Are boxer engines overrated? – Pros and cons of boxer engines
Arif · Sep 24, 2020 10:00 AM
Porsche owners and Subaru owners are two very different types of people. The former is stereotyped with having a mid-life crisis and the latter is stereotyped with endless vaping. They live in two different worlds. The only thing they have in common is the “Flat” or “Boxer” engines that their cars have.
Boxer engines are just engines with horizontally opposing pistons*. Besides Porsche and Subaru, there have been several other cars that utilise the “boxer” configuration. The Citroen 2CV, Toyota S800, and the Chevrolet Corvair are some cars to name.
Alfa Romeo also utilised the boxer engine in a few of its models like the Alfasud, Sprint, Arna, 145, & 146.
So, the boxer engine is not special to Porsche and Subaru. In fact, the invention of the “Flat” or “Boxer” engine is credited to Karl Benz and his engineers in 1897. It was called the “Contra Engine” and only had two cylinders
With only Porsche and Subaru still persistent with the boxer engine, it has become a niche engine for niche enthusiasts. If you’re wondering whether the boxer engine is good or bad, we have listed down its pros and cons for your own evaluation.
Pros - Low centre of gravity
The boxer or “flat” engine is aptly named. The engine is flat and has all the weight at the bottom.
They both have a similar suspension setup - Macpherson struts in front and double wishbones at the back. One thing that differentiates them is the engine configuration.
There’s much less body roll in the Forester than the RAV4 thanks to the low centre of gravity that the boxer engine provides. Yes, the Subaru has symmetrical-all-wheel-drive, but body roll has more to do with the centre of gravity of the car.
Pros - Perfect Balance
Boxer engines are perfectly balanced since both the primary forces and the secondary forces are balanced.
We'll just touch on this subject matter briefly...
A three-cylinder engine, by default, doesn’t have its primary forces balanced.
The pistons don’t cancel out each other’s weight. That’s why three-cylinder engines need further engineering (e.g. balancer shaft) to balance things out. Honda does some interesting work to balance three-cylinder engines. Naturally, in-line three-cylinders also don’t have the secondary forces balanced.
In-line 4-cylinder engines usually have the primary forces balanced.
Well, when two pistons are at the top (TDC), two pistons are at the bottom (BDC), naturally cancelling out each other’s weight.
However, the secondary forces are not balanced. Even when two pistons are up (TDC) and two pistons are down (BDC), the upper half of the stroke is faster than the lower half of the stroke, causing imbalance of the secondary forces.
The winner here is the boxer engine with half of the pistons cancelling out the forces from the other half of the pistons. Two pistons are going left and two pistons are going right at the exact speed in the opposite direction.
Cons - Size
Boxer engines are bigger than their inline counterparts. While space is saved up top, boxer engines are very wide. Have you ever wondered why Porsche never puts its flat engines in its front-engine cars? It's actually a bit challenging to fit boxer engines in the front. (Tell that to Alfa Romeo)
Since the boxer engine is wide, fitting the engine and allowing space for steering rack and everything else in the engine bay can be a challenge. This is even acknowledged by Tetsuya Tada, chief engineer of the Toyota 86 and the Toyota Supra.
Cons – Difficulty of Maintenance
A flat-four engine needs more parts than the standard in-line 4 engine. A flat-four needs double the engine heads, double the camshafts, double the head gaskets, and double the timing belts of an inline-4 engine.
Compared to a V-engine, a boxer engine doesn’t add much more parts. The maintenance however, is a tiny bit more difficult (for a boxer engine) since there’s not much space to access the engine head. Replacement of the head gasket for a boxer engine usually requires the engine to be removed from the car.
Boxer engines offer the benefit of a low centre of gravity and perfect balance. The disadvantages of the boxer engine include the engine size and the difficulty of maintenance.
Other manufacturers have meddled with the boxer engine, but Subaru and Porsche are the only manufacturers that still persist with this engine configuration until today.
Previously an engineer in an automotive manufacturing company and a highway concessionaire. A part-time research student on biofuels and diesel engines. Obsessed with vehicle electrification and the future of transportation.