How to choose the right-sized engine in Singapore and save money

Derryn Wong

A simple how-to on selecting the best engine for you needs, and how it affects your cost of ownership in Singapore


Buying a car in Singapore is tough, make no mistake. Between certificates of entitlement (COEs), road tax (different for every type of fuel), insurance, not to mention the actual differences between each type of car, it seems getting a license might actually be the most simple part of the process. 

Engines are the heart of a car, and you might have an inkling that it also plays a big part in how much you pay down the road. We explain, in simple terms, how engine characteristics affect your ownership experience here in Singapore. 

If you want the simple explanation, continue reading. If you want the in-depth technical explanation, it continues after the Simple bit.

The Super Simple, Non-Techy Explanation

What type of engine is the best for me?

It depends on what you want, as a driver, but most folk will be happy with a ‘normal’ engine. We’ll classify engines here as small, normal, and large.

Smaller than 1.4 litres, around 110hp or less = a small engine 

Between 1.4-litres to 1.6-litres, or with less than 130hp = normal engine

More than 1.6-litres and more than 130hp = a big engine

*1.0-litre = 1,000 cubic centimetres, or cc

Pros and Cons of Engine Types

The VW Polo’s 1.0-litre engine can be considered a small engine

Small Engine
+ Not scary and good for beginners, frugal even if driven hard
– Things happen quite slowly so don’t be in a rush, struggles with four or more adults

Normal Engine

+ Good balance of daily usability and efficiency, cost effective
– A great middle ground but little character 

Big Engine
+ More power for drivers who need it, or often carry more people
– You pay more at all stages of ownership 

Ok, so you’re recommending a ‘normal engine’ for most people?


In Singapore, to reduce your cost of car ownership over the long term it’s best to choose the smallest engine size you can, because it will be more fuel efficient and you will pay less road tax per annum.

In simple, actionable terms, choose a car with less than 130 horsepower and an engine capacity of less than or equal to 1.6-litres. 

The Toyota Corolla Altis is the epitome of a normal car, and its 1.6-litre engine the epitome of normal engines

How exactly does an engine affect my ownership costs in Singapore?

A whacking great engine like this one from the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S will bring a driver great joy, but also brings great punishment to the wallet

A bigger, more powerful engine means you pay more road tax (per year), and more for fuel, as well as possibly more for a Certificate of Entitlement (COE) at time of purchase, although this difference is much less now than it was in the past.

As you go from a small to a normal, and then onto a big engine, the ownership costs go up dramatically. By our calculations (see the chart near the end for the full breakdown) a small car with a 1.0-litre engine would cost less than S$3,000 per annum in fuel and road tax.

The Lexus RX 350 has a 3.5-litre V6 which brings lots of power and refinement – at a price

A normal car would set you back just under S$4,000 a year, and a large car with a 3.5-litre engine, more than S$6,000/year.

To recap – to save money in the long run, buy a fuel-efficient car with a small engine, and that means something with less than 1.6-litres of engine capacity, and not that much power.

For those of you who want the details, including how new engine tech affects the driving experience, what capacity means, how road tax works, and how to calculate how much you spend on fuel every year, read on.

The In-Depth and Technical Explanation

The nuts and bolts of engine size and cost

What is engine capacity and why should I care?

A piston being fitted into a cylinder

Engine capacity isn’t, as the name suggests, the total amount of liquid/air the engine can fit inside it.

The proper technical term is engine displacement, and that is how much total volume all of the pistons of an engine can ‘push’ (displace) when combustion takes place, as this very nifty Wikipedia image illustrates. This is directly linked to how much power a car’s engine can make. 

So more cc = more power and speed?


Engine capacity = how much power an engine can make. In physics, power is the rate of doing work, or how fast you can convert one energy to another. A Ferrari can convert gasoline into forward motion fast than a Toyota Corolla can, which is why it’s more powerful.

Smaller engines are better for the Singapore usage case because:
1. They’re typically more efficient/less powerful
2. Less capacity means less road tax.

