Closing in on a decade of Ward's 10 Best Engines competitions, 2003 represents the ninth installment of the auto industry's first awards program to annually recognize outstanding engine performance.

Since its inception in 1995, Ward's 10 Best Engines has evolved into an influential gauge of powertrain engineering and development prowess. Auto makers — and the suppliers who furnish often substantial engineering and production resources to major engine programs — each year seem to more vigorously pursue 10 Best Engines' honors.

A glance at the 10 Best list reveals another matter that's no coincidence: None of the winning engines is fitted in a vehicle that's selling poorly or is otherwise ill-regarded. In fact, most of this year's 10 Best Engines power some of the market's best-performing vehicles — on the road and on the sales charts. Chalk up one for the camp that says great vehicles don't happen without great engines.

BMW AG

More Power Than Most V-8s

3.2 DOHC I-6
Engine type: 3.2 DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Displacement (cc): 3,246
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 87 × 91
Horsepower (SAE net): 333 @ 7,900 rpm
Torque: 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm @ 4,900 rpm
Specific output: 104 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11.5:1
Application tested: M3

When you slobber over an engine that makes 225 hp and 214 lb.-ft. of torque, what do you do for an upgrade that adds an incredible 108 hp?

You see our superlative-deficit dilemma, then, with BMW AG's mighty M3 engine. Like its lesser-powered 3L brother, it enjoys all the straight-6 attributes that have over the years turned our judges into veritable BMW engine groupies, yet increases horsepower to such an intoxicating level that we can't even pretend impartiality.

Because of the BMW's Motorsports Div.-tuned 3.2L DOHC I-6, the 10 Best Engines process has mutated into this: Nominate 30 or so engines. Test for six weeks. Then select nine of the best, because a win for the M-modified 3.2L is as automatic as blinking your eye.

There's more power than most V-8s that have 50% more displacement. The 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm) of torque — much of it available throughout the rev range thanks to the double-VANOS variable valve timing — balances the high-strung ponies with the authentic shove for which power-producing revs just can't substitute.

BMW AG

Always Awesome

3L DOHC I-6
Engine type: 3L DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Displacement (cc): 2,979
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 84 × 89.6
Horsepower (SAE net): 225 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque: 214 lb.-ft. (290 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm
Specific output: 75 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10.2:1
Application tested: 330 Ci

The company with “Motoren” as its middle name continues the second longest-running streak of Ward's 10 Best Engines awards with its always awesome 3L inline 6-cyl.

In some form or another, a BMW straight-6 has been a 10 Best winner each year since the competition began in 1995.

If the bombastic Motorsports division-tuned 3.2L variant — another longtime squatter on the 10 Best Engines list — is a stun grenade wearing an Armani suit (see above), this “everyday” iteration of BMW AG's hallmark engine is a bit less volatile, slightly more approachable.

See, beneath that anywhere-on-the-tach refinement, BMW's 3L inline 6-cyl. always is ready to spin its heart out, slashing for the (too low) redline and taunting you to grab the next gear. At lower speeds, throttle tip-in is superb and direct, while the gearing, regardless of whether it's automatic or manual, simply seems a natural extension of this engine's intensely broad and satisfying powerband.

At higher speeds, one begins to appreciate the unassailable balance of the inline-6 design: this engine feels as if it could hum along at 5,000 rpm for decades, so vibration-free that one is convinced BMW engineers finally have perfected the magnetically levitated crankshaft.

DAIMLERCHRYSLER AG

A Potent Blend

HEMI MAGNUM OHV V-8
Engine type: 5.7L OHV 90-degree V-8
Displacement (cc): 5,654
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 99.5 × 90.9
Horsepower (SAE net): 345 @ 5,400 rpm
Torque: 375 lb.-ft. (509 Nm) @ 4,200 rpm
Specific output: 61 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Application tested: Dodge Ram HD

Take one part remembrance of good ol'-fashioned 1960s muscle.

Second ingredient: one of the hands-down best engine “brands” ever. Add an equal portion of no-nonsense engineering and development.

Blend it all with the tuned-in marketing for which DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group has a penchant.

Then serve it up in a brilliant engine-centric advertising campaign that you've just gotta love.

That's the recipe for launching the '03 Hemi Magnum 5.7L V-8, the new-generation reincarnation of the fabled Hemi V-8 of the muscle-car past.

