Got a choice? Go for the smaller engine

RPM gauge

If you're considering buying a new vehicle that has a choice of a four-cylinder or V-6 engine, going with the smaller engine isn't the sacrifice it used to be.

Thanks to new technologies, four-cylinder engines deliver such great performance, you won't notice the difference in most everyday driving and you'll save thousands of dollars.

First, the four-cylinder model is always cheaper to buy.

Here's one example: Chevrolet charges a heavy $1,795 extra for a Malibu LTZ with the optional 3.6-liter V-6 in place of the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Over the course of a 48-month loan, that means the V-6 will increase your monthly payments by about $40.

(Our auto loan calculator will determine the monthly payments for any deal.)

Then there's the other extra cost associated with a larger engine: Bigger engines use more fuel.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the V-6 Malibu would cost $317 more each year for gas if you drive 15,000 miles annually. So that's another $26 a month -- for a total of $66 a month -- that you can save by choosing the smaller engine.

The energy department lists similar fuel-economy comparisons for models with similar choices.

Unless you drive like a maniac, the increasingly sophisticated new breed of four-cylinder engines will deliver plenty of power.

Many manufacturers are increasing the size and designing in refinements to give their four-cylinders a lot more punch. Ford, for example, just bumped up the size of its four-cylinder engine; ditto for many other makers, including Mazda and Toyota.

Ford and Mazda have moved their four-cylinders from 2.3 liters to 2.5 liters. That sounds minimal, but increasing the size just a tad helps the engine produce more torque -- which, more than horsepower, is the force you feel as you accelerate away from a stoplight or merge onto a freeway.