Ford Ranger. Not too many people are going to buy them for hardcore off-roading so fancy color schemes, bigger wheels, and graphics packages might be a better way to spend extra cash than a more powerful engine.

Cummings 3.0 liter inline six diesel
2019 Ram Heavy Duty – 6.7-liter I-6 Cummins with 400 hp and 1000 lb.-ft of torque

Pros and cons of bigger powerplants

There are more things to consider about the size and power of your vehicle’s power unit than just the top speed, 0 to 60 mph time, and how much it can tow.

Are bigger engines more reliable than smaller ones?

In general, bigger engines are no more reliable than smaller engines because reliability has far more to do with the quality of the engine design, how well it’s been put together, and the quality of the materials and components.  

Do bigger engines last longer than smaller engines?

A bigger engine could last longer than a smaller equivalent, but only if you are comparing identical vehicles doing exactly the same amount of work. A larger engine with more torque won’t have to work as hard to tow a specific weight as a smaller engine with less available torque as the smaller engine will be working harder.

However, this isn’t an open and shut case either as a smaller-displacement diesel unit could have considerably more torque than a larger displacement gas engine.

Will a bigger engine use more gas than a smaller engine?

A larger engine can burn more fuel with each revolution that it turns per minute (rpm) than a smaller engine, so if it’s doing the same work as a smaller powerplant it will almost certainly use less fuel. However, if you are pushing a smaller engine to an extreme and a slightly larger engine isn’t having to be pushed nearly so hard, the larger engine could use less gas than the smaller one.

Once again, the water can get muddied if you are comparing a naturally-aspirated small displacement engine to a larger unit that’s turbocharged. It’s not unusual these days for a slightly bigger turbo engine to use the same amount of gas or less than a smaller unit without the benefit of turbocharging.

Bigger engine or higher-spec?

Should you go for a bigger engine if you can afford it?

This is a bit like asking if should you buy a Mercedes-Benz SL 63 if you can afford it instead of a Chevy Malibu. Of course, you should if you’d like a bigger, more powerful engine for your new car and the money isn’t an issue.

However, if you have a specific model in mind and your budget means you can either have a bigger powerplant or a smaller powerplant and more features, I’d go for the extra features every single time. You’ll get more practical use and enjoyment from heated seats and an upgraded infotainment system than you will from a few extra horsepower.