Four cylinder engines became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, primarily because of several major gasoline shortages. Prior to that, American manufacturers traditionally offered V6 and V8 engines in their cars as American consumers were accustomed to powerful, gas consuming cars.
It wasn’t until Toyota and Honda imported “econo boxes” into this country, starting in the 1970s, did American manufacturers realize that they had better change their thinking regarding engine size and fuel economy. Toyota introduced the Corolla and Camry and Honda countered with their Accord and Civic. The “sub-compact” Toyotas and Hondas all came with small block, lightweight 4-cylinder engines.
The Toyotas and Hondas were extremely popular, and, within a few years, captured up to 30% of the American auto market. Their cars were in demand because they offered consumers an alternative from the large, heavy gas guzzling V6 and V8 cars that were the only cars on the market up until this time. The imported Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans were very reliable, low maintenance and, because of their small 4-cylinder engines, were much more fuel efficient and they were fun to drive!
Because of the tremendous sales gains of the imported cars in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, GM, Ford and Chrysler revamped their small car line-ups to compete. Chevrolet introduced the Vega, Citation, Chevette and Cavalier. Ford came out with the Pinto and the Maverick, while Chrysler offered the Plymouth Valiant. What do these new American made cars have in common? One, they were more compact in size and two, they all featured small displacement, more fuel efficient 4-cylinder engines.
Four cylinder engines have become more and more popular. They are more refined and sophisticated and starting around the late 1990s and early 2000s, every manufacturer featured 4-cylinder engines as standard equipment in their sub-compact and compact models, and some mid-size and luxury models offered 4-cylinder versions as well.