Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

Putting a muscle-car V-8 on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list the same year gas prices topped $4 a gallon for the first time might seem crazy.

Indeed, certain judges argued V-8s had no place in this year’s competition. Their arguments held water in the fall when the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded across the U.S. was $3.86.

But by the time our evaluations were done at the end of November, fuel prices had fallen off a cliff, to a much more palatable $1.79 a gallon, capping a frenetic swing that tested family budgets, changed vehicle purchase decisions and altered the national psyche.

Even with expensive fuel, a number of Ward’s judges would have gone to the mat to place Chrysler LLC’s all-new 5.7L OHV Hemi V-8 on this year’s 10 Best Engines list. It is enormously satisfying, thoroughly entertaining and absolutely engaging in the two newest and most disparate applications we tested: the 390-hp Ram pickup and 376-hp Challenger R/T coupe.

The Hemi earns the honor not on pure emotion or brute force but with advanced new technology such as variable valve timing, which allows cruising in 4-cyl. mode about 40% of the time, twice as much as the previous-generation Multi-Displacement System cylinder-deactivation system. Thanks to this bit of engineering wizardry, the new Ram can cruise in 4-cyl. mode up to 70 mph (112 km/h), 10 mph (16 km/h) faster than the previous truck.

A number of Ward’s testers managed to top 19 mpg (12.3 L/100 km) with the Hemi, putting it in line with certain premium V-6s tested.

And the new active air intake manifold cracks open a whole new realm of performance for the Hemi. During normal driving, butterfly valves in the circular intake runners remain closed, allowing air to follow a lazy path to the combustion chamber.

But under hard acceleration, at about 4,000 rpm, the valves open, cutting in half the length of the intake runner and ramming more air into the engine. The effect is a potent kick in the tail, as if a turbocharger were kicking in.

The new Hemi does more work north of 4,000 rpm than it ever did before – and manages to do so without feeling taxed or winded. A sprint to 60 mph (96 km/h) in a Crew Cab Ram in less than 6 seconds is no small feat.

All the while, the Hemi lets out a glorious exhaust note that pushes buttons for every red-blooded American, especially in the Challenger.

“Can’t think of one thing I disliked,” judge Byron Pope raves after his night in the Hemi-powered Challenger.

Chrysler expects 65% of new Ram buyers to pick the Hemi V-8. The auto maker told us that in August when a trip to Citgo in a V-8 pickup cost upwards of $75, so a higher Hemi take rate is not out of the question.

For now, Chrysler doesn’t have the marketing budget to support the Hemi as it did to great effect when the previous-generation Hemi launched in 2002.

Regardless of fuel prices, there will be a place on the 10 Best Engines list for modern, fuel-efficient V-8s such as the Hemi as long as OEMs keep making them and as long as someone needs them, doggonit.

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.