Theme : Engines – 2000, the Not-So-Magic Number

Is the end in view for the once ubiquitous 2 Litre?

The First and Second Most Popular 2 Litres in The World?
The First and Second Most Popular 2 Litres in The World?

I’ve never liked 4 cylinders. Part of me has always lusted after pistons and capacity. How I envy a fellow correspondent on these pages his 5.3 litre V12. The only diesel engine I’ve ever been attracted to is Volkswagen’s ludicrous 5 litre V10, which made a mockery of diesel’s assumed economy but where the sheer numbers almost overcome my antipathy to fuel oil. Despite all this, the puritan in me has shown restraint and, in fact, the most cylinders I’ve ever owned in one engine is six and the largest capacity 2.8 litres. But it’s not all size. I like less than 4 cylinders too. I have eternally fond memories of the Citroen Flat Twin and I’ve never been tempted by a Japanese 4 cylinder motorcycle, far preferring my V Twin. I got very excited by Fiat’s TwinAir engine and, despite getting the idea that the real-world consumption, and thus emissions, are less related to the paper ones than they might be, it remains an attractive proposition – if only they’d put it in a car I wanted. The truth is that I’m a 4 cylinder bigot. There are exceptions in my prejudice (obviously an old Alfa Twin cam, probably some Hondas and any flat four, even a Beetle’s, and a Lancia V4 though, very certainly, not a Ford V4) but, generally, four in a row and I don’t want to know.

And of all four cylinder engines, the most clichéd is the 2 litre. The 4 pot in-line engine, with a capacity of more that 1950cc but less than 2000cc was, for so many years, the absolute average engine, both the high level engine in budget cars and the entry level one in aspirational cars. Before the Sixties there had been earlier 2 litre fours, but they hardly impressed. Post War, the Standard Vanguard started life with such an engine but, by the time that car morphed into the Triumph 2000 it was a six cylinder. The Rover 2000 of 1963 was probably the first 4 cylinder 2 litre that made no excuses for itself. It wasn’t actually that great an engine but, in a DS inspired car, it was good enough, and far better than Citroen’s creaky 1.9.

The Granddaddy of the modern 2 Litre?
Rover 2000 : The Granddaddy of the modern 2 Litre?

Throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, other cars joined Rover – Mercedes 200, Alfa Romeo 2000 Berlina, Chrysler 2 Litre, BMW 320, Lancia Beta 2000, Opel Rekord 2000S, Renault 20, Vauxhall Cavalier 2.0L, Ford Cortina 2000GXL – that’s just a quick sample, they were everywhere. By the late seventies it was a staple and, of course, that dreary lump of lumps the Douvrin engine jointly made by Renault and Peugeot was, naturally, originally engineered at 1995cc.

Not So Nice : Ford Cortina 2000 GXL
Not So Nice? :  Cortina 2000 GXL
Even Less Nice : Chrysler 2 Litre
Even Less Nice? : Chrysler 2 Litre

Some manufacturers, notably BMW, looked for an edge by reverting to a 6 cylinder 2 litre for a while, but the majority have stuck with the tried and tested, just adding fuel injection and more valves as the years went by, even creating diesel versions. Logically it’s all you’ve ever needed – it keeps up with traffic without using too much fuel and isn’t too complex to build or to fix – it’s just so bloody obvious, so middle of the road, so safe.

2001
2000 + 1

In the latter part of the 20th Century, 2000 was a special number. It was where we were going. France, in particular, was very enamoured with Deux Mille. Shops, discos, biscuits, floor cleaner were all branded thus. Then the year 2000 arrived, or we arrived at 2000, and what a disappointment! It was clear that, even if we held on for the extra year, there would be no civilian space shuttle stations populated by hostesses in Courrèges costumes, no world-changing messages from other galaxies, just more of the same, or maybe worse.

VW's Controversial 1.4 TSI
VW’s Controversial 1.4 TSI

So, as the New Millenium started unfolding, the gloss quickly went off Deux Mille yet the engines laboured on. But all of a sudden 2 litres is beginning to look a bit big, a bit profligate. Downsizing is happening. The 2 litre is currently hanging on for the rep in a hurry, who needs more than 200 PS under their foot, but the everyday version of the 2000cc four is being replaced by engines of 1500cc or less, highly tuned with turbochargers to match or exceed both the power and torque of outgoing units and, in Ford’s case with the new Mondeo, having just 3 cylinders. As Richard Herriott points out elsewhere, this move is not without its detractors. VW’s 1.4 TSI seems to attract a lot of concern but it’s more likely the issues will be fixed than there will be a return to 2000. Personally I shan’t miss it – too small to be really antisocial and too big to make you feel worthy and smug.

