Ten or 15 years ago, in the early days of hybrids, it was difficult to imagine a time when three electrified drivetrains would come along at the same time, make such a positive impression and all win spots on the Wards 10 Best Engines list.

And yet, for the first time ever, that’s exactly what happened this fall with the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid, Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV and Toyota Prius hybrid.

In general terms, all three make the list by delivering groundbreaking battery-powered electrical propulsion paired with first-rate, high-efficiency internal-combustion gasoline engines. Two heads truly can be better than one, as all three demonstrate.

Relative to these three entries, the hybrids of the past tended to rely on older gasoline engines, some of them off the shelf. Amazing what happens when engineers are turned loose with equal vigor to focus on both the electrical and the gas-driven components of a hybrid.

Hyundai’s 2.0L direct-injection 4-cyl. wasn’t sitting around waiting for an application. No, Hyundai engineers took a reasonably new engine (codename “Nu” ironically, evaluated just two years ago for Wards 10 Best Engines) and reworked it specifically for hybrid duty.

Horsepower was reduced 12% and torque 10%, which is a direction we generally frown upon. But here it makes sense because the 9.8-kWh lithium-polymer battery and 50-kW (67-hp) electric motor are making up for any shortfall from the gasoline engine.

In addition, the engine was reconfigured to run on the fuel-saving Atkinson combustion cycle, which enables a high compression ratio (13.5:1 vs. 11.5:1 two years ago) and higher thermal efficiency.

Also new is an electric water pump, which improves fuel economy and makes for faster engine warmup and better coolant temperature control. Cooled exhaust-gas recirculation to reduce pumping losses, a 2-stage oil pump to optimize oil pressure and reshaped intake ports and improved combustion stability all make the 2.0L Nu a much better engine.