If a strange and capricious god transports you to any random point in the world with the intention of betting you what type of engine the car that’s closest to you will have, my advice to you is this: don’t pick a V4. You’ll lose. V4s are among the rarest engine configurations you’ll find, and it’s not entirely clear why, the more I think about it.
There’s really only a few companies that produced V4 engines in any sort of appreciable, mass-market quantity: Lancia (they liked these, and used them in a bunch of models), Ford of Britain (the Essex V4), Ford of Germany (the Taunus V4, also used by Saab, which made that brand fairly famous for such motors), AMC (only for the Mighty Mite tiny jeep, never for civilian use), and Soviet automaker ZAZ, used in the two Zaporozetses.
Just recently, Porsche also made a V4, for their LeMans 919 LMP1 car, but so far that’s not gone into any wider production. (Sad!)
I can understand some of the arguments against the V4, and the explanations as to why it’s not more popular. One of the biggest is cost: a V4 engine requires twice the number of cylinder heads and exhaust manifolds than an inline-4, and doesn’t really offer any advantages. Sure, a 90° V4 is balanced, is a bit shorter than an inline-4, and arguably looks cooler, but for a mass-market car, the extra cost just wasn’t worth any of that.
That, of course, doesn’t explain the relative success of the flat-four, which can be thought of (kinda) as a 180° V4, with the same number of cylinder heads and all the other associated extra costs of a V4 over an inline-4.
Yet, somehow, there’s been millions and millions of flat-4s made, from Volkswagen and Subaru and Porsche and Lancia and Citroën and others. So what’s the difference?
Lower center of gravity is a factor, most likely, and perhaps packaging, since you can make suitcase-like flat-four engines. I know the Soviet engineers of the Zaporozets picked the V4 over the flat-four for ease of servicing, since the valves and heads are much easier to access on the V4.
You’d think the V4 had some packaging advantages though, right? It’s very short, which can be handy, but I suspect that transverse inline engines were good enough to kill that advantage, too.
And why were they more popular in motorcycles?
Maybe it’s just because they’re so hard to find, but I like V4 engines. I think they have a great look, and while I think I understand why they never really took off, I still find it a bit puzzling. I mean, if flat-fours can end up having some big champions, why not the V4?
Who knows; maybe the V4's time is yet to come. Maybe the bio-methane-powered V4 will be the powerplant of the future?
Then again, maybe I’m alone in my V4 wistfulness. Am I alone? Does anyone have any better theories? Let’s get this figured out.