There's more to the new-age Hemi than marketing “spin” and a truly great engine name.

The 5.7L Hemi Magnum borrows from the past, and updates it to generate class-leading horsepower and torque.

GENERAL MOTORS CORP.

Snappy Powerplant

VORTEC 4.2L DOHC I-6
Engine type: 4.2L DOHC I-6
Displacement (cc): 4,160
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 93 × 102
Horsepower (SAE net): 275 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 270 lb.-ft. (373 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Specific output: 65 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10:1
Application tested: GMC Envoy

Rule No.7 from the Best Engines judging manual states: “Any inline 6-cyl. engine shall enjoy unfair dispensation because it is an inherently wonderful layout.”

For 2003, Ward's editors concoct a corollary: “Any inline 6-cyl. fitted in a truck, SUV or any beast prone to ill-refinement shall enjoy extra-special dispensation.”

Until now, the straight-6 engine was all but forgotten for trucks and SUVs. But last year, GM enjoyed wide acclaim when it pointed its all-new Vortec 4200 4.2L I-6 north/south in its new midsize SUVs. The Vortec proved a snappy, thrusty powerplant, with an excellent balance of power and refinement. GM engineers took advantage of the straight-6 attributes.

For '03, the Vortec comes with a bump in horsepower, 270 to 275. There are detail refinements, including polymer-coated pistons that improve durability and reduce noise, an upgraded cylinder-head gasket and a recalibrated engine management system.

FORD MOTOR CO.

Don't Dis the Diesels

6L OHV TURBODIESEL V-8
Engine type: 6L OHV 90-degree turbodiesel V-8
Displacement (cc): 5,954
Block/head material: cast iron/cast iron
Bore × stroke (mm): 95 × 104.9
Horsepower (SAE net): 325 @ 3,300 rpm
Torque: 560 lb.-ft. (759 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Specific output: 54 hp/L
Compression ratio: 17:1
Application tested: F-Series Heavy Duty

If you've looked through the 10 Best package, you've found plenty of discussion about diesels. But don't think it's just Ward's atop the soapbox — pro-diesel industry rhetoric has rapidly accelerated over the past year.

Chrysler Group President and CEO Dieter Zetsche announced in December that a diesel-powered Jeep Liberty will go on sale in the U.S. beginning in 2004. This, following an indication from the powerful California Air Resources Board that it's preparing to re-evaluate a conviction that diesels are bad for air quality.

Ford's all-new Power Stroke 6L turbodiesel V-8 wins a 2003 Ward's 10 Best Engines award not because it's a diesel accessible to everyone, but because it's the best current example of how good a diesel can be when the best of current diesel technologies converge.

The Power Stroke is state-of-the-art. The excellent International-developed hydraulic-assist direct fuel injection generates as much as 26,000 psi (1,800 bar) pressure at the injector.

HONDA MOTOR CO. LTD.

Battle for V-6 Supremacy

3L SOHC V-6
Engine type: 3L 60-degree SOHC V-6
Displacement (cc): 2,997
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 86 × 86
Horsepower (SAE net): 240 @ 6,250 rpm
Torque: 212 lb.-ft. (287 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Specific output: 80 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10:1
Application tested: Accord EX

It's not that we haven't liked Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s previous V-6s. It's just that Honda earned its stripes for marvelously engineered, lovingly built 4-cyl. engines.

It was only eight years ago that we saw the first V-6 ever in a Honda-badged vehicle; its unassuming power density and general deportment left little doubt that Honda engineers believed it almost blasphemous anyone would need anything more than a snappy, highly tuned 4-cyl. The V-6 seemed almost to counter the Honda philosophy.

Honda's become more marketing-cognizant in the last several years, and any notion of covering the U.S. market without a full deployment of V-6s has been dispatched. The Honda V-8, however, remains elusive. Among Japan's big three auto makers, Honda remains the only one without a V-8.

HONDA MOTOR CO. LTD.

Reverse Darwinism?

2L DOHC I-4
Engine type: 2L DOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,998
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 86 × 86
Horsepower (SAE net): 200 @ 7,400 rpm
Torque: 142 lb.-ft. (193 Nm) @ 6,000 rpm
Specific output: 100 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11:1
Application tested: RSX Type-S

In 1994, Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s largest car, the Accord, offered a 2.2L 4-cyl. as its top-line engine. It produced 145 hp. In 1998, just five years ago, the Accord had graduated its high-trim buyers to a 3L V-6 with 200 hp.

