There was a time when the phrase “four-cylinder luxury car” would’ve been an absolute oxymoron. Just as at one point Enzo Ferrari was quoted as saying a Ferrari is a 12-cylinder car, for most North Americans, a luxury car had to be powered by at least a V8 engine. Of course, times have changed and fuel prices have become a significant issue—even for most traditional luxury car buyers. Further, people are more conservation-oriented in general these days, making the market ripe for upscale four-cylinder cars.
Another change has been major advances in computer controlled engine technology. These developments are enabling today’s four-cylinder engines to approach the power output of many of the vaunted V8s of yore. Teaming turbochargers with microprocessor instructed direct fuel injection and variable valve timing enable today’s engineers to get wholly satisfying amounts of power from these smaller engines, making them more than palatable in a luxury car setting.
Another development easing the path of the four-cylinder into the engine bay of luxury cars is the hybrid revolution. Reinforcing the output of a smaller gasoline engine with an electric motor both improves fuel economy and places more power at a driver’s disposal. This has the effect of opening an almost irresistible proposition; delivering the trappings of a luxury car, along with environmental responsibility and decent power. With, that said, we predict this list of the best four-cylinder luxury cars will only grow longer as time goes by.
Acura’s TSX is as much a sport sedan as it is an entry-level luxury car. Fitted with a broad array of luxury features like Bluetooth streaming audio and telephony, premium interior upholstery and trim materials, telematics, automatic climate control, and a cooled center console, the Acura has the luxury end of the spectrum firmly in hand. Meanwhile, the 201-horsepower four-cylinder engine is both free winding and responsive. When paired with the optional six-speed manual transmission, the Acura TSX delivers an outstanding impression of a sports car; albeit one with four doors, an abundance of standard features and handsome styling. These attributes make it a standout on the list of four-cylinder luxury cars for 2012.
Long known for getting big results from small displacement, it comes as no surprise Audi has several models on our list of the best four-cylinder luxury cars. The A3 however goes one step farther and offers a choice of either four-cylinder gasoline or four-cylinder diesel propulsion—the only car on our list to do so. The gasoline engine makes 200 horsepower and 207 ft-lbs of torque. It can be paired with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. The 2.0-liter diesel makes 140 horsepower and 236 ft-lbs of torque. It too, can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive, but the only transmission offering is the automated manual.
The handsome A4 is a four-cylinder only proposition for 2012, however that four cylinder is turbocharged and direct injected to the tune of 211 horsepower and 258 ft-lbs of torque. And, while there is but one engine offering for the 2012 four-cylinder luxury car, a total of three transmissions are available to pair with the engine—as well as two different drivetrain configurations. Delivered with either front-drive or all-wheel drive, the A4 can be fitted with either an eight-speed automatic transmission, a continuously variable transmission, or a six-speed automated manual gearbox.
The muscular looking Audi A5 coupe is easily one of the most handsome four-cylinder luxury cars on the road. Happily, Audi’s product planners also chose to fit the company’s 2.0T engine to it as well, making it one of the most fuel-efficient luxury coupes sold. By the way, if you like the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, the A5 convertible shares the same powertrain. This means you get a choice of front-drive or all-wheel drive. Like the A4 (upon which the A5 is based), you can also choose between a continuously variable transmission, a six-speed manual, or an eight-speed automatic. If you go convertible and want front drive, you’ll get the CVT, if you go all-wheel drive convertible you’ll get the eight-speed. Coupes are all-wheel drive only and are offered with a choice of the eight-speed automatic or a six-speed manual.
One of the largest four-cylinder luxury cars available for 2012 (if not the absolute largest), the Audi A6 is a paragon of style, sophistication and refinement. When fitted with Audi’s 211-horsepower 2.0T engine, the A6 places 258 ft-lbs of torque at the driver’s disposal—routed through a continuously variable transmission to the front wheels. What is absolutely remarkable, given the size and class of the A6, with the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine the luxurious Audi delivers 25 miles per gallon in the city and 33 miles per gallon on the highway.
The entry level BMW sedan was completely redesigned for the 2012 model year. One of the most momentous changes was the return of four-cylinder power to the 3 Series for the first time since the 320i models of the 1970’s. The new 3 Series sedan uses a turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine as its base powerplant, adding it to our list of four-cylinder luxury cars for 2012. The 2.0-liter turbo four makes 240 horsepower and 255 ft-lbs of torque (an increase of 30 ft-lbs over the previous year’s inline six). The four-cylinder engine can be had with rear- or all-wheel drive, and either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic transmission. As an interesting aside, the engine in the first BMW M3 sedan to come to North America generated—yep, you guessed it—240 horsepower.
A surprise find on the list of 2012’s best four-cylinder luxury cars (more so because of the four-cylinders than it being one of the best), is the BMW 528i. BMW’s engineers chose to shelve the 3.0-liter inline six for the entry level 5 Series in favor of a turbocharged, direct injected four producing the same power as the 2011 model’s six cylinder engine. However, it produces even more torque than the six-cylinder did. The 2.0-liter turbo four makes 240 horsepower and 255 ft-lbs of torque (an increase of 30 ft-lbs over the previous year’s inline six). The four-cylinder engine can be had with either rear- or all-wheel drive, and an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The least expensive hybrid offering in the admittedly broad lineup of such automobiles from Lexus, the CT 200h is also one of the most frugal entries on our list of the best four-cylinder luxury cars for 2012. Delivering fuel economy approaching 43 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on the highway, the Lexus CT 200h uses a hybrid powertrain consisting of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and a pair of electric motors (which also serve as electrical generators), for a total system output of 134 horsepower. Routed to the front wheels, it’s not a lot when you consider the Lexus is equipped with all sorts of power accessories like you’d expect a Lexus to be. As a result, zero to 60 is quoted at 10.4 seconds. In other words, the CT 200h isn’t exactly speedy, but it handles really well. And, uh, did we mention, it will travel 43 miles on a gallon of fuel in the city?
The all-new Lexus ES 300h was completely redesigned for the 2013 model year, but since it was introduced in 2012, we’re including it on our list of the best four-cylinder luxury cars for 2012. The mid-size Lexus has a total of 200 system horsepower to work with between the outputs of its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and its accompanying electric motor. The remainder of the powertrain consists of a continuously variable transmission and front-wheel drive. One of the most luxurious hybrids on the market, the ES 300h is spacious, comfortable and very nice looking.
The first dedicated hybrid Lexus model runs a 2.4-liter inline four, which functions in conjunction with a pair of electric motors (they also serve as electrical generators). The total system output is 187 horsepower, which gets routed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. Because of the way the HS 250h looks, many people have been tempted to say the Lexus hybrid is based on Toyota’s Prius. However, it is not. The Camry hybrid donated its powertrain to the HS 250h. This four-cylinder luxury car is undoubtedly a Lexus though, equipped as it is with a broad variety of luxury features, in addition to being outfitted with premium upholstery and trim materials.