A year ago, we found ourselves at a crossroads, bracing for the arrival of electric vehicles and pondering their impact on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition.

We had been fielding a steady stream of comments and questions from readers who wondered how the annual event could keep its name if some of the vehicles tested had no internal- combustion engine.

We even floated the idea of changing the name to Ward’s 10 Best Powertrains.

But we’ve reconsidered, realizing the equity built into the 10 Best Engines nameplate is too valuable to sacrifice in a war over words.

It boils down to semantics. We call it 10 Best Engines, but long-time readers know the transmission factors heavily in our vehicle evaluations because our process requires routine driving on public roads.

Although the “powertrain” turns the wheels, the ultimate motivating force is the block of metal pumping away furiously.

Likewise, if a propulsion system in an EV, hybrid-electric vehicle or extended-range EV turns the wheels with enough gusto to feel competitive with a conventional vehicle powered by an internal-combustion engine, then it will be in the running.

This year’s list includes the Nissan Leaf EV and the Chevrolet Volt EREV. Both are recognized for their excellent propulsion systems – not just the batteries or the electric motors or – in the case of the Volt – the 1.4L gasoline engine.

There is precedent to support our decision not to change the name. Does anyone want to ditch the name of the Grammy Awards even though no one listens to gramophones any longer? And should the Country Music Awards be renamed because today’s singers sound nothing like Patsy Cline and Hank Williams?

Of course not. And for that reason, we’ll continue compiling the list with the same priorities: identifying great applications of new technology that reinforce the notion that driving must be fun.

Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

In choosing this year’s winners, Ward’s editors spent October and November driving the vehicles in and around metro Detroit and scored each engine based on power, technology, observed fuel economy and noise, vibration and harshness.

This year’s list represents the biggest turnover in the history of the competition, with six completely new engines or propulsion systems, two heavily modified engines (from BMW AG and Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.) and only two direct carryover engines (from Volkswagen AG and Audi AG) from the 2010 list.

Fuel economy was not the most important criteria, as seen by recognition of the new 5.0L V-8 in the Ford Mustang GT, 5.0L V-8 in the Hyundai Genesis and the 3.0L supercharged V-6 in the Audi S4. However, as always, efficiency remains a consideration.

To be eligible for the competition, each engine must be available in a regular-production U.S.-specification model on sale no later than first-quarter 2011 and in a vehicle priced no more than $55,000, a price cap indexed to the average cost of a new vehicle.

The awards will be presented at a Jan. 12 ceremony in Detroit during the North American International Auto Show.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.