The smallest engines you can typically find on a modern automobile are 1.0-litre (1,000cc), for compact models. Japanese micro cars, or kei cars, often have even smaller engines, but they are not officially sold here.

The most common engine types for mainstream cars are from 1.4- to 1.6-litres, for instance the Toyota Corolla Altis and Kia Cerato both have a 1.6-litre engine, while the Volkswagen Golf has a 1.4-litre engine. 

What about turbocharging?

Volkswagen’s Polo is a classic example of a compact car with a small engine – it has a turbocharged 1.0-litre

Turbocharging has muddied the waters of engine capacity in recent times. It’s a method of adding ‘free power’ to the engine by using the exhaust gas to spin a turbine which gives the engine more air = more explosions = and more power.

Turbocharging has meant that an engine with a smaller capacity can now make more power and torque, in essence behaving like a larger one. An extreme example is the Mercedes-AMG’s 2.0-litre turbo engine, which makes 410hp, something that in the past would require at least a 4.0-litre capacity.

That’s partially why there is now a horsepower cap in Certificate of Entitlement categories (more on that below). 

How does that affect the most important part of me – my wallet?

You pay a lot more for performance in Singapore

At the time of purchase, a car with a larger or more powerful engine tends to be marketed as a more premium version – for example the  price difference between a standard VW Golf (S$98,900 with COE) and a Golf GTI S$161,900 with COE, as of May 2020).

After buying, larger engines will also cost more to own.

Firstly because of the laws of physics : More power has a cost, and that is, more fuel burnt, which equals a higher petrol bill.

Secondly and thirdly, because of the First Law of Singaporean Motoring: Want more = pay more over time. A larger engine means paying more in road tax every year.  

Lastly, a more powerful car can also translate into a higher insurance premium as well, though that’s beyond the scope of this article. 

How does Road Tax work?  

LTA be like : Still must pay road tax tho

Here’s One Motoring’s (the LTA’s official portal for car services) description of road tax, and its road tax calculator. It’s a tax you pay, presumably, to use the roads here. 

Also note that it’s not a one-time deal, in accordance with the First Law. If your vehicle is more than 10 years old you have to pay additional road tax, an extra 10 percent a year, up to a maximum of 50 percent, after 15 years. 

Also also, road tax will evolve in the near future with a GPS based system that will charge you based on how much you drive – so this will still be relevant, it’ll just scale even more in accordance to your own mileage.

And what do I need to know about fuel efficiency?

Real-life fuel efficiency varies wildly because everyone not only uses their car differently, but also have different driving styles – you can improve your fuel efficiency by 50 percent simply by driving differently.

In our chart below, we’ve plotted annual fuel costs using the average figure of a Singaporean driver, which is given by statistics as 17,500km (last recorded in 2018), as well as the official fuel efficiency figures of each car. In real life, the fuel efficiency figures will be higher, typically around 20-30 percent at least.

The most accurate way is to look at your own car’s fuel consumption and distance travelled every year by keeping fuel receipts and tracking your odometer, respectively.

But if you haven’t noted that down (start now) you could also plot the distance of your regularly travelled route on Google Maps and multiply by the days of the week and weeks in the year.

Engine size and cost of ownership in Singapore 2020


Engine Capacity 

Total Cost Road Tax + Fuel Per Year 

Road Tax Per Year 

Road Tax After 14 Years

Fuel Efficiency 

Fuel Used Per Annum* 

Fuel Cost Per Annum*

Kia Stonic






945 L


Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI 






962.5 L


Toyota Corolla Altis 






1,120 L


Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid 






770 L


Volkswagen Golf GTI






1,137 L


Mercedes-Benz S 320 L






1,435 L



capacity car buying advice engine fuel efficiency tax

About the Author

Derryn Wong

CarBuyer's chief editor brings 15 years of experience in automotive journalism. Previously, he was the editor for Top Gear Singapore, and a presenter for CNA's Cruise Control motoring segment. He's contributed to The Business Times, Today, and many other publications, and also covered technology as editor of Stuff magazine. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he is the Chief Slave of two cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong

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