In this study we classify established and possible future engine combustion systems according to two main criteria, i.e. charge preparation (homogeneous or stratified) and type of combustion initiation (external, typically spark ignition and internal, typically due to compression). We discuss the relevant pros and cons of the four resulting energy conversion processes with emphasis on combustion stability, thermal efficiency and pollutant emissions. We show thereby that these output parameters are dominated by specific thermochemical and fluiddynamic processes as well as their complex interaction within the time scales of a thermodynamically optimal energy conversion at a given engine speed and load. For unsteady operation in mobile applications, the complexity of new combustion concepts may, nevertheless, prevent a breakthrough, despite their in-principle attractivity. We finally conclude that a thorough comparative evaluation of the systems considered is only possible in the frame of concrete scenaria with regard to future development and cost-efficient availability of dedicated fuels and exhaust gas aftertreatment devices.