Occasionally, a nominee finds itself in the running for a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award for reasons that extend well beyond the spec sheet. If the competition simply were a horsepower race, then several other high-output engines would have made the list.

The “package” must make sense from a cost and manufacturing perspective, and extra points are awarded if an engine turns an auto maker’s powertrain strategy on its ear, for the better.

Chrysler Group LLC’s all-new 3.6L Pentastar 60-degree DOHC V-6 is a perfect example. There are similarly sized V-6s making more horsepower, but few of them match the Pentastar’s versatility in powering so many existing and new vehicles that are critical to Chrysler’s future.

For its amazing utility, supreme NVH and smooth power delivery, the Pentastar V-6 wins Ward’s 10 Best Engines honors in its first year of eligibility.

By the end of 2011, the Pentastar will power 10 vehicles, from sedans and coupes to minivans, SUVs and cross/utility vehicles, both rear- and front-wheel drive. By 2013, that number will grow to 13.

Chrysler’s overlords at Fiat Automobile SpA know a good engine when they see it, and they admire the Pentastar so much that it becomes Chrysler’s new workhorse, replacing seven V-6s within the next three years.

By 2014, the new V-6 is expected to account for more than a third of the powertrains in the Chrysler lineup and substantially contribute to an overall corporate fuel-efficiency improvement of more than 25%.

Produced in Trenton, MI, and Saltillo, Mexico, the Pentastar impresses us with its lightweight all-aluminum design and clever technologies: cast-aluminum pistons with a smaller skirt area to help reduce weight and friction; cooling jets in each cylinder to spray oil on the piston to better control heat in the combustion chamber; a paper oil filter located atop the engine for easy access and efficient disposal; and independent cam phasing on all four camshafts.

Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

The engine also is designed to meet all future emissions standards, including PZEV and Euro6, without exhaust-gas recirculation.

And while the rest of the industry migrates toward power-enhancing gasoline direct injection, Chrysler bucks the trend by deploying tried-and-true port-sequential injection. Chrysler executives contend GDI adds too much cost and noise, with nominal payoff.

Further bolstering the bottom line is a parts-consolidation strategy that promises to deliver significant manufacturing efficiencies.

The Pentastar enables Chrysler Powertrain to reduce the number of major engine components from 189 to just 32, simplifying the build process and ostensibly improving quality.

For example, the exhaust manifolds completely disappear by virtue of being cast directly into the cylinder head. Today’s lineup of outgoing engines features 32 different left and right exhaust manifolds. That drops to zero with the Pentastar.

For this year’s competition, Ward’s editors drove the Pentastar in both the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Avenger. Scores were higher for the lighter Avenger, but at no point does the off-road-capable Grand Cherokee feel underpowered. A broad, flat torque curve makes 90% of peak torque available between 1,800 and 6,350 rpm.

Along the way, the Pentastar snarls like a tiger under hard throttle, but purrs like a tabby at idle and during casual driving.

“NVH is definitely its strength,” writes Editorial Director David Zoia on his scoresheet. “The Pentastar is the refinement champ in its class.”

Far and away, the Pentastar is the best modern engine Chrysler has produced. It can carry a heavy load, including a massive piece of Chrysler’s product portfolio.

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.