Today, Honda's upscale Acura division presents a 2L DOHC I-4 that's about 10% smaller than the '94 Accord's 4-cyl., yet it makes almost 40% more horsepower. And that same current Acura 4-cyl. equals the power output of Honda's 3L V-6, circa 1998.

There's no better example of how fastidious engine developers like Honda have leveraged the past decade's technical advances. Today, we enjoy 6-cyl. engines with the power of V-8s and 4-cyl. engines that think they're sixes. It's a sort of reverse Darwinism: the V-8s at the top of the powertrain food chain are beginning to look like the vulnerable endangered species.

Honda's spectacular Acura 2L DOHC I-4 is the poster child for those advocates of the internal combustion engine.

NISSAN MOTOR CO. LTD.

Batting 9 for 9

3.5 DOHC V-6
Engine type: 3.5L 60-degree DOHC V-6
Displacement (cc): 3,498
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 95.5 × 81.4
Horsepower (SAE net): 280 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Specific output: 80 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10.3:1
Application tested: Infiniti G35 Coupe

The Steelers of the 1970s. The Forty-Niners of the 1980s. The Yankees of any decade. The Red Wings.

Nissan's “VQ” V-6 is beginning to approach the point where we're comfortable mentioning it in the same company. A dynasty.

No other single engine, regardless of changes from one generation to the next, has amassed a string of nine consecutive Ward's 10 Best Engines awards. Although almost all mainstream engines are designed for a long production run, precious few ever enjoy benchmark status. Nissan's VQ continues as a benchmark nine years after its launch.

We like to think it was divine insight nine years ago when we identified the original as something special. Nissan engineers got it right — incredibly right — from the very beginning, the day they signed off on the final design for what was to become the best V-6 engine the auto industry's ever seen.

MINI

A Hoot After Not Expecting Much

1.6L SUPERCHARGED SOHC I-4
Engine type: 1.6L supercharged SOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,598
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 77 × 85.9
Horsepower (SAE net): 163 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 155 lb.-ft. (210 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Specific output: 102 hp/L
Compression ratio: 8.3:1
Application tested: Mini Cooper S

After the way some of the European press disparaged the all-new Mini Cooper's naturally aspirated “Pentagon” 1.6L SOHC I-4 — the spawn of the now-controversial joint venture between DaimlerChrysler AG and BMW AG (Mini's owner) — we didn't expect much from the supercharged variant.

Yow, were we wrong. Whatever the supposed deficiencies of the naturally aspirated Pentagon (we suspect most critics believe they don't need to look any deeper than the scrawny 115 hp listed in the press kit), the Eaton Corp. supercharger apparently camouflages, because almost every Best Engines judge proclaimed this engine a genuine hoot.

The supercharger delivers a modest 11.6 psi (0.8 bar), and from a standstill, not much happens for the first 50 ft. (15 m). But once past that anxious moment it takes to hit about 2,500, the engine finds the cam, the supercharger begins earnest compression and the Cooper S launches to 60 mph (97 km/h) in a coltish 7 seconds.

VOLKSWAGEN AG

Staying Power

DOHC I-4
Engine type: 1.8L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,781
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 81 × 86.4
Horsepower (SAE net): 180 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 175 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) @ 1,950-5,000rpm
Specific output: 100 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Application tested: Golf GTi 1.8t

Talk about staying power: The Volkswagen AG/Audi AG 1.8L turbocharged I-4 has been a frequent visitor to Ward's 10 Best Engines list since its launch in 1998, and that's a tough thing for any 4-cyl. engine to accomplish.

It's just that no matter which six of our ever-changing group of editor/judges gets its hands on this unique 5-valve-per-cylinder gem, each returns virtually wide-eyed from the previous day's test drive. Volkswagen engineers have crafted a 4-cyl. engine with that kind of appeal.

This powerhouse returns for yet another win by serving up a tasty 100 hp/L combined with a grin-inducing torque shove of 175 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) delivered in a juicy, wide band from 1,950 rpm to 5,000 rpm courtesy of the light-pressure turbocharger.

Of course there's a bit of turbo lag, but you really have to be looking for it. Work with this engine, and it simply shines.