9 thoughts on “Theme : Engines – 2000, the Not-So-Magic Number”

  1. The tide is waning: even as I wake up to the demise of the European mass market V6, the Americans are waking up to this too and we see engines shrinking to the kind of capacities that once defined superminis. By coincidence I read LJK Setright’s 1977 hymn to the characterful engine which he thought was historic even then. I suppose we ought to be impressed that so much power can be wrung from what are almost lawnmower engines. Why aren’t we? It’s a head and heart thing. A V6 can move you and a 1.4 will take you to the supermarket. To be frank, if we have more efficient engines people will drive more – and it will be commuting not pleasure trips. We need to make V6s standard. Bring back the Cologne 2.3 V6, please.

  2. The 2.0L is a workhorse – there’s nothing noble or elegant about it but there’s honesty in the way it does its job, and just for that deserves some respect. In addition, when fitted to a small-ish car like a Golf or a Focus, it has the ability to make that car feel a lot bigger than it actually is, which I find quite endearing.

  3. Laurent. I admit that my antipathy is based on snobbery and a sometime desire for difference just for difference’s sake. This means that if you offered me a choice between a bulletproof 1995cc straight four and a 2003cc V5, I’d probably always take the latter, fool that I am.

    I am sceptical about highly stressed small capacity engines. First, do they actually provide, in reality, what they offer on paper? Second, what happens to them when they get old? Is this just another nail in the coffin of secondhand car ownership where anything over seven years old, or maybe even five, becomes a totally uneconomical proposition to own and maintain? The knock-back of this will, of course, be sharply dropping residuals on new cars so, unless new car prices drop, ownership costs will increase far more that list prices suggest.

    1. When I bought my current car (VW Bora 2.0L) I was really after a 2.3L V5, but decided against it because of insurance/running costs, and the difficulty to find a low-mileage, unmolested one.
      As it happens the 2.0L engine fits the car very well in my opinion. It was much-maligned when fitted to the original Golf GTi MkIV (for good reasons – it’s really far too slow and subdued for a hot hatch), but in the Bora it makes for a pleasant cruiser, thanks mostly to decent low-end torque. It even sounds ok in 1st/2nd gear…

    2. As for small capacity engines, what bothers me is not so much the limited displacement as the inevitable recourse to turbocharging, but the way things are going I will struggle to find my next with a naturally aspirated engine.

  4. We have an item on five cylinder engines coming up soon. Having prepared it, I think 5-cylinders seems odd for VW but it does endear me to the Bora. For a car like that, the Focus/Bora/Astra class, a good 2.0 makes for a nicely sized car with a proper power to weight ratio. For my own car, an elderly exec, 2.0 is acceptable if the compromise is understood: space and economy. The French seem to get this and often made bigger cars with 2.0 engines that reached a good cruising speed but weren´t racers. But the UK and Irish press – dunderheads – would say the cars were overbodied. I think French motorists valued a spacious car with an economical engine. The 2.0 litre 4-pot covers that ground. Romantic it´s not, or perhaps only when shoe-horned into a weeny car (think 205 GTi). But there is one 2.0 litre with a bit of intrigue, Mazda´s 1991 MX-3 with its V-6…no wait, that was a 1.8 wasn´t it? The Rover KV-6 2.0 litre….there´s one.

  5. By the way, the Rover 2000 photo is excellent. Look at the little story unfolding in the background. “Say, Helen, I´m heading back to my hotel now…..” Or “Is that the new Rover, Bob? I´ve never been in one of those…” Or “Bob, make sure you´get that car back to Mr McGivern by 9.00. Or I can do it myself…may I have the keys?”

  6. Finally, an argument could be made that while Alfa Romeo prepared the ground for the mid-size two-litre saloon, it was BMW who got it right with the 2002: mundane engineering properly executed, mediocrity plus 25% from Munich.

  7. You’re right about the Rover photo, Richard. Compared with today’s publicity shots, which usually involve gurning people indulging some leisure activity in a dystopian future where dinosaurs roam, it’s delightfully straightforward, though not actually as you suggest. The woman is a one parent lesbian who writes deservedly well-received novels under the pen name of John Le Carré. The Rover is hers and the man she’s speaking to is the legendary Spen King who has been shocked by an open letter to him in The Observer from John (not her real name) complaining about the trouble she has had balancing the twin SU carburettors on the TC. Spen (not his real name) has just spent 45 minutes sorting out the problem and they are now chatting. John (still not her real name) is asking Charles (his real name) if there is any chance that Rover’s stunning BS prototype will ever see the light of day. Spen is now holding forth on his opinion of Bill Lyons – look closely and you will see how tightly clenched his fists are in his pockets – before mentioning that ‘John’ might be interested in considering replacing the 2000 with a tall, cumbersome 4 wheel drive estate type vehicle they are about to launch. She laughs and asks why anyone would want such a thing.

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