It certainly looks like a new technological era is approaching check, a production hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) was barely nudged out of a place on this year's Ward's 10 Best Engines list.

To be eligible for the annual review, an engine must be in a regular production vehicle available in the U.S. with a base price of less than $50,000. Six Ward's editors "nominate" engines they believe stand out from the everyday crowd of car-movers. Then that group of nominees is judged head-to-head to get to the 10 Best. No categories. No in-line class comparisons. No quarter asked, none given. It's every engine for itself.

For 2000, narrowing 33 nominees to the final 10 seemed more difficult than before. The judges found the "performance" gap narrowing between good and supreme.

Dealers and their sales staffs know an engine's reputation can often make or break a sale.

Good salespeople sell a good engine. A growing number of informed shoppers are interested in more than just a vehicle's style and color. They want also to know about the quality of what's under the hood. Engines, after all, are arguably the vehicle's most important element. That's why good ones should be part of the sales presentation.

Here's the Ward's choices for the best of the best Audi AG 2.7L Twin-Turbo DOHC V-6 Audi AG engineers say they've had it with hearing the press - and more than a few customers, no doubt - whine about Audi's ostensible disdain for competitive engine performance.

After all, Audis are supposed to bring technology to the fore - and in the automotive milieu, performance and technology always have been inextricably linked.

We've sung past praises for Audi's 5-valve-per-cylinder philosophy, yet the technology, admirable though it is, never has totally rectified the company's penchant for comparatively small-displacement engines.

So Audi's fed-up eng-ineers have strapped a couple of low-inertia turbochargers to what normally would be a too-small - though still artistically 5-valved - 2.7L DOHC V-6. Voila! Snuff one performance-deficit problem.

Audi knows turbos, folks. The small forced-induction units, one for each cylinder bank, stuff in air so quickly that the 2.7L's grunty torque of 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) is delivered in full at just 1,850 rpm.

BMW 3.2L DOHC 1-6 What's to say about BMW AG's "Motorsports" or M-edition, 3.2L DOHC I-6 that hasn't been said?

Best Engines watchers will note that in winning a 10 Best Engines 2000 award, the BMW 3.2L I-6 is one of only two engines to win the award in each of the six years since the competition's inception.

There just isn't any beating a creamy inline 6-cyl. that also happens to have power in abundance, torque to die for and intake and exhaust tones apparently developed under consultation from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

One reason this BMW straight-six pounds out win after win is its delicious throttle response: "So linear, so perfectly weighted," says one Ward's tester.

We suspect we may appreciate the 3.2L M engine's throttle more so with the increasing application of "drive-by-wire" electronic throttles that work adequately but often present the "feel" of a rubber glove in mud. The 3.2L M engine, on the other hand, still employs a cable to actuate its six individual throttle butterflies - one for each cylinder.

Outstanding flexibility comes free of charge from BMW.

DaimlerChrysler 3.2L SOHC V-6 DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz 3.2L SOHC V-6 surprised the Ward's 10 Best Engines panel. When the numbers were tallied, it stood firmly in the top 10.

We're not puzzled about the outcome - the Mercedes 3.2L V-6 continues to be a singularly impressive engine design - but shocked that this relatively unassuming engine beat some formidable entrants in what our judges believe was the toughest Best Engines competition yet.

Mercedes' V-6 quietly is amassing the qualifications to place it with the company's more legendary engines. We once suggested - as have some competing automakers' engineers - that Mercedes may have compromised some of its hallowed engineering-above-all-else creed when it adopted the modular construction design that sees its new SOHC V-6s sharing the 90-degree vee angle of the V-8 engines built from the same basic hardware. And Mercedes had never done a V-6 before the launch of this engine in 1997.

Not to worry. Mercedes engineers had studied before the final exam: To make up for the 90-degree architecture ideal for a V-8 but not for a V-6, they fitted a balance shaft rotating counter to the crankshaft at twice its speed.

Ford Motor Co. 3.9L DOHC V-8 Hey, the Ford Motor Co. itself admits it. Right in the press kit, it says the Lincoln LS 3.9L DOHC V-8 "is derived from the acclaimed 4L AJ26 in the Jaguar XK8."

A Jag engine - and a cracking good engine it is - for Lincoln money? We call that the bargain of this young century.

All right, so displacement is down a tenth of a liter from the Jag 4L (actually, it's a just a single millimeter smaller in bore, amounting to a mere 46-cc difference in true displacement). But Ford's careful to not mention the 4L AJ26 also powers the Lincoln LS's Jaguar platform-mate, the S-Type, just to avoid those uncomfortable direct comparisons. The displacement difference is so meager you'll never miss it.

