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When one thinks of legendary little engines from the 1980s and ’90s, Japanese cars likely shoot to the front of your mind. I mean, yeah, Toyota’s 4AGE, Honda’s B and D series engines, Mitsubishi’s 4Gs, Subaru’s EJ are all gems. But don’t discount America’s entries in the mix.

General Motors, and Chrysler in particular, did attempt to bring the heat to Japanese and European manufacturers in the 1990s and we were far too mean to their motors. GM’s Quad 4, on paper, kicked plenty of other contemporary engines in the teeth with power output figures that seem competitive, even to this day.

Developed in the early 1980s, but didn’t officially hit production until 1987, the Quad 4 was an all-new design with two cams, high compression, an iron block, and an aluminum head. Today all that stuff is pretty ubiquitous. But in the ’80s? That was a pretty novel setup! It was a four-cylinder, sixteen-valve (four valves per cylinder) engine, hence the name: “Quad 4.”

From 2.3 liters of displacement, GM squeezed some 190 horsepower out of the Quad 4. Keep in mind, this was before variable valve timing, direct injection, and hyper-sophisticated computer engine management. And of course, the ethos of turbocharging everything was many years away, too.

GM threw that Quad 4 into practically every compact and midsized engine of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Namely, it was showcased in the Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In fact, the Quad 4 engine family was in cars coming out of GM’s assembly lines until 2002, with the N-body Oldsmobile Alero and Pontiac Grand Am being some of the last cars with this engine.

The Cutlass Supreme sedan was offered with the “High Output” Quad 4, mated to a five-speed manual. With 180 Horsepower, this might have been one of the more enthusiast iterations of this chassis. – Image: GM

OK, it wasn’t entirely exceptional – the Quad 4 was noisy and lacked the low-down torque most Americans were used to getting out of their old-school pushrod engines. The Quad 4 also had a penchant for destroying head gaskets, and sometimes they had oil starvation issues. Still, when it did run, man did it move. 

True, the Quad 4 had its issues, but now that we look back on it, was it ever really that bad? It’s not that hard to find a Honda D15 or D16 with burnt rings, or an old Subaru with a leaking head gasket. Why are we more charitable with Honda’s failures, but not GM’s? 

Who knows. Most people, including myself, would still rather have a CRX Si over a Cutlass Calais 442, even if the Cutlass has more power. But that’s kind of a shame. The Quad 4 deserves more love than it got.

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