GRR

The 8 best little cars with big engines

16th October 2023
Ethan Jupp

We live in a world where one of the most covetable new hypercars on the market has a 1.6-litre V6 engine. Okay, granted, the AMG One’s miniature monster mill is derived from an F1 powertrain, but the raw numbers look out of character for a big, active aero-clad, gullwing-doored racing car for the road. Remember the days – they weren’t so long ago – when many hot hatches had engines larger than three litres? Big engines in little cars. It’s always been a fun concept. Especially as we continue to watch the combustion engine be downsized – and legislated – out of existence. So let's count down some of the coolest implementations of large engines in small cars, from one-off concepts to cars you can search the classifieds for and buy today…

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1. Alfa Romeo 147 GTA Autodelta

Of all the cars on this list, this is perhaps the one I yearn for the most. An Alfa Romeo hot hatch fettled by a storied racing skunkworks operation; the 147 GTA Autodelta. This absolute monster of a car is the result of Autodelta deciding that the standard 147 GTA, with its 3.2-litre V6, really ought to have a proper limited-slip diff. Up to this point, we’re all in agreement. What it perhaps didn’t need was another 500cc, or a supercharger. Both were added nonetheless, and the result was the 147 GTA AM Super, with more than 400PS (294kW). So wrong, but so right and just pornographic to behold.

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2. Aston Martin Cygnet V8

When it comes to Aston Martin, you can ask for almost anything you want, as long as the cheque is blank and the bank account is flush. Supercars, sportscars, GT cars, all as bespoke as you could hope for. One individual, however, didn’t want any of that. They wanted a Cygnet (read Toyota iQ city car in an Aston frock) with a 4.7-litre V8 engine. It made its debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard a few years back to rapturous applause, because can you think of anything more ridiculous, or more fun? 

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3. Mercedes B55 AMG

Mercedes did a similar thing once upon a time, except it didn’t need someone else to ask. The B55 AMG – yes we believe there’s just one – was, if anything, the product of infantile curiosity. One moment they were asking “would it fit?” and the next, well, they’d made it fit. It, being a 5.5-litre V8, going into the otherwise unassuming form of the B-Class hatchback. The result was a 385PS (283kW) thumping muscle hatch. Of course, it was never considered for production. It was more the result of a bunch of students being told ‘go on then, show us what you can do’, by Mercedes boffins. This certainly put them in their place.

4. BMW Z3 M V12

Precisely along the lines of the above, the Z3 M V12 was an answer to the question “can it be done?”. Quite how it was done has to involve some German witchcraft. It’s not like there was any real point, given the 5.4-litre 7 Series-sourced mill wasn’t actually much more powerful – if at all – than the straight-six the production Z3 M used. But you know what? We’re glad they did it.

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5. Renault Clio V6

This one, you can buy and in many ways, it’s more mad than the mental Merc. In truth, the Renault Clio V6 was hardly a Clio at all. It had a 3.0-litre V6 in the middle, enormous arches at the extremities and a full-bodied rump to humble even the most egregious TikTok BBL. Developed (and built in the case of the Phase 1) by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, these were about as scary to drive as they were to look at, even with less than 260PS (191kW) on tap. But good grief, isn’t it just one of the coolest little cars you’ve ever seen?

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6. AMC Gremlin 304

Leave it to the Americans to try and make a practical hatchback before succumbing to the urge to fit it with a 5.0-litre V8. Even though it was described at the time as “the poor man’s Corvette”, the Gremlin 304 wasn’t exactly the fastest thing in the world, with only 150PS (110kW). Still, that’s quite a lot for 1972. One of the weirdest fun facts you might hope to hear about the 1972 Gremlin? It featured the American auto industry’s 12-month bumper-to-bumper warranty. See, silly and sensible can coexist…

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7. Volkswagen Golf W12 Concept

If anyone ever says to you that Germans don’t have a sense of humour, feel free to bring up this Golf to well and truly prove them wrong. As a gift to enthusiasts at the Worthersee show in the mid-2000s, Volkswagen thought it prudent to stuff a 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12 engine between its hips – Clio V6 style – to create the Golf W12650. This bulbous-arched W12-engined monster used other bits from the Group parts bin too, with Lamborghini and Audi being raided for a few bits and bobs to make it work, or at least make it safe. It’s said the car was so popular, VW briefly considered making it. You can tell this was a product of the pre-dieselgate era, can’t you…

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8. Mercedes SLK 55 AMG

Finally, the big engine-little car combo we think you should actually buy. The Mercedes SLK 55 AMG is for those of us who – perhaps blasphemously – wake up on occasion bored with the dainty, finely-honed character of a Porsche Boxster. The SLK is an elegant, almost effeminate little two-seat convertible, whose appearance is so gloriously juxtaposed with the blood-curdling growl it emits on startup in 55 AMG form. A Boxster might be a more polished sportscar but if you prefer maniacal laughter to a smarmy smirk, the SLK55 might just be your match. I’ve been disgustingly tempted on more occasions than I can count.

So those are our favourite little cars with big engines. You wouldn’t have thought there would be many and indeed, some of these are either one-offs or very obscure, but they’re out there. Shout out to all the silly smaller five- and six-cylinder Audis, VWs, Fords and Volvos. If we missed your favourite, let us know.

  • List

  • Mercedes-AMG

  • Volkswagen

  • Alfa Romeo

  • AMC

  • Renault

  • BMW

  • Aston Martin

  • Road

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