More alarming in Ford's preoccupation with distinguishing the LS from the S-Type is the rather serious de-tuning of the 3.9L DOHC V-8 to just 252 hp at 6,100 rpm; the Jag's 4L version does 290 hp in the XK8 and 281 in the S-Type. Should the customer really be so severely punished in the name of brand management?

Sorry about the little rant-we're over it now. It's easy to get over it because the Lincoln's 3.9L job makes a good account for itself, eagerly responding with all 252 horses, particularly in the ever-crucial mid-range.

Ford Motor Co. 5.4L TRITON SOHC V-8 There is a bushelful of great V-8s around these days. Unfortunately, a lot of them happen to come in vehicles that cost more than the $50,000 cap that governs the 10 Best Engines competition.

So one place we didn't expect to find an excellent, affordable V-8 with honest-to-gosh refinement is in a pickup truck.

Ford took a gamble with the 5.4L SOHC Triton when it broke cover in 1997. The company was astute in recognizing the consumer shift to pickups as personal-use vehicles, and decided to specify an overhead-cam arrangement for its all new redesign of the quintessential F-Series light-duty truck engine lineup.

Ford planners bet that the personal-use customers would appreciate the passenger-car like NVH and power characteristics of the more refined overhead-cam engines - and simultaneously bet that hard-core "work" truck buyers could be won over, too.

Since its launch, the Triton engine design has proved versatile enough to power the F-Series and Ford's full-size SUVs, yet fully pleases the core market.

Last year Ford engineers re-worked the Triton's upper end: The camshaft profile was revised, a larger exhaust valve was specified and the cylinder head casting was redesigned to promote improved tumble motion of the intake charge. The net result was a solid 25 hp, bringing the total to 260 hp.

General Motors Corp. 3.5L Twin Cam V-6 It seemed like we'd been hearing about the "Shortstar" forever. Rumors about General Motors Corp.'s modular DOHC V-6 derived from the famous Northstar 4.6L and Aurora 4L "Premium V" V-8s had powertrain watchers salivating at the prospect.

Last year's launch of the Shortstar - officially dubbed 3.5L Twin Cam - didn't disappoint. It instantly earned a position as one of Ward's 10 Best Engines for 1999, in its first year of eligibility.

The 3.5L Twin Cam V-6 stands above the mass of 3L V-6s in the market largely by virtue of another half-liter of displacement. GM engineers eschewed the now-common add-on gadgets like variable valve timing in favor of good old cubic inches - and with those cubes comes the virtue of long stroke.

Extending the range of the pistons in their bores produces fabulous torque, particularly in the middle-rpm ranges, making the 3.5L Twin Cam a most satisfying implement for squirting through city traffic and breaking out to beat that next ill-timed traffic light.

More stimulating, though, is the 3.5L Twin Cam's punch on the freeways and interstates.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. 2L DOHC I-4 You just don't ignore an 8,900-rpm redline. You definitely don't ignore it when the tach in Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s S2000 roadster sweeps past 6,000, your boot's hard on the throttle and the 2L DOHC VTEC 4-cyl. has cleared its pipes to bark the howl of Cerberus at you and every other road user in the parish.

The hellish allusion is apropos. Because Honda's 2L screamer, when opened up in anger, becomes more wild animal than inhuman machinery. More motorcycle engine than passenger-vehicle engine - and, we admit, more eardrum-assaulting than may be healthy on an everyday basis.

Chalk it up once again to VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift, Electronic Control), Honda's mild-or-wild-and-nothing-in-between variable valve timing system that adjusts both intake and exhaust valve timing to narrow the compromises between efficiency, low emissions and high performance. VTEC can be used to maximize fuel economy and reduce emissions, but for the S2000, Honda engineers say VTEC was specifically tailored for high-performance, high-rpm operation.

Gee, we never would have guessed.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. 3L DOHC V-6 It's becoming a habit, this business of telling readers that Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s "VQ" 3L DOHC V-6 has won yet another 10 Best Engines Award. Securing a place on this year's list ties Nissan with BMW as the only manufacturer to place the same engine for six consecutive years.

How else to describe the VQ but pre-eminent? The inherent excellence of this design absolutely stunned us - and many of Nissan's competitors - when launched for the '95 model year, and the same basic engine today still stands out from a growing cadre of sophisticated V-6 engines.

The VQ's uncanny refinement and lack of vibration always seemed practically supernatural; it's unrivaled noise, vibration and harshness characteristics are a large contributor to the VQ V-6's insouciant, exuberant power delivery.

Because of its "attitude," the VQ's 190 hp always satisfied, largely because it really felt like 220 hp.

Thanks to a host of upgrades for model-year 2000, the VQ really does make 220 hp. Well, 222 hp to be precise. This is icing on the cake, because the former 190-hp VQ already was the standard by which all V-6 engines, regardless of price, should be judged.

Nissan's VQ 3L V-6 is a marvel of intelligent design and meticulous attention to detail - but its cat-quick throttle response and unmatched smootness also mean it's a genuine delight to drive. Best of all, Nissan delivers what may be the best V-6 engine ever - yes, we said ever - in cars that are priced for normal mortals

Porsche AG 3.2L DOHC H-6 All we can say is: What a difference seven-tenths of a liter makes.

Last year, expectations ran rampant for Porsche AG's 2.5L horizontally opposed 6-cyl. engine. A storied engine layout updated for the '90s with water cooling, all manner of electro-trickery and a single-minded focus: sports-car performance befitting the Porsche badge.

Yet Ward's testers couldn't come to grips with the Porsche Boxster's original 2.5L horizontally opposed "boxer" 6-cyl. At 201 hp and 188 lb.-ft. (255 Nm) of torque, it was entertaining but a bit light on sheer thrust. Moreover, under a heavy throttle it was as vocal as you would like a sports car engine to be, but the pitch was too high, the tones too pedestrian.

Although the first Porsche horizontally opposed 6-cyl. engine to be water-cooled is an outstanding design, engineers admit the execution perhaps fell a few rings shy of a bulls-eye. At least by the standards of Porsche true believers.

Thus, the thinking behind the Boxster S, a car carrying a larger-bore 3.2L version of the original 2.5L H-6. That much-needed extra displacement brings no less than 50 extra horsepower (nearly a 25% increase) and a meaningful 37 lb.-ft. (50 Nm) torque boost.

Toyota Motor Corp. 4L DOHC V-8 The Lexus DOHC 4L V-8 started life in 1990 at 250 hp and its engineers figured that was plenty for a world-class luxury flagship.

But the times changed and competition got tough - whether they like it or not, the engineers had to summon more power; this engine had to get tougher - yet still never look, or feel, like it's breaking a sweat, because that's always been the underlying philosophy. The goal was to prove that Lexus, a decade after its introduction, is for real - that it's worthy of being discussed with the old-money competition.

At launch, it had deficits: mainly, not enough muscle. A solid first effort for a company without much experience with large-displacement engines, its refinement and NVH package was never in question. Yet stiff competition dictated that the ante be upped, and Toyota engineers threw in their chips, mainly in the form of variable valve timing with "intelligence" (VVT-i), which enabled a solid horsepower increase and a nice plumping of the low- and mid-range torque.

In the decade since Lexus' introduction, this engine has assumed a leadership position. We don't think Toyota ever thought its beautifully well-bred 4L V-8 needed more power, but when it became apparent it had to have it, it delivered with a meticulous vengeance.

We'll tell you up front that Honda Motor Co. Ltd's Insight hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) was only narrowly nudged out of a 10 Best Engines award.

It's the classic ahead-of-its-time situation. We heatedly discussed if the Insight really should be compared with standard internal-combustion engines - after all, an electric motor directly augments the power at the crankshaft, and no other engine enjoys that advantage.

Then there is the performance itself. Using the utmost of both the 1L 3-cyl. IC engine and its Integrated Motor Assist, Insight brings a measly 73 hp to the party. The motor is a more effective torque-enhancer, though: it pours another 25 lb.-ft. (34 Nm) onto the engine's 66 lb.-ft. (89 Nm). In addition to auguring in with a pleasurable and instantaneous mid-range torque surge, the IMA also does a great job of absorbing and balancing the unruly torque pulses of the 3-cyl. engine.

So power is only adequate and won't change your life. The Insight did rate a perfect score from every 10 Best Engines judge for technical relevance, though.

We all acknowledge that Honda's accomplished something with the Insight: a production HEV so well-developed that its secrets would be transparent to the uninitiated. And it's on sale at an attainable price of $18,880.

But for now, the Insight seems like it's not right for anything. There's not enough performance to justify the limited-use 2-seat package and sell as a "sporty green" car. And the package's limitations curb any potential of selling as a high-efficiency alternative to a standard family sedan.

The technology development for the Insight is superb, but the market appeal